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Innovation Management

Customer Experience, Associate Engagement, and Continuous Improvement: A Virtuous Circle

Published By Guest Blogger

Do you remember your first real job?

The job where you had to show up on time?

The job where, when you got your first paycheck, you were shocked—shocked—at the inexplicable chasm between gross and net pay?

My first real job was at Long John Silvers. Long John Silvers served seafood as fast food. Any creature that began its life below the waves was, in the world of Long John Silvers, fair game for the deep fryer.

One Sunday afternoon, as I was working in the dining room of the restaurant, a customer approached me. The man’s car battery was dead. His wife and toddler daughter were sitting at a nearby table.

I had jumper cables. The lunch crowd had left. I jump-started his battery.

Over the next couple of Sundays, the man and his family would come in for lunch. We would say hello.

I commented on the family’s regular appearance to my manager. My manager remarked, “people remember it when you help them.”


That encounter counts as my first lesson in customer experience. Help people in the ways they need help. The help that people need may or may not tie directly to how you thought you were supposed to deliver value. And, pay attention. You might learn something useful in the process.

Coming Full Circle

Life comes full circle, sometimes. Today, serving as Chief Solutions Architect at Planview IdeaPlace, I have had the opportunity of late to interview our clients who have applied collaborative ideation with their front-line employees.

Call center employees. Services employees. Retail employees. The employees in whom the organization entrusts the customer experience, day after day.

My goal? To understand the connection that clients make between collaborative ideation, continuous improvement, and the customer experience.

Clients observed to me the following.

Engagement serves as a sanity check for what’s important. Clients observe that—surprise—they are not omniscient. They do not know which problems are worth solving amidst the universe of challenges that confront them each day. They bring their own biases with them to work, which may or may not jibe with reality. Engagement with front line staff through collaborative ideation gives leaders the ability to scan the (true) horizon by receiving a steady stream of ideas and insights that front-line staff gain from working with a wide swath of customers.

If you believe that the pace of change in the world is accelerating, then your ability to sense changes more quickly and more precisely becomes a necessity. People who remove themselves from the front lines of where the work is being done will struggle.

Engagement serves as the basis for continuous improvement. Clients observe that the front-line staff become, by necessity, expert at working around problems, as opposed to identifying and bringing to light the root cause of the problems. They lack the time, the tools, and in some cases the charter to get at the root cause. That’s unfortunate. In the Digital Age the organizations that succeed will be the ones that develop a workforce of problem solvers. Collaborative ideation—the practice of taking a moment to reflect on the work and then share insights—allows the organization to remove long-standing obstacles, one after the other, as opposed to working around them, time after time. The lean practitioner would observe that removing obstacles is removing the waste that gets between the organization and their ability to deliver value to the customer.

Collaborative ideation dovetails nicely with continuous improvement. Organizations need both a means of finding problems and a well-rehearsed, repeatable mean of solving them.

Engagement serves as an expression of respect. The insight that clients offered to me which I found most compelling was that, from the start, their organizations assigned high value to everyone who worked there. Organizations that value their employees by extension see value in gaining their perspective. Engaging front-line employees in collaborative innovation was a very natural extension of the regard in which they held their staff.

If you value people, you ask their invite them into the conversation. If you value people, you ask them for their perspective. If you seek to run an effective organization, you take the extra step of connecting the dots between collecting all those opinions at scale and how you improve the operations by acting upon those insights.

The Recipe for Success

At Long John Silvers, I had the chance to help one family that happened to visit the store for lunch on a Sunday afternoon. The customer experience—jump-starting the man’s car battery—fell outside the playbook for the franchise.

Did I as a front-line employee have a means of sharing this experience, along with any insights gleaned from the encounter, with other stores? No.

Did the store leadership have any visibility into how their people were delivering value—some of which might have surprised them? No.

Would offering a “free jump-start service” at every store have been a good idea, ultimately? Maybe. Most likely not. Nevertheless, the more important point is that there was no means of trying an experiment to see, one way or the other.

Fast forwarding to today, companies that I interviewed are making strides in connecting the dots between how they capture the insights from front-line staff through collaborative ideation; how they improve their operations by how they make meaning of and act upon those insights through continuous improvement; and, how they ultimately deliver a customer experience that becomes a means of differentiation for the organization. This virtuous circle, along with having a compelling product or service to offer, holds the key to success for any organization.

Their recipe for success?

First, start with a culture of inclusiveness—one in which people authentically seek to understand the many diverse perspectives on what it means to deliver value to the customer and, in doing so, help the organization realize its full potential. Some organizations embrace this perspective, naturally. Others wrestle mightily with the concept.

Second, have a simple means of connecting with people on the inquiries that matter to the organization, which is where the Planview IdeaPlace software comes into play and which is how clients have supported large-scale engagement. Third, have a means of acting upon the insights and ideas that people share, which is where clients will often embrace an enabling practice such as lean, agile, or design thinking.

Jump Starting Your Customer Experience

Where are you on your journey for more fully developing the customer experience? Have you engaged your front-line employees in helping you to find your way forward, given their abundance of insights? Have you built a means of continuous improvement so that people can experience success along the way? Have you jump-started anyone’s car, lately?

Please drop me a line and let me know your thoughts.

About the author

Doug Collins is the Chief Solutions Architect at Planview IdeaPlace.

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