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Making continuous improvement truly continuous in the call center

Posted July 8, 2015

Many companies, especially in the Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) space, talk a lot about having a culture of continuous improvement based on some industry standard paradigm like Kaizen or Lean Six Sigma.

In order to deliver on this talk of continuous improvement, companies usually recruit and train a core team of ‘experts’ that are wielded by senior management like a ray gun to ‘blast’ quality and efficiency transformations into the business, often to fight fires of under-performance. In some organizations, the reputation of these groups reaches semi-mythic proportions – like an old SNL sketch where a camera goes back to the secret ‘writers room’ finding a smoked-filled dungeon of nameless and seemingly lost individuals doing who knows what.

Continuous improvement throughout the organization

To be successful with a continuous improvement program, it needs to be implemented as a culture that permeates the organization, and not as a ‘back room’ consulting team.

In the manufacturing or supply chain space, where machines are bolted to the ground, such a siloed approach can add significant value. But the typical BPO or call center contains too many moving parts, poorly understood interrelationships, and way too much continuous change. Of course, broad culture change in a large organization is difficult, especially compared to recruiting some specialists and sticking them in a room. But the payoffs are huge, and the competitive advantage earned is equally hard to replicate.

At TELUS International, we started down the road towards continuous improvement that is truly continuous. We call this our Process-Intelligence culture using Lean Six Sigma paradigms.

The need for Six Sigma

Every team leader in the company is trained as a Six Sigma yellow belt, enabling them with a common language and tool kit which allows them to ‘own’ their continuous improvement to achieve and exceed goals independently, and to be available for team-based improvement projects.

Further development, training and experience of the management layer provides for a deep pool of Six Sigma greenbelt certified leaders that are also directly responsible for our customer service delivery.  These managers are now experienced in full Six Sigma DMAIC project management and can lead teams of yellow belts in broader transformational initiatives.

And of course, dedicated experts are still needed. In our case, a small team of Six Sigma black belts and master black belts mentor and track green belt projects, manage the ongoing training of the organization and lead large cross-organizational transformation initiatives. Basically, they are responsible for the care and feeding of the culture.

A process-intelligence culture

Process Intelligence (PI) is part of the entire relationship life cycle. Upfront, as we engage new customers, PI provides for documentation, transformation and best practice application during the implementation process and then beyond.

No need to call on the boys in the back room to help fix problems or drive performance to new heights; the team on the ground that knows the customer and the processes intimately are already trained and incented to live in a continuous improvement culture.

Now the real injustice of the way this works in many BPO service providers is the cost. Say you’ve identified that your service provider’s performance has material gaps compared to best practice, and after much dialog, data analysis and benchmarking – they relent and agree. Off they go to open the door to the smoke filled backroom and pull their consultants into the light to solve all the days’ problems.

But what’s the cost?

But wait. Just as they start to open the door, they stop. ‘Oh,’ they say, ‘We can fix this, be sure of that, but there is one thing we need to discuss. It’s our fee.’

Huh? ‘But you’re under-performing,’ you the client say. ‘You admit it, and you’re the experts. That’s why we came to you. Why do we need to pay… more than we already do?’

Basically, the issue for the BPO provider in question is that they are bringing in incremental and expensive consulting resources and need to cover the cost of doing that.

For us, Process Intelligence and continuous improvement are already embedded in the organizational fabric, and all project managers, operations managers and team leaders are potential process improvement consultants. It’s just part of the way we do business, and there are no additional, incremental, project-based, consulting or other fees. Now doesn’t that sound better than a smoke-filled back room?

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