Many Six Sigma efforts are not really customer-driven. Too many companies pay only lip service to the needs and perspectives of stakeholders and customers when selecting and deploying Six Sigma projects. There are three main reasons for this:

  • First, Six Sigma-trained personnel, and many times even Black Belts, are not properly or specifically educated about how to use the voice of the customer (VOC) to select and evaluate projects.
  • Second, most companies lack a robust VOC process, resulting in little effective, data-based input.
  • Third, many of the VOC systems that do exist are really disguised voice of business (VOB) systems, which focus primarily on the cost of customer problems and other VOB issues, i.e., efficiency, productivity, internal quality.

Requirements for a Useful VOC

The following eight factors are required for an effective and institutionalized VOC process.

1. There must be a clear owner of the VOC process who is responsible for managing the process, getting and controlling input from all touch points, and assuring that issues raised are clearly assigned to an individual executive within the organization. Further, multiple “listening posts” such as focus groups and interviews must be conducted at multiple levels to assure the elicitation of valid useful data. Once this data is collected, it can be used in two ways – at the macro level to drive Six Sigma project selection and immediate improvement opportunities, and at the micro level to provide specific requirements for individual DFSS projects.

2. There must be a unified feedback and quality data collection plan for all touch points and internal sources of data describing the customer experience. The methods and classification schemes used in all systems must be compatible to support integration. For data sources which are not representative of the marketplace, such as complaint systems, there must be an analytical means of extrapolating the information to the marketplace as a whole. For example, answer the question: “For each complaint we are getting about this type of problem, how many other customers in the marketplace are encountering the same one but either are not complaining or are going to another touch point?” In many cases, the answer is 10 customers for each complaint or even 50 customers per complaint received.

A further part of the VOC data collection activity should be mechanisms to gain an understanding of the current and evolving motivations and expectations of customers. Focus groups and interviews with early adopters to identify future needs and channels of communication will allow prediction of problems and needs before they turn into problems. Launching appropriate projects to address the long-term needs of the customer and the business are valuable. All of these points will significantly enhance a Six Sigma practitioner’s ability to accurately select and charter important customer-facing projects and assure the availability of statistically valid data.

3. A unified, single picture of the customer experience needs to be provided based on data gathered from multiple sources and which integrates all phases of the customer experience. If the data is not integrated, management and Six Sigma teams are provided with multiple pictures of the experience, resulting in conflicting opinions on where the biggest problems are. Also, multiple data sources saying the same thing help eliminate the politics associated with delivering bad news. As most Black Belts know, multiple data sources, once validated for accuracy, improve the probability and speed with which solution sets can be developed and implemented.

4. The VOC reporting process must be easily accessible, visible to all managers and actionable. Actionability is produced when the data flags a specific defect or unfulfilled need along with enough information to determine its root cause. This root cause analysis should examine customer expectations to see if they are realistic. Educating the customer is a way to improve the customer’s contribution to “production” of the product or service. As mentioned, requirements failures are the manifestation of a poor VOC process. Complaining customers and other customer dialog tend to drift into the solution space as opposed to the actual problem space. Trained DFSS Belts are skilled at using data to elicit further conversation, mining both VOC quantitative data and “comment data” for context, meaning and root causes.

5. The VOC process must identify the complete cost and revenue implications of the problem or opportunity. The ranking of issues by a comprehensive estimate of cost and revenue impact helps to establish priorities in selecting Six Sigma projects. Keep in mind that there is significant revenue damage even if the customer encounters the problem but does not ask the company to do anything about it (so that there is no immediate internal cost or rework).