#152 from R&D Innovator Volume 4, Number 4          April 1995

Service Teams—They’re Not “Outsiders”
by Peter Mears, Ph.D. and Bruce Kemelgor, Ph.D.

Drs. Mears and Kemelgor are professors of management at the University of Louisville.  Dr. Mears is a former Malcolm Baldrige Examiner, and provides quality improvement workshops.  Among his books is Quality Improvement Tools and Techniques (McGraw-Hill,  New York, 1995).  Phone (502) 852-4790.

Many organizations use Total Quality Management (TQM) to increase their performance.  A key principle of TQM is to serve the customer.  But the customer is not just somebody who buys whatever product or process your company sells; the customer includes individuals or groups within the company.  We find that it’s quite common that internal service departments are ignored as an organization attempts to enhance quality. 

A positive environment for quality improvement and high performance is created when all departments adapt their services to meet customer needs.  Even within a transnational organization, there’s no excuse for not meeting internal needs--whether they come from the next floor or the next continent.  With the fax, phone, and email, communicating across continents should be as easy as communicating with the next floor.

Unfortunately, in many companies, internal service departments (e.g. computer services, legal, safety, human resource, or analytical testing) don't seem concerned about providing high-quality services.  For example, when was the last time computer services asked if their instruction manuals were satisfactory?  Or when analytical testing services asked if their data was in the best format? 

By calling these people "internal customers," we stress that organizations cannot meet the needs of their external customers if the output passed between employees--from an internal service team to its internal customer--is inadequate.

To achieve Total Quality, you must know who these customers are, what they expect, and how well you perform from their point of view.  Then you must exceed the customers' expectations. 

If it's sometimes hard to identify external customers, it's often more complex to identify internal customers.  For example, a technician working on a sequential production process knows that if he or she passes on a defective product, a fellow worker will provide immediate feedback --in the form of a complaint or suggestion. 

But what happens when someone in an internal service team, such as a computer services, isn’t responsive to a scientist who has an urgent request?  What happens when the analytical testing department doesn’t respond quickly to a request from research?  Does the computer expert or analytical technician realize that, like the production worker, the scientist has needs that must be met for the organization’s success? 

Include Service Departments

Consumer-oriented departments (particularly the sales department) have frequent interaction with external customers.  A friendly, positive attitude, and a smile, go a long way toward ensuring customer satisfaction.  Unsolicited comments, or short surveys, commonly help fine-tune the process.

By their nature, internal service departments are seldom in direct contact with external customers.  This isn’t bad in itself, but many service groups compound the problem with procedures that further isolate them; in fact, isolate them from internal customers.  For example, a research team wants the analytical department to perform a new type of analysis.  This would require adding new people and new equipment to the analytical department.  The requesting department (research) must the furnish data, not the analytical department.  A natural consequence is a barrier to communication.  A third group, perhaps the executive group, evaluates the request.   The executive may ignore discussing the issue with the analytical department; but, rather, will respond directly to the research department.

The hurdles in these situations slow the process of adapting to internal customer needs.  It's not that requests for personnel and equipment shouldn’t be reviewed, but rather, internal departments must start seeing themselves as service departments and move into proactive stance in the drive to improve quality.  The analytical department must be aware of what the customer (i.e. the researchers in the previous example) needs, so that recommendations come from the analytical department, not to them.   Or, the request is jointly made by the research and analytical departments.

Internal Customer Interactions

Since internal service departments aren’t in direct contact with users, they receive filtered and relatively ineffective information.  For example, suppose a researcher realizes that a certain new assay will lead to data that can decrease production costs.  Will the analytical department see the new request a burden instigated by eager-beaver researchers; or will they see the request as burden that's necessary for product and company success?  Do they even know why the request was made?

There are ways to improve the flow of information and overcome such barriers.  Instead of relying on other departments for information, internal service departments should open their own lines of communication with all users.  Various departments will help them identify specific customer segments.  Like in sales, surveys and focus groups can provide feedback about various service activities.   

Had the analytical department contacted production, it would have understood—first hand—the importance of these new analyses, and thus would have been likely to be more helpful in implementing them.  Without that understanding, they only grudgingly provide what “those researchers” request.

Integrating Internal Customers into Quality

Most internal departments believe they produce high-quality work simply because they respond to requests.  Yet they’re operating reactively, not proactively, since they lack a formal system for determining customer needs and often take a “business as usual” approach to problems or special requests.

How can an internal department take a more proactive stance?  We have successfully applied this six-step involvement process, leading to a formal survey: 

1)  Create a design team.  They’ll be responsible for evaluating the process, and will help obtain the “buy-in” that’ll be needed to implement recommendations.

2)  Identify internal customer segments.  In the example, analytical testing must realize its value not only to research, but to other segments like production.

3)  Write a few focused questions to identify the needs of each segment.  Production may expect analytical to respond immediately to changes because of special market needs.

4)  Conduct a pilot test on a customer segment.  Interview customers (e.g. in marketing or research) to see if the questionnaire is clear, and revise it if needed.

5)  Survey your customer segments.  Then analyze responses to assess the relative importance and satisfaction each segment has with each service.

6)  Using these data, identify opportunities for improvement.  Discuss the feedback with staff members and customers so quality improvement efforts are focused on specific needs.

One of the tenets of TQM is that a high-performing workplace depends on successful employee involvement at all levels and across all departments.  Empowerment occurs when authority and responsibility go to employees, who experience a sense of ownership and control over their work.  This means that service departments not only have to understand their role in the overall company goals, but also to understand the role of other departments, and to determine how they can be most effective.  Don’t have your analytical (or legal, computer, safety, etc.) departments look upon researchers as “those guys;” rather, have them see researchers as “our teams.”  And that attitude will more likely be reciprocal—and necessary—for a high-performance workplace. 

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©2006 Winston J. Brill & Associates. All rights reserved.