Have you ever thought about the truly basic concepts underpinning continual service improvement (CSI)? Let’s take a look at the words themselves.
The main point of CSI is to deliver improvement, so I think it makes sense to start with that word.
Often individuals’ preconceptions of improvement limit the scale and scope of what can be delivered.
This is especially true of suppliers who think they know what a customer, user, or other stakeholder would consider “better”.
Let’s illustrate this with a familiar product – cream cakes. What range might the term “improvement” cover?
A cake, of course, is a product rather than a service, but let’s start here and see what happens. A quick brainstorm on what could be made “better”:
- Bigger (better for the hungry)
- Smaller (better for those dieting)
- Each one individually priced (better for those who want only one)
- Offers and combinations (better for those who want several)
- Easier to open
- Less to throw away
- Multiple cakes in one box
- Shelf life
- Prettiness and visual appeal
- Ease of eating
- Smaller shape for small mouths and less mess
- Non-sticky bits to hold
- Where you can buy it
- When you can buy it
- Ingredient sourcing
- Sustainability/carbon footprint
- Recycled content (packaging)
This list reinforces the point that there are multiple ways to please customers, and some are contradictory – they would please some but disappoint others.
Moving on to “Service”
As I mentioned earlier, cake is a product, so we need to think of a service using cream cakes – like a wholesale baker creating and supplying cakes to retailers. A lot of the first list still applies to this example because they are improvements that the retailer can pass on (think: only organic cream cakes are sold, tastier than ever, locally sourced, cheaper than last year, etc.).
But it also opens new, service-based improvements, like:
- Payment terms
- Delivery options
- Bulk discounts
- Advertising materials
- Consistency of product
- Packaging and transportability
There’s more, but to get a proper list, and then do prioritization, you need to get to know your customers, their needs, and their preferences.
Internal Improvements Can Enable External Ones
In order to deliver improved value to the customer, this often requires improvements to how the supplier works. These will not be directly visible to the customer but will help facilitate many of the things set out in both the improvements and service lists above. These enabling improvements that deliver consequential, externally delivered improvements might include:
- Automation of the process to deliver:
- Longer shelf-life by getting them to the shop faster
- Cost reduction
- Product consistency
- Alternative component sourcing to deliver:
- Environmentally friendlier products
- Cost reduction
- Advertising and publicity angles
- Sharing transport services with other suppliers – to offer cost reductions and wider distribution (hence, new market opportunities)
- Sales and pricing changes, which can help attract new outlets and retain old ones too
- Outsourcing the manufacturing process to reduce costs and management overheads
There is also the opportunity to improve the wider service by incorporating new aspects; in the cream cake situation, for example, it could be perhaps advertising materials, free taster samples, associated products, etc.
Okay for Cakes, But Does It Apply to IT Service Management?
Now, let’s do the same exercise for an IT service, say an online travel booking system. What are the potential improvements? We can put together some ideas based on the range of stakeholders involved:
- From an ordinary user’s perspective:
- Quicker to book travel
- Wider range of travel can be booked
- Less restrictions on booking things
- Suggests the best travel option
- From a company finance department’s perspective:
- Harder to book travel
- Suggests cheapest travel options
- More checks and approvals
- Categorizes spend for accounts processing
- From an operations perspective:
- More stable software
- Easily upgradeable
- Less skilled intervention required
Other stakeholders that might be affected include suppliers, administrators, staff induction trainers, managers who approve travel, and more.
Most of these are improvements to the service. They, in turn, are delivered by improvements in processes, technology, and people skills that the service rests upon.
We should only be working to improve those supporting elements – the people, process and technology components that help us deliver a service – if we can see a consequential service improvement. That means being able to say what is different because of the change and who sees that difference as added value.
These are just thought experiments of course. My point is to show that there’s a wider range of things than you might’ve first thought when you talk about what is an “improvement”.
Last (and Probably Least): “Continual”
Well, maybe not least, but simplest to explain. Continual doesn’t mean continuous, there is nothing wrong with intermittent improvement. And this is good because that’s how real life improvement happens – in steps. ITIL uses continual to mean unending – there is no situation where you should say “Okay, I improved a service, no need to look at it again.”
Bringing it All Together
So… in summary, CSI is looking for
- Anything that a customer (or other stakeholder) thinks is an improvement
- Every aspect of the service – not just the core bits of it that you are most familiar with
- More improvements, all the time
Like most really useful elements in service management – CSI needs a customer focus and a customer judgement. You can only get started when you have an empathetic feel for what a customer sees as ”improvement”’.
Take the Cream Cake Test
Maybe get your friends and colleagues to try the cream cake improvement game? Notice the contradictions, and work out how you can use that to improve your approaches, services, products, and more.
For more information on CSI, I recommend you read my friend Stuart Rance’s blog: The Help You Need to Adopt Continual Service Improvement (where you’ll find a nifty set of tips, available to download).