Skinny Isn’t Just for Jeans: Lean Business and the Service Sector
Doing more with less is the mantra of today’s business. Hiring more people or throwing money at a problem is almost never the best way to solve it… even if there are people and dollars to throw. Businesses are feeling the crunch today more than ever, in some part due to advancements in technology and the emergence of retail and “self-service” service. Once upon a time it was OK to be a fat dumb and happy business, but those days are long gone. With competitive pressures increasing – and emerging from new sources – just about every business is feeling the need to trim some fat – cutting costs and streamlining processes even as customer demand increases.
Lean and efficient business isn’t of concern just to manufacturing sector, even though that is where you most frequently hear about initiatives relating to process improvements tied to quality management. Professional service firms should also seek to identify areas where cost or time efficiencies could be gained while at the same time preserving (or improving?) quality of service delivery. Price of service isn’t necessarily the largest factor in meeting the competition, but quality of service for the price and delivering on customer expectation are right up there as top priorities for buyers.
Quick: What do legal professionals and assembly-line workers have in common?
More than either one might think, apparently. After all, the “lean” approach to manufacturing—a concept which rolled off the Toyota Production System, only to be delivered to ailing U.S. auto giants in the late 1970’s—wouldn’t immediately seem applicable to workplaces where the heaviest lifting involves leather briefcases. As for paring resources, such as inventory, down to a minimum—it seems like overkill when applied to pens, yellow pads, laptops and file folders.
But the lean concept long ago roared out of manufacturing and parked its principles in service industries: lean accounting, lean healthcare, lean startups.
Professional service firms are being compelled to reduce costs just to compete, and are finding that cost-cutting isn’t all that is required. Rather than doing more with more people, firms have begun to recognize that getting more done with fewer human resources is the goal – a goal which must be achieved without sacrificing quality of service. In fact, most firms are now actively seeking ways to increase production and improve service levels, and to do it without increasing headcount and cost. Client needs are changing and demands for higher levels of service continue to increase as society more fully embraces social computing and DIY. Technology is impacting how businesses do business, and sometimes is the basis for establishing a new standard by which all competitors are then measured.
Technology advancements are among the primary drivers moving service firms to explore leaner and more efficient ways of working. As more sophisticated tech and the resultant capability it delivers is made available in the market, more businesses begin to recognize that the “traditional” providers of certain services may no longer be the most cost efficient suppliers. Competition often emerges from some of the most unlikely of sources, and this new reality is impressing itself upon even the sturdiest of professional service firms who find themselves facing new threats to the status quo.
Like all customers, legal clients seem to have grown fussier than ever. One study estimates that about 60% of large clients replaced one of their top two law firms last year—citing mediocre service. As is true across industries, the cost of acquiring new clients only heightens the appeal of retaining existing ones.
There is much talk among accounting and legal professionals as to what the “firm of the future” might look like. Are these firms highly efficient producers of service that rival the lean manufacturers, leveraging insight and innovation to deliver more value? Or are they adopting technology simply for the sake of change? There is a difference between change and improvement, and not all changes result in the desired improvements to operations, efficiency or quality of service. For the firms seeking to increase their competitiveness in a rapidly changing market, applying measurements to the various processes the business performs can reveal the secrets to improving not only process performance and product quality, but resultant profitability. https://coopermann.com/2013/03/18/philosophy-of-process-improvement-todays-cfo-focusing-on-operations/