The Voice of the Customer is at the heart of Lean Six Sigma. The focus on eliminating waste and reducing variability is founded in a desire to improve the outcome for customers, whoever they may be. But, it can be hard to know if our project selection process is putting enough focus on the areas of priority for our customers. Just because management thinks something is a priority does not mean that the customers agree. Customer feedback is an essential part of it.

However, before we launch a thousand surveys, we first need to identify our customer. While it sounds obvious, it rarely is. When most people think about their customers, they think of the end-user of whichever product or service they offer; so the guests at a hotel, or a driver for a car manufacturer, and while this is true it is not the whole story. Your product may have been specified by a designer, delivered to a client with you as a supplier and used by someone on a shop floor. All three are customers.

Looking closer, we know that every single member of staff is a customer of the HR process. The technician on the subassembly line is a customer of the person before him. There are many different customers in each process; for each output there could be several different customers. It is up to us to look at who is using the process and determine where the customers are, a SIPOC is the ideal tool for this.

So know I know who my customers are, what next?

It’s time to collect customer feedback

There are three key ways that all feedback is collected, and a Voice of the Customer exercise is no exception; interviews, focus groups and surveys.  Interviews, as the name suggests, are either face to face or telephone discussions which provide in-depth information about the experiences of an individual. They are ideal to get a feel for what the customer experience is like, however they provide qualitative information which is tough to quantify. Focus groups provide similar information but help businesses group customers by segments.Focus group

Surveys are useful for providing the quantitative information that businesses need for decision making. They provide reliable and robust information about a range of wants, needs, complaints and concerns – and you’re often able to filter the results to get the same customer segments we see in focus groups. However, in order for them to be truly effective, questions need to be formatted using the Likert Scale (i.e. customers are asked to rate something out of ten or whether they agree or disagree with a statement), rather than free form responses. This way, responses are standardised and can be compared, grouped and filtered easily.

How to sort your feedback

Once you’ve got information from a range of customers, it is essential to sort it in order to find meaningful insights. This is easier with survey feedback, but to get an overarching feel of your customer story it is best to use all of the information you have. Interview and focus group information is usually sorted using an affinity process.


This involves breaking down all of the comments made into single statements. For instance the statement “the stockroom was chaotic because the team had no respect for managers” would be broken down to “the stockroom was chaotic” and a separate statement of “the team had no respect for managers”.

The statements should then be written on Post-It notes and grouped by affinity. So if our example above said “the stockroom was chaotic” it might be grouped with “you can’t find anything in the stockroom”, this is done by placing the Post-Its in vertical lines on the walls, with each column representing an affinity group. There should be as many affinity groups as necessary, even if there are only one or two statements in them, so that no statements are forced into fitting in other groups.

Once all of the statements have been placed in the right groups, either choose one statement that encapsulates each row or create your own heading. Then it is time to prioritise them. It should be fairly obvious that the column with the highest number of statements is a core priority. However, an urgent/important matrix can also help.

Picking your project

This is the stage where you start selecting your Lean Six Sigma projects. There will be a number of issues raised that are ideal projects, while others are not. It’s important to first sort out which issues have a clear cause and solution and fix them immediately – what we often refer to as ‘Just Do It’ problems. If you know what you need to do to fix it, you don’t need a project –  you need to get on with it.

The Lean Six Sigma projects are those which have no clear root cause. The Define, Measure and Analyse phases all help us to identify the root causes of problems, so it’s a waste of time to expend energy doing that if you know exactly what the problem is before you start. Similarly, the problem has to be big enough that it couldn’t be fixed by one person given a couple of hours to investigate – it has to be a complex or systemic problem within the company with no clear cause or solution.

While this whole process is fairly long, it provides you with the best outcomes for your customers as you’re addressing the problems that they raised with you. Customers like to see businesses fix their issues, and often an unhappy customer who has seen the service improve on the back of their feedback will be much more loyal than a customer who was happy all along.

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