Adventures in Customer Service, Looking for "Lean Solutions"


I was a big fan of the book Lean Solutions: How Companies and Customers Can Create Value and Wealth Together, but I'm not sure how much of an impact it's had on the business world. There are still far too many siloed, un-Lean “solutions” out there that do indeed “waste the customer's time” (as Womack and Jones railed against… don't waste the customer's time, they said).

It might just seem like I'm ranting, but stick with me to the end and I think there's a lesson or parallel that can be drawn for hospitals and other types of organizations.

Case 1: I lost my AT&T corporate calling card while overseas last week. I used this as a backup for when my Skype internet calling wasn't working well due to hotel bandwidth issues. So I called AT&T's customer service line and had this exchange with the auto voice “recognition” robot:

AT&T: What can I help you with?

Mark: I lost my card

AT&T: You lost your card. Please enter or say your card number.

Um, I, you know…. lost the card! I'm sorry I didn't have a backup somewhere. If I had the number written down, I could have continued using the card and wouldn't have had to call.

Frustratingly enough, the live human I talked to made me repeat all of that information, which proves the role of the auto voice bot is to screen customers (for AT&T's benefit) rather than providing service (for the customer's benefit). Any time you have to repeat a number you previously typed in, it's probably because the systems don't communicate, rather than being for the excuse of “security purposes.”

So, bad marks to AT&T

Case 2: I'm actually quite thrilled with right now. My personal credit card # got intercepted or stolen in England somehow, although I didn't lose the physical card. Wo what does Amazon have to do with this? THEY discovered the problem.

I'm sure there is some fraud prevention and cost avoidance on their part, but this also served me, the customer, well. I got an email from Amazon (one that looked a bit like a “phishing” expediton, but seemed legit since it didn't want me to click or enter info anywhere) that said, in part:

We perform routine reviews of orders to protect our customers. During one of these reviews we discovered that an account was opened with a card used by you on another account. For your reference the card in question is a XXXX card which ends XXXXX.

As it appears the card was used without your authorization, we have closed this new account and cancelled any outstanding orders.

Wow. Amazon discovered this BEFORE my credit card company. Nicely done, Amazon. To me, this goes above and beyond sending an email out like this.

Case 3: Time to cancel that credit card number. I looked online and found, of course, a fraudulent charge on that card, about $500 in “Home Depot” type purchases in an English town about 15 miles from where I was staying.

American Express was pretty much a pain to deal with, as I was handed from person to person.

I started off with one phone rep, one who took care of disputing the card. I then had to be transferred to a different department to issue the new card and number. They asked if I wanted the card over nighted out to my home address (I was on my way from from England, so I said yes). Believe it or not, they had to transfer me to the “overnight department” who AGAIN collected my info an initiated the overnight shipping.

This wasted my time. And it was frustrating.

American Express apparently has its call center and customer service organized along narrow, specialized silos. This might make it easier to train people, but it's not easier for the customer. Why not organize along “value streams” or customer needs?

I'm sure there are enough people in my situation where they could have a department of people who could handle the typical needs of a “stolen card or #” customer END-TO-END. I'm sure you process map out the likely customer needs in that scenario, equipping the staff with training required to, imagine this, actually take care of their needs, completely.

General Lessons:

Of course, this reminds me of how hospitals can be structured — full of silos that hand off patients. One hospital I worked with had patients complaining that, before outpatient surgery, THREE different people called them for different reasons in the same day. When they got voicemails from different people in the same area of the hospital, it was confusing and required multiple calls back. It wasted their time. The “Lean” recommendation was to cross-train staff so that a SINGLE phone call could address patient needs.

So it's not just phone companies and credit cards. Can your hospital or organization make similar improvements, organizing around value streams or patient pathways, rather than by silo or function? What gets in the way of this, other than cost and inertia?

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. The cust service operations that appear to have never considered the overall flow of solving a customer’s problem are usually the same ones that tell their agents, in excruciating detail, exactly what words to say.

    It is if an assembly plant provided detailed instructions for how to put the bolt in, but never noticed that it might be easier to put the bolt in if you didn’t put the seat on top of it, first.

  2. Let me add my own personal horror story which I am currently living through.

    BT, british telecom, offer a broad band TV service called BT vision and I thought that it would be a good idea to switch to it.

    So I sign up online, order the package and await the delivery.

    Sure enough one week later an attempt to deliver the package is made in my absence whilst I am at work so I call to reschedule.

    I schedule a delivery for the 13th and am told it will be delivered sometime between 7am and 7pm.

    By 1pm there has been no sign so I call them up and am assured that the letter I received stating that it would be delivered on the 13th is correct and I should sit tight.

    I call again at 6pm and am still assured it is en route.

    At 6.45 I call and am told there is no way it could be on its way as the order was “still open” on the system.

    Unbelievable……..not that the person I spoke to at 12 could have told me this.

    There incompetence is unparalleled.

    The complete lack of customer service is unbelievable.

    Rant over.

  3. Somebody had left a comment (not sure where it went) asking “so did you leave AmEx as a result of this?”

    No, I didn’t.

    The point of the Womack and Jones “Lean Solutions” was that better service can actually be MORE profitable to a company. That’s their incentive, not just to be nice to customers.

    They used the example of Fujitsu, who turned “customer service” into a real process-improvement starting point, which reduced service calls and time spent.

    Having a cross trained “lost card” single department would allow staff to be cross trained and maybe be more efficient in terms of staffing. I wish someone would try and see.

    I think part of the root cause is the siloed organizations and budgets in large corporations. The service “cost center” isn’t tied closely enough to the product design or manufacturing profit centers, so the left hand fixes what the right hand botches up instead of working together on better quality and better processes.

    Toyota proved that better quality costs less. I wish we could see more of that mindset in the service sector.

  4. As a follow up, AmEx did send me an email/web customer service survey and asked if I had any suggestions for improving their process :-)

    I’m sure it wasn’t because of this blog post.


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