Understanding Lean Techniques and the Lean Continuum

We believe Lean tools and techniques are as invaluable for providing customer service excellence as they are in the manufacturing arena. However, it’s essential to understand the key differences and limitations.

In manufacturing, Lean techniques are rigorously applied to drive out variety and variability in processes in the pursuit of improved efficiency. While the same approach can be used in a service environment, a large percentage of processes are not simple repetitive transactions. Therein lies the challenge.

Service is typified by high levels of input case variety, leading to significant cycle time variability. Furthermore, this is driven by factors outside of the business’ control, for example, customers, regulators and third parties.

As a consequence, the application of Lean techniques in the service sector requires a great deal more thought. Careful consideration must be given to every tool, every technique, and every process used. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Delivering excellent customer service

While the core Lean principles of waste elimination and value still apply, it is the means of execution that must be adapted. So instead of seeing the variety that drives variability as a waste to be eliminated, it must be recognized as part of the customer value. This requires appropriate techniques to be developed to absorb the variety.

Our proven service foundation principle, validated through extensive implementation, is that excellent customer service is founded on waste elimination, continuous improvement, quality assurance, and delivery focus.

Knowledge is power

Service activities are characterized by high levels of discretion. Therefore, delivering customer service excellence together with contributing to foundation activities in such high discretion environments requires certain core capabilities from the workforce. These include:

  • Diagnostics ability
  • Problem-solving skills
  • Empathy
  • Commitment to customer solutions

It is here the concept of a ‘knowledge worker’ becomes essential. The key ability of the knowledge worker is to absorb the natural variety in the work delivered to them while continuing to deliver excellent service to both internal and external customers.

This requirement is easy to see in a customer-facing environment, however our extensive experience with Lean Service thinking has also shown it to be valuable in other service areas such as IT, design, and marketing.

The Lean Continuum

The Lean Continuum illustrates the need for different management techniques when processing high discretion work, as well as the use of knowledge workers. Various factors that need to be considered include:

  • Appropriate Key Performance Indicators
  • Appropriate management style
  • Appropriate improvement techniques
  • Ongoing skills development
  • Succession planning


When driving customer service excellence through the use of Lean techniques within the Lean Continuum, it’s important to remember that the right measure is often not the easy measure. Improving first-touch resolution may result in longer handling times. Increasing quality may at times come at the cost of collected revenue. It’s therefore about adopting the most appropriate solution for each unique service challenge.

Furthermore, as more simple work is automated or outsourced there is a steady progression towards higher discretion work in many service businesses, resulting in a growing demand for knowledge workers. The importance of managing the flow of work diminishes and the necessity to focus on coaching skills, rapid feedback loops, and developing knowledge in the workforce grows. In this way, you can be assured that achieving customer service excellence is a manageable goal and will help you reach new levels of business success.

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