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To Win With Customers, Know Their Processes

We innovate our products and solutions with what we believe are features that our customers need, but do we really solve their problems?

We innovate our products and solutions with what we believe are features that our customers need, but do we really solve their problems, or is our newest solution simply novel? To ensure that your new offering is a winner, understand your customers’ processes and problems and ensure your new innovation will truly make life better.

Last week I took one of my children to visit our pediatric dentist. Our dentist is upgrading to a purely digital customer information system, which I applaud, but my experience with it left me unimpressed. It turned into one of those experiences where a novel solution failed to really improve anything.

I was handed an iPad and asked to review our patient and insurance information in the system and update anything that was missing or incorrect. Playing with an iPad is pretty novel, but in the end it wasn’t any easier for me as a client than filling out a paper form.

I have no doubt that the digital interface with the client saves hours of data entry and handwriting interpretation for the dental team, so the solution is clearly more success than failure. It also will allow me and other clients to use the Internet to update information in the future. However, it seemed to me to miss some obvious opportunities to really win. I’ll name two.

First, there was no signature solution, so in order to sign an authorization for insurance purposes a piece of paper is still required. Considering that I can perform any number of functions and transactions with all of my insurance agencies via the Web, I found this failing really lame.

Second, I couldn’t update any of the information for my other family members while I was in the system because they didn’t have appointments. Actually, I could, but I needed the assistance of the receptionist to manipulate the system to let me in so that I could. It’s an example where some rule put in place by a programmer for reasons only the software developer’s mind understands created a fair amount of unnecessary activity that my Lean-trained mind recognizes as absolute waste. Sigh.

Does this example bring to mind any similar experiences for the reader? We run into Web pages, on-line applications or forms, registering warranties or other information, instructions for neat new gadgets, and any number of other opportunities where the interface simply fails to satisfy. It happens all the time.

The most aggravating aspect of these experiences is that the solutions we use could really be great if only the developers understood how we are really going to interface with them, use them, or how their offerings could really make things easier instead of just novel, but still lame. All they need to do is ask.

In my own experience, I have leveraged my process improvement knowledge to analyze and understand a customer’s process and really build a better product. In particular, understanding how our customers (those who buy the products) will be using the solution with their own clients is of vital importance.

Imagine my pediatric dentist again. Even if the new system saves my dentist hours of data entry and untold possible interpretation mistakes, if it is significantly insufficient in the perceptions of the dentists clients they will either complain, request a paper form, or otherwise voice their disapproval. In such an event, the solution is more problem than savior.

In my wanderings, I’ve used my own experience with process improvement to drill into customers’ processes and I have also learned to use two structured methodologies for discerning the opportunities to solve customer problems using a process approach. They are Outcome-Driven Innovation, and the Function Analysis System Technique.

Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) is a methodology that provides a structured approach to discerning the various outcomes a customer achieves or fails to achieve with their current processes and solutions. With some practice, this method can be used to quickly derive opportunities to improve outcomes, make it easier to achieve outcomes, provide missing outcomes, and ensure that important outcomes aren’t forgotten.

The Function Analysis System Technique or FAST Diagram is a tool from the Value Engineering sciences. The approach begins by identifying a specific task and then seeks to map out how that task is currently accomplished while coincidentally establishing why each feature, function, or activity is necessary. It generally results in a tree of functions, supporting functions, and actions in the current system.

Once all of the functions and “hows” and “whys” are mapped out we can look for opportunities to achieve the same results in a simpler way, or to provide better results though system or technological improvements. It is a method born out of engineering products, but it was long ago adapted to gathering customer information and innovating solutions.

In my observation the two approaches, ODI and FAST, are very similar, though one claims not to be influenced by the other. The good news is, that with some practice, they both produce very good results and can be performed with very reasonable effort.

I’ve experienced success with general process experience as well as both ODI and FAST. If your organization could use a little better insight into how your customers will interact with or use your offerings, leverage your process experts or go seek out an introduction and some mentoring through one of the innovation processes such as ODI or FAST.

Whatever voice-of-the-customer or innovation method you use, be sure that it includes an approach for discerning your customers’ processes. Such understanding can mean the difference between novelty that quickly wears off, and a real winner of an offering.

Stay wise, friends.

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