Lean Manufacturing

When the Customer Defines Value, But They Define It Poorly What Do You Do?

By Jon Miller Published on December 6th, 2006

If a customer says “Here’s how I want to do Lean.” and the consultant says “That’s not the right way.” and the customer says “Who’s the customer here?” and the consultant says “You are.” and the customer says “Then I say what I’m willing to pay for.” and the consultant says “Yes, but you are asking us to do something in a less effective way than we could.” and so on until the customer fires the consultant, you have a situation where Lean thinking is put to the test.
In Lean thinking the customer is supposed to define value, but if the supplier is a Lean thinker (consultant) and recognizes that the service the customer is asking for is full of waste then integrity requires that the supplier (consultant) not deliver what the customer is asking for. When the customer defines value but they define it poorly what do you do?
Part of the reason consultants are so reviled is that they do not listen to the customer. They don’t attempt to understand the current condition thoroughly enough. They try to sell what is easy or what they have tried and what worked before. They are not humble. How does the consultant know, other than through experience, anecdotal evidence or perhaps gut feel that what the customer is asking for is wrong?
We find that many of our customers are becoming more educated and sophisticated about Lean. They form an image in their minds of what they want from a Lean transformation or a relationship with Lean instructors. This makes them better buyers of Lean training services and better shepherds of a Lean transformation in their companies. This is good. Yet we are recently seeing cases where the customer is not always right.
If you are selling a widget it may be alright to chant the mantra “the customer is always right” and give them whatever they ask for even if it is not what they really need, if the customer is stubborn. But when the product you are dealing is redesigning the work of thousands of real people (Lean transformation) in a way that influences the culture of an organization for years to come and without a doubt the future financial viability of the company, the seller bears a certain moral responsibility.
It’s a tough challenge. If we walk away, some other consultant will happily sell them the “wrong thing”. If we stay on and do the easy thing of accepting the assignment in hoping we can influence them towards the right thing, we risk wasting everyone’s time. It’s not buyer beware, it’s seller beware. If only more consultants thought this way perhaps we wouldn’t get such a bad name.

  1. Mark Graban

    December 7, 2006 - 7:50 am

    I really recommend David Maister’s website and books about managing clients and consulting relationships. He goes into a lot of these topics and then some, very helpful stuff.

  2. Kent Blumberg

    December 7, 2006 - 8:13 am

    I think you need to know what you are selling, and what sort of customer is the right kind of buyer. If a customer doesn’t want to buy what you are willing to sell, you need to walk away. (So, I think I am agreeing with you here.)
    If your business is selling successful lean implementations, you don’t want to agree to customer demands that will make an implementation unsuccessful. Not only does it waste your time and theirs, but it will hurt your brand.

  3. Jon Miller

    December 7, 2006 - 9:04 am

    Thanks to the both of you. This is helpful advice.

  4. Justin Tomac

    December 7, 2006 - 3:28 pm

    It is interesting how Shingijutsu approaches this situation. They actually interview the company and determine if they are serious enough to handle the journey. If at any time they feel the company is not putting forth the effort or making the progress they can ‘fire’ the company.
    Contrast this with my former employer consulting company, where we took any and all engagements for the sake of revenue. Many a situation would have been rectified immediately if they would have written a better sourcing document as well as set the expectation this is what it takes. Unfortunately, it wasn’t always the case. Many times they told the client anything they wanted to hear to make the sale. This required the Lead Consultant many wasted hours reworking the expectation in order to be successful.

  5. Mark Graban

    December 8, 2006 - 2:39 pm

    Not that the firm I’m with is perfect, but we do hold clients to certain standards, or we’ll walk away. 1) No layoffs as the result of lean 2) need to dedicate a small team of employees to work with the lean consultant (the consultant won’t do all of the work for you, nor can they). These signs of commitment go beyond their ability to write us a check. You have to be willing to walk away, either for your integrity or your brand since you don’t want a “lousy client” going on your track record. “Lousy client” might be true, but it isn’t a track record you can bank on.

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