The spread of Lean into the service sector
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Lean is Spreading: The spread of Lean into the Service Sector

The spread of Lean into the service sector is well underway. In a classic Harvard Business Review article Levitt (1976) advocated the desirability of transferring manufacturing practices to service operations. His view was endorsed by Chase (1978) in another classic HBR article in which he presented service organisations as typically having ‘front’ offices (dealing with customers) and ‘back’ offices (those processing work). This language is not common parlance in service sector circles.

The table below presents Snee and Heorl’s views on the differences and similarities in service and manufacturing processes.

Differences Similarities
Service processes lack suitable measurement systems. All work occurs through processes.
Service processes are not well defined or standardised. Processes provide information and data that can be used to improve them.
Service processes often have a greater human element. All Processes have ‘hidden factories’ that add cost and reduce output.
Service processes typically lack engineers. Undesired variation is a common source of process problems.

(Source: adapted from Snee and Heorl, 2009)

The authors conclude that service processes are more similar than different to manufacturing processes and advocate the widespread application of a Lean Six Sigma hybrid improvement methodology for services.Other authors have also proposed a role for Lean in the service sector since Womack and Jones (1996) first proposed the idea (see for example, Swank, 2003; Atkinson, 2004; May, 2005; Ehrlich, 2006; Abdi et al., 2006; Corbett, 2007). Some criticism has also emerged. For example, Sprigg and Jackson (2006) found negative consequences for worker morale and performance in call centre that had adopted Lean.

Overall, however, the application of Lean in the service sector is ongoing and evidence continues to emerge (Piercy and Rich, 2009). An example of such evidence is this recently published story which was also discussed on a radio 4 programme on Tues 30th October:

Aticles referred to in this blog:

Levitt, T. 1976. The Industrialisation of Service. Harvard Business Review 54(5), pp. 63-74

Chase, R. 1978. Where does the Customer fit in a Service Operation? Harvard Business Review 56(4), pp. 137-142.

Snee, R. and Hoerl, R. 2009. Turning to Service Sector. Industrial Engineer ( October).

Womack, J. and Jones, D. 1996. Lean Thinking. Simon and Schuster, NY.

Swank, C. 2003. The Lean Service Machine. Harvard Business Review (October).

Atkinson, P. 2004. Creating and Implementing Lean Strategies. Management Services 482, pp. 18-33.

May, M. 2005. Lean Thinking for Knowledge Work. Quality Progress 38(6), pp. 33-40.

Ehrlich, B. 2006. Service with a Smile: Lean Solutions Extend Beyond the Factory Floor. Industrial Engineer 38(8), pp. 40-44.

Abdi, F., Shavarini, S. and Hoseini, S. 2006. Glean Lean: How to Use Lean Approach in Services Industries. Journal of Services Research 6(special), pp. 191-206.

Corbett, S. 2007. Beyond Manufacturing: The Evolution of Lean Production. McKinsey Quarterly (3).

Sprigg, C. and Jackson, P. 2006. Call Centers as Lean Service Environments. Journal of Occupational Health Psychology 11(2), pp. 197-212.

Piercy, N. and Rich, N. 2009. Lean Transformation in the Pure Service Environment: the Case of the Call Centre Service. International Journal of Operations & Production Management 29(1), pp. 54-76.


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