The Great Service Epiphany

Tuesday, October 27, 2009 by Tripp Babbitt

Standardization in World Service
When I first read Freedom from Command and Control (by John Seddon) I hit one of those moments that give one pause.  It’s like a kick to the head . . . a jolt.  Some react differently than me when confronted with a counter intuitive truth or a management paradox and immediately reject it.  Not me . . . I have gone to such depth in learning and improving service organizations that you can feel it when you have heard something significant that will change your course.

Here it is . . . standardization is the enemy of service organizations

Sounds harmless enough, but it changes everything.  The way you think about tools-based improvement programs, documentation, scripts, information technology, and much more.   It all changes.

Lean manufacturing tells you to standardize as I have seen so many lean tool-based programs advocate.  Folks running around for the one best way or doing 5S . . . all non-sense.

I have consulted with Fortune 500 technology companies standardizing processes so business analysts could write requirements, system engineers and programmers code and schedules can be met.  But the problem was the back and forth between the technology company and the customer.  The customer rarely got what would work on the front-line and the technology company would blame the dumb or rigid user.

Contact centers with IVR systems that require a standard message.  Or the script for the customer service representative (CSR) that has to be complied to when the customer calls.  For the most part . . . all waste.


Standardization does not allow for the absorption of the variety of demand offered by service customers. 

The waste is in costs and customer service.  If a customer can’t understand the tree of options offered an IVR they are forced to call back to "get it right."  Or if the script a CSR is forced to comply with doesn’t fit a customer demand . . . the customer has to call back or try to negotiate a response with the CSR.  Additional handling of a customer either loses them or they are forced to call again (failure demand).

Variety of demand is best absorbed by humans and NOT technology.  To introduce technology in places where humans are needed is to increase costs for buying the technology and increasing the costs to serve a customer.  Technology change management tends to miss this as they gather requirements without knowledge and a rush to meet deadlines.

Call center and government management miss it because the prevailing thinking is that standardization is always good because they can control things.  The truth is that they are making themselves less competitive with increased costs and worse service.

I have learned many other counter-intuitive truths and management paradoxes working with systems thinking, but this opened my eyes.  I hope it does for you too.

Leave me a comment. . . share your opinion!  Click on comments below.

Tripp Babbitt is a speaker, blogger and consultant to service industry (private and public).  His organization helps executives find a better way to make the work work.  Download free from "Understanding Your Organization as a System" and gain knowledge of systems thinking or contact us about our intervention services at [email protected].  Reach him on Twitter at or LinkedIn at


Comments for The Great Service Epiphany

Saturday, October 31, 2009 by Jim Scully:
When I consult with clients I speak in terms of the need for parity between standardization of demand and supply. When supply is standardized but demand is not, waste results as you say. But the claim that standardization perse’ as non-sense? Perhaps you’re overstating the point to make a point. Think about the concept of a menu in the restaurant business. It is perhaps the oldest example of standardization. The idea is to standardize demand (give them a limited set of choices) so that it is possible to standardize supply (procure and produce a predictable output). Help me out here.
Sunday, November 1, 2009 by joel:
So true, so true. I work in the medical field and am constantly dismayed by the constraints and limitations put on workers, and patients!, to fit into the current service provision process.
Sunday, November 1, 2009 by Tim:
Much has been said about the ‘evils’ of standardisation – define standardisation! I am an advocate of systems thinking and believe that our problems are in the way that systems and processes are designed and managed. So, when a poor process is redesigned, how does one follow that new way if it is not through standardisation (putting in place of a new method or way of doing something). If you turn off fail demand ‘by doing something right first time’ (changing or adhering to a better way of doing something right) is that not standardisation? I agree that it is not acceptable to be over prescriptive where uncontrolled variety needs to be addressed, even so, there needs to be a process in place to handle this. Define standardisation – is it ringing a certain number to make contact, entering details to a form or data base, organising the service to be completed by a particular service provider at the arranged time, using a defined billing document to transact funds, using a particular account to deposit funds, etc. The point is, having designed a process to optimally serve the customer’s demand, what is an alternative label to use for the newly designed method by which we manage and improve. The attack of the word "standardisation" has confused many – what is it – is there a time when it is OK to standardise? What else can we call this improved method we need to follow to provide a predictable outcome? Regards, Tim
Friday, November 6, 2009 by Tripp (Blog Owner):
The key is how we come about standardization. Most orgs are forced to standardize by technology and others do it because it is assumed to be better. All wrong approaches. Only by knowledge of demand can we determine if or when it is appropriate. Forced standardization (without knowledge) is a disaster in service.
Friday, November 6, 2009 by Tripp (Blog Owner):
Tim: The worker is well capable of determining what is needed to do their work. We do not need to tell them. I aim to confuse it sorts out the truly curious. Standardization in an IVR system would be the message a customer listens to. Not many customers present demands the same way, we have to standardize the response to put into an IVR. The company typically assesses what the message should be inside-out or through best practice. IVRs typically can’t absorb the variety very well. Scripts in a contact center the same thing, the variety of demands presented in service orgs can best be discerned by a person not technology. So to me, the "standardization" of processes and procedures that disrupts the flow when variety is presented is the issue. Waste shows up in failure demand from customers when they can’t get the service requested. We use the term high frequency value demand (HFVD) that are predictable demands in large volumes.

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