The most neglected of the five original Lean principles by Dan Jones and Jim Womack to my knowledge is the first: “Define Value From the Customers Perspective…”

How to define what value exactly is for your customer, and how to find out what your customer is telling you about their perceived value seems to be difficult. Why is it that we seem to be better at improving processes using fancy methods and tools without even understanding what the core reason for us working is?

Years ago I sat with Dan Jones in the hall of a bank. We were observing clients walking in the bank and doing business with bank employees. One woman approached the bench and explained her story to the sales person. The woman decided months ago to emigrate to Canada, and that she came to this small bank (40 miles from her house) to make sure her mortgage had been paid off and that the money was transferred to the right bank account in her new home country, and that the money would be in this bank account today.

The woman made the trip to the bank 40 miles away, just to make sure all would work out well. The sales person explained to the woman that she would indeed transfer the money that same day. The woman left the bank happy. I asked the sales rep if indeed the money would be in the other bank account, to which she answered; “no, but I do transfer the money today.” Lucky this was over 10 years ago, so this would not happen today, would it?

The reality is that many organisations seem to somehow lose interest in the day-to-day business of their customers, and stop trying to understand. Going to the Gemba most of the time means going to the shop floor. In many instances going to the Gemba could really give a clear guidance to the improvement activities undertaken.

Here is some of my own practical advice:
Visit your customer, or if you are in a consulting role, take your client to visit one of their customers in their habitat.

  • Can you observe how and why they use your product or services?
  • Do you see anything that is different of than what you expected?
  • What does this tell you about your process back in your organisation?
  • If you had known about this, would you not have visited the customer?


Off course we’re not always in the position where customers can really tell us what they think of our services or products, but it does not mean that we should not care about taking the initiative of trying to understand our customers on at least a weekly basis. Protecting the customer from everything that is going wrong in our organisation seems not to be in the diary of most managers.

I might sound a bit too negative, lots of good companies are out there as well, but hey, I’m surprised on a daily basis by big name companies not taking the effort to care.