In the first half of 2007, Toyota Motor Corporation outpaced General Motors in worldwide auto sales for the first time. Despite the recent earthquake in Japan and subsequent shutdown of a major parts supplier to the company, Toyota still expects to meet the sales projections the company established last year.
The Japan earthquake resulted in the lost production of 46,000 vehicles, and that number could rise as high as 55,000—more than half of them exports. Why isn't Toyota panicking at the thought of having to make up all that lost production? The answer is that Toyota's Production System (mature lean manufacturing) has the agility to adjust to these sorts of unforeseeable “glitches” in production.
The agility that arises from a lean and continuous improvement culture is one reason Toyota is on top in the auto industry. But there is also another reason that Toyota has been able to surpass the Big Three automakers here in the U.S., time and again, on any number of fronts. Toyota has reached a point of linkage that gives them superhuman capacity to respond quickly to customer demand.
Toyota is also in a unique position to use its agility to provide what is essentially "womb to tomb" service for their customers, which in turn can help create top line growth. It takes perseverance to reach the mature part of the lean journey to create this kind of value for customers, but taking the hard road makes it that much more difficult for competitors to catch you.
According to the Harvard Business Review (February 2005), customer satisfaction will not be gained solely through product features and functions but also by how a company manages its relationship with the customer. This means that products and services must be personalized, and the only way to do this is to involve the customer.
Unlike Mel Gibson's character in the movie “What Women Want,” it's not likely that your chief marketing officer is going to suffer an accident that fortuitously results in being able to “hear” what customers want. So how do you go about finding out what customers want, and how does lean thinking help with that?
The lean culture is linked to ingenuity, creative thinking, and action. Lean companies are already familiar with “outside-in” thinking through the use of kaizen and other methodologies that promote looking at processes from an outsider's viewpoint. A company can use that thinking and the behavior it engenders to create excitement within the organization and then tap into that energy to provide better value to the customer.
Lean companies also understand that a continuous focus on the customer enables them to be flexible and responsive. Flexibility allows a manufacturer to adapt to changing demands easily and rapidly.
Responsiveness allows a manufacturer to earn and maintain brand loyalty—and this carries forward from a customer's articulated and unarticulated needs through to hassle-free service and interaction after a sale.
But lean manufacturers still need a strategy for understanding the customer's needs at a granular level. And there's no better way to do that than to simply walk a mile, or better yet hundreds of miles, in your customer's shoes.
One way of finding out how your product works in the hands of consumers is to use that product yourself. Chances are the things you like and dislike about that product are the same things your customers like and dislike. By using your product, you might even recognize the need for features that could have escaped notice otherwise, and you might find that some of the features your design department thought were winners simply add nothing to the actual value of the product.
If, however, you make heavy machinery, you're not likely to go out and run that equipment in the backyard. In that case, you can go to the work sites of companies that use your products and watch those products being used.
Ask questions if you like, but more importantly, look and listen; really see how people interact with your products. You might be surprised at what you will learn. The added benefit to such visits is that your customer will know you care.
By actively visiting customers—visiting often—and seeing how products are used, a lean enterprise can easily shift the focus from analysis of past customer interactions to anticipating and even shaping future unarticulated needs. Additionally, lean leaders who teach everyone in their organization to recognize unconventional opportunities and act on them can creatively meet and perhaps shape customer demand.
By truly understanding customers and providing what they want even before they realize they want it, lean companies will pull far ahead of their competition. All those miles walked in the customer's shoes will pay off in being miles ahead of the competition.