Connecting customer value to internal work activities

I wrote the following for a Yammer post at work and thought it would be useful to others.

For 5 years I worked in our consulting practice on the “front line” of client service. During those 5 years, it was fairly straight forward to prioritize things — clients first, everything else (e.g., internal activities) second. How I can I improve the quality of our work,and in turn drive client satisfaction? How can I improve quality while concurrently reducing our costs (COGS, SG&A)? What new thinking can I take to my clients? What are unexpected ways I can help my clients – both as companies, and as individuals with careers and families of their own? Where are there new opportunities for us? These questions guided me.

For the past nine months I’ve been in a new role, an “internal” role. At first I thought I’d need to rethink the questions that guided me. The more I acclimate myself to being “internal” though I realize the same questions above that I used on the “front line” are the right questions to apply to internal activities, with only a slight re-framing of how they are posed required. Here’s how I think the questions look when framed for internal activities:

– How does this task/project/initiative help us make more money (i.e., how does the top line improve by my doing this)?
– How does this task/project/initiative help us sell and/or deliver work for less money (i.e., how does our bottom line improve)?
– How does this task/project/initiative help us deliver services at higher quality?

If you can’t concretely answer at least one of these questions about the internal activity you are doing, you may want to think twice about whether it’s something you should be doing in the first place. At a minimum, it may be a candidate to move down on your “to do” list and/or something you should get clarity about regarding how it fits in strategically.

You’ll probably find when you really think about it that you CAN actually find a concrete answer to 1-2 of these questions for nearly all things you do. For example, at first blush it might appear that an”internal” activity like doing a performance evaluation might not be easily anchored to these 3 questions. But in reality the connection is right there. By providing thoughtful, actionable feedback to your colleagues, you allow them to be more effective in the market, which can lead them to both sell more work (#1) and get work done more efficiently (#2), all while likely doing their work better (#3). Essentially the application of these questions is the application of Lean thinking — seek to do only activities that are value-creating to customers, and eliminate the “waste” of non-value adding activities.

Most things you do can align to these questions, and by framing your internal activities to these questions, you’ll get not only more clarity on why you are doing what you’re doing, you’ll also probably understand better how you should approach these tasks, as well as what goes to the top of your “to-do” list, and what goes towards the bottom.