Lean Office

The 1950s Movie Guide to Lean Service

By Jon Miller Updated on May 19th, 2017

Ah, those irony-free halcyon days of naming films for what they were…

The challenges facing the service business attempting to practice lean principles bear an uncanny similarity to those confronting the hero of a bad 1950s science fiction movie. The monsters are large, ludicrous and nobody believes us until it is nearly too late. Unlike the well-defined category of the 1950s science fiction move, the service business is a broad and poorly defined group. In broad strokes there are tree types of service work:

  1. Services applied directly to people,
  2. Services applied directly to goods, and
  3. Services applied to information (indirectly to people or goods).

The first include tattoos, healthcare, and travel. The second include painting, maintenance, and shipping. The third category includes everything else and is the most insidious enemy from the point of view of the continuous improvement B-movie hero. For the purposes of directing lean implementation efforts the first two categories can effectively be considered the same as manufacturing. The type 3 service must be approached with the irony-free earnestness of a 1950s movie protagonist.

Often service processes are not designed efficiently or effectively due to the fact that the true customer wants are not understood. As with 1950s science fiction movies there is a sort of arms race of features, reports, transactions, screens, entries, “please hold…” messages and useless procedures. Instead of asking “Do we really need the skull, the space suit, and the gorilla body to say ‘terror from the future’? we give the robot monster everything we’ve got. Often the result is a service process with great deal of duplicated effort, unwanted features, and dread, if not terror. Our customers may appreciate the extra effort at first, but on second viewing they no longer fancy the gorilla suit. Ah, if only we had listened to Mr. Kano… What are the causes of such waste in service processes and how can we make them lean services through continuous improvement?

This begins with limiting any erosion in quality or loss of customers due to not having full control over our brains at the moment of service delivery. In most service businesses our attitudes, how we think and how we express ourselves have a direct impact on the customer experience and thereby the effectiveness of the process. “Service with a smile” are probably four of the least appreciated and most effective words for any venture. Approaching the customer with genuine respect and appreciation seems to be a forgotten art for some firms whose leaders are removed from the customer experience. For others such as Southwest Airlines it is clear that the leadership cultivates the culture of taking delight in service. For people in other service firms which I don’t patronize sometimes it seems a space brain with destructive will power has taken control.

Next, we must expose The Invisible Man. This begins with rendering the villain visible. Service processes are difficult to visualize. As a consequence it is harder to break down processes in order to measure them or to eliminate steps that are unnecessary. If we could only wrap a towel around our services processes and plan a hat and some sunglasses on their heads. But alas, our job is much harder, requiring discussion, agreement, and squeaking out descriptions on post-it notes to paste on a conference room wall. It is important that this task is approached with a healthy sense of humor. Often the actual service processes we follow are absurd, wasteful and befuddling. Taking them too seriously or associating our self-worth with the sanity of services processes we follow is not a safe path. We need to take a hint from Abbot and Costello in order to expose the Invisible Man of lean service.

Even when successfully visualized the enemies of an effective service process will not be defeated easily! In a type 3 service both the process and the product is shapeless.


To make matters worse, service processes behave like The Blob did as it sought to consume all it came into contact with. Poorly defined service processes blur the distinction between value and waste, absorbing the time and resources of every person they touch. The hungry service process seeks to add to its terrifying bulk. I won’t spoil the movie for anyone so let’s just say that the shifting and shapeless nature of service processes can be countered in the same way that the Blob was defeated in the film.
It is best not to panic in the face of the now visible enemies of a effective service processes crawling out from between the cracks in the value chain. We need to maintain our cool like Steve McQueen while appreciating the irony of the space age future we live in where our moving walks are 18 paces long, our monsters come from among us and not from outer space, and gasoline is still our mobility fuel of choice. When fighting to build a lean service, as in 1950s science fiction movies, the hero always prevails in the end.

  1. Bridget McCall

    July 16, 2009 - 5:24 am

    Well, thanks for making my morning more entertaining, with the added advantage of well thought out metaphors for lean! Good Job.

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