Who Is the Customer?

Lean Six Sigma helps keep perspective during shopping debacle

by Julian D. Smith

The christmas season is a good time to study processes because shopping provides a prime example. During this time, men tend to revert to a "hunter-gatherer" state ("Here’s a gift! I am done! Now I can watch football!"), while women have checked for sales and are diligently searching for the optimum gift—regardless of the effort required to obtain it.

If you don’t like these gender-associative remarks, shoppers come in other classifications, too. Some prefer to stop at the store on the way to the event rather than dedicate a long period of time to shopping. Others shop in August, shop online or give everyone gift cards. I actually advocated to my wife that we wait until Dec. 24 to do all of our shopping, knowing we couldn’t stop until it was complete. That day would have been exhausting, but think of the rest I could have enjoyed on the other designated shopping days.

Cash register crisis

Instead, there my wife and I were two days before Christmas waiting in line at a local clothing store. We had just found the perfect gift for our last grandchild, and we were officially done—that is, as soon as we paid for the item and left the store.

The store was crowded, and the checkout lines were long. We were about eight to 10 people away from the register in our line. I was observing the activities around me and noticed the lady trying to check out in the line next to ours had a massive order.

When the final scan was done, she swiped her credit card—and the store’s entire computerized checkout system locked up. All of the lines stopped. I saw the woman put her head in her hands down on the counter, and when she picked her head up, she was crying. I don’t know what her plans were for after shopping, but if she had any, they were just ruined.

The mood of the store changed immediately. The clerks at the registers, recognizing that the customers were about to turn on someone, were frantic on their in-store phones begging for help. The store managers were somewhere, but they weren’t at the front of the store where the ugliness was occurring.

At that point, I launched into my lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt mindset. "The quickest way to fix this is to announce that all cash transactions can move to the front," I told my wife. I followed that thought up with, "Everyone writing a check can move to the front.

In my mind, this would satisfy the needs of the customer—or at least the customer I thought was most important: me. I had cash in my pocket and a checkbook to boot. My needs could have been met immediately, but my wife gave me the reality check. "You know they aren’t going to do that," she said in her patient tone. And she was right. I had ignored the long list of other customers.

More than meets the eye

They put blinders on horses that work in cities so they won’t be distracted by seeing what’s going on around them. That’s how I saw the situation as the customer in the store that day. I didn’t see the many other customers in that situation, and that’s unfortunate because first of all, I know better, and secondly, I teach better.

In lean Six Sigma, we learn to develop a suppliers, inputs, process, outputs and customers diagram early in the process. We also know that a customer often becomes a supplier to the next customer, and sometimes your customer also is your supplier.

Knowing these things, let’s take a look at some of the customers I was ready to ignore:

All of the customers that intended to pay with debit or credit cards. As a person that chooses to pay with cash or a check, I recognize I am a minority. To meet my specific needs (and expedite the end of my shopping), I was willing to bypass the wants and needs of the other customers.

The clerks. It’s difficult to recognize sometimes, but they are customers, too. They have several suppliers, and I am one of them. I supply them items to scan before they total the amount and request payment from me. The IT organization is supposed to supply the clerks with a working system that scans items, totals the amount and, in cases such as credit and debit cards, facilitates the collection of monies owed. My desire for them to handle my request would have required them to perform work that is probably not in their normal scope.

The purchasing and logistics organization. It is possible that by scanning items individually at the register, the store can track its inventory and sales trends. By expecting them to sidestep their own systems, I not only wanted to participate in disrupting their information flow, but I also wanted the clerks to go around their standard work. Once again, I know better, and I teach better.

It’s easy to get myopic about who the customer is, especially when we think we’re the only one. Anytime you think you are the only customer with needs to be met, make sure you take a realistic look at the situation and see the rest of the customers. Then ask yourself: Is getting your needs met interfering with meeting their needs?

Julian D. Smith is the team lead for lean Six Sigma at the Millennium Corp. in Arlington, VA. He earned a master’s degree in manufacturing management from Kettering University in Flint, MI. A senior member of ASQ, Smith is an ASQ-certified quality engineer and Six Sigma Black Belt. He also is an Advanced Integrated Technologies-certified lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt and a Shainin LLC-certified Red X Master.

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