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Anatomy of Success in Lean Application for the Service Sector

Lean application outside of the manufacturing sector is frequently met with scepticism. Oft cited reasons are that service providers do not ‘manufacture’ anything and that there is no ‘production line’ to speak of physically. All that is seen are desks, chairs, phones and computers.

How is it then a large Chinese bank’s (let’s call them Bank X) call centre in Southern China has managed to apply Lean over time to improve customer satisfaction levels from below 50% to over 97% in the span of slightly more than five years?


Bank X’s started out on its Lean journey in the mid noughties. With the management team supporting an environment of improvement, Lean Six Sigma DMAIC project management methodology was applied across their entire field of operations to address quality issues. Careful and thorough analysis of ‘ground up’ issues necessitated projects that were geared toward improving both quality and ‘speed’ or timeliness as a response. Lean was introduced into the Six Sigma framework at Bank X to address these ‘speed’ issues as well as ‘capacity’ issues.

Over the years, improvement projects that were undertaken at Bank X began to incorporate Lean aspects in a variety of manner often thought to be mostly incompatible with the service industry as a whole. Bank X applied Lean in a step-by-step fashion that demonstrated excellent operational risk management throughout its years of roll-out by building only on successes.

Tools Applied (in brief)

At Bank X, amongst others the following Lean concepts were judiciously translated and successfully applied:

1      Value Stream Mapping – played the critical role in identifying which parts of the customer service process would be value providing and which would not thus leading to a ‘future state map’ in which the bank focused on value creation for the customer where contact was made at the call centre

2      5S – the ‘sort’ process is apparent as customers stream themselves into work ‘buckets,’ through process automation, that enabled specialization of tasks at the operator level hence enabling higher customer satisfaction rates as operators were trained to deal with specific bank products

3      Poka Yoke – in the form of set forms and process routes combined with the ‘sort’ element from ‘5S’ enabled quality delivery of each call by product enquired upon. Here we see also the ‘standardize’ element of ‘5S’ at play where call centre operators have not much choice except to follow system (computer) based instructions

4      Line Balancing / Uniform Loading – the ‘toughest’ of Lean concepts to apply to service was executed in conjunction with a visual management system tracking workflow and rate through the call centre; supervisors were able to immediately re-route call centre operators to product lines which had spikes in demand (more than the average number of callers)

5      Standard work – often deemed completely inapplicable in the service sector, was in the case of Bank X, implemented through investments in computer programs and software which ensured strict adherence to call and product protocol; deviation was not permitted in the process where customer calls were received and worked through

In today’s world of service, ‘work’ is often invisible – residing in computers as bits and bytes. Translating Lean for the service sector is not much different from Lean application in manufacturing. One has to first identify where true work resides, draw up a real value stream map and locate opportunities for improvement in a staged fashion. “Learning to see” is as critical, if not more so than in manufacturing, in service sector processes in the application of Lean as a process improvement methodology.


Grounded in a Lean Six Sigma Project framework DMAIC, management support, appropriate investments, with the ability ‘to see’ and the ability to translate key Lean concepts forms a pre-cursor to success in Lean. Judiciously translated and applied Lean concepts such as ‘5S,’ ‘Poka Yoke,’ ‘Standard Work’ and ‘Line Balance/Uniform Loading’ allows for a service process to achieve Lean results with increases in both the ‘speed’ and ‘quality’ areas. These are the ingredients for Bank X’s recipe for success in applying Lean concepts across their call centre facility resulting in a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction.