Fundamental to understanding Lean is knowing who your customer is. As state employees, we sometimes struggle with the notion that we even have customers, but as we’ll see, getting this right lies at the core of any successful Lean transformation.
So who is the customer?
The customer is the ultimate end user of the product or service you deliver. Sounds simple, right? Well not quite, at least not for most of us in government.
The term “customer” often gives us fits because we tend to think of ourselves as public servants, and since we serve the public, we assume the public is our customer. This sort of fuzzy thinking leads us off track every time, but it’s easily corrected when you stop and think concretely about what you actually produce.
Let’s say, for example, your job is to write environmental permits. So your widget is a written permit. Who’s your customer? If you think it’s the general public because they benefit from clean air or water you’d be wrong. Who actually needs and uses the permit? It’s the industrial facility that can’t legally operate its business until the permit has been approved.
In most cases, the public doesn’t directly use our products or services but they certainly benefit from them. In this sense, they are investors – they pay taxes and demand a reasonable return on their investment. In other words, they expect us to deliver mission outcomes, which is why our agencies exist. But don’t confuse them for the customer, because they are not the end user of our product and service.
We also tend to get confused by the notion of having multiple customers. Yes, we may have more than one type of customer, both internal and external. But here’s the key, and it’s true for any outwardly facing organization: The way to maximize the long-term benefit for investors – the public, in our case – is by delivering value to customers. This is true for a car company like Toyota, a non-profit like the Red Cross, public schools and every state agency in Arizona.