CX Journey delved into the concept of lean management a few weeks ago. At its core, lean management is about maximising customer value while minimising waste. It originated as a manufacturing process in Toyota after the Second World War and has since been adapted beyond manufacturing to software development, logistics and distribution, retail, healthcare, construction, and as we’re about to see, product development.
REA Group was born in a garage in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne in 1995 and operates Australia’s leading residential and commercial property websites, realestate.com.au and realcommercial.com.au. By any measure, it’s a remarkably successful business. Today it operates in over 10 countries and is listed on the Australian stock exchange with a market cap of almost A$8bn.
Nigel Dalton, a veteran evangelist of lean, agile, and systems thinking, is the Chief Information Officer at REA Group. For over 14 years, he has been a keen advocate for applying the principles of lean not just to IT but to all areas of the company and, particularly, to product development.
I recently caught up with Olivia McMillan, who manages a team of 35 agents handling 16,000 interactions per month in what REA Group calls its Customer Experience Centre, to ask her how the principles of lean thinking are exemplified within the business.
Ben Motteram: So Olivia, I keep hearing the terms "agile," "lean," and "systems thinking." I know all three are crucial to REA Group’s Customer Experience Centre’s success. How do you differentiate between the three?
Olivia McMillan: Our Customer Experience Centre has the privilege of working within a technology company that celebrates innovation and speed to market. In my mind, a customer experience centre can have all three of these frameworks actively working together synergistically, and, when done right, the outcome should be an engaged team and happy customers.
1. Agile is a working framework that focuses on frequent sharing of information within a team. This frequent knowledge sharing enables the team to adapt quickly when things change and seeds accountability and teamwork.
An example of Agile practices at work in our Customer Experience Centre is our daily stand-up. Every morning, we gather together and share insights from the day before as well as key updates for the day to come. These conversations help us to identify and to react to current trends in customer needs and enable our team to self-organise resourcing for the day ahead (rather than using a dedicated workforce manager). This process of self-organisation empowers our people and ultimately enables us to provide a better service to our customers.
2. Lean is the framework we use to achieve high velocity speed to market – an approach that often refers to releasing a Minimum Viable Product rather than sinking exhaustive resources and time into perfecting something before your customers see it. Deploying lean methodologies dictates that if you’re going to fail, you fail fast instead of slow.
We all know how cumbersome and expensive scaled contact centre software can be. Deploying these systems in full before we know if they are going to work for our specific needs isn’t a luxury we have. To that end, we are fortunate at REA Group to work with technologists who are passionate about fast improvement.
A great example of lean in our world is a project undertaken by our team as part of our last company Hack Day (we hold Hack Days quarterly). Our project, fully developed and completed within two days, provided an internal app to our sales force that brought visibility to our current phone wait and email turn-around times and offered direct chat to our team such that when they are on the road they can contact us in the fastest method possible. It’s not an all-singing, all-dancing product but it has provided a level of visibility to our entire sales force that they have never had before, and it’s enabled us to get feedback quickly from our sales team as to what they need to see from us to improve our relationships with them. We’ve continued to develop this app since Hack Day.
3. Systems thinking is basically working to improve a core issue rather than working on the symptoms of it and is something that I believe contact centres are uniquely positioned to do. Our team has an obligation to provide the feedback that our customers give us to our product teams to inform product fixes, service fixes, anything to make the customer experience better. We send product and market insights that our customers entrust us with across all departments within REA Group and have people from other internal areas actively sitting beside us as well hearing feedback directly from customers to inform their roadmaps.
BM: It sounds like you’d need a very engaged workforce to make this work successfully.
OM: Absolutely. Actually all of these processes are about team engagement. I believe that if we can create a culture of empowerment for our people, of trust and respect, then this will ultimately convert to a positive customer experience. To do this, it’s not enough, however, to just deploy these processes – you need first to ensure everyone is aligned to a purpose, with agreed and bought-into values and behaviours.
By doing all of this, we don’t just make the Customer Experience Centre the centre of the business, we make the customer experience the centre of the business.
BM: One of the points I picked up from Annette’s original article was the idea about defining value from the standpoint of the end customer. How does REA Group obtain insight about their customers and what they value?
OM: I couldn’t agree with Annette more. Understanding customer pain points is at the heart of all of the frameworks we have spoken about. If you’re on the wrong track about what your customer is actually experiencing, then you’ve got little hope of solving their problems. To this end, REA Group also employs the principles within the Design Thinking framework. But this is probably an entirely other conversation!
BM: So if another contact centre manager was reading this today and thinking about adopting the same practices as REA Group, where would you suggest they start?
OM: Well, I can only say where I started – by talking to a lot of people to understand the current landscape and then doing a hell of a lot of reading… and then some more talking. Honestly, though, the people in your contact centre are going to be the best place to start – they are the ones who will ultimately make a transition to this way of working or not, so their buy-in from the start is imperative.
After that, if I could recommend one book, I’d say that Freedom from Command and Control would be a great start. It explores Systems Thinking approaches in contact centres and looks at getting to the heart of customer issues to solve them once and for all rather than address symptoms. Also, if you can, grab a copy of Designing for Growth – it’s great for practical applications within a team of some of the principles we’ve discussed. I could also suggest picking up Toyota Under Fire – a great case study on how Toyota overcame an extreme management crisis within a contact centre.
BM: Thanks for taking the time to take us through this today, Olivia. It’s certainly de-mystified a lot of these concepts for me and provided insight into what sounds like a really interesting workplace.
OM: My pleasure! Thanks for the opportunity!
Ben Motteram is the Principal at CXpert, a Customer Experience consulting company that helps their clients grow by placing the customer at the centre of everything they do. With over 20 years of experience in customer service, Ben has been recognised many times for the thought leadership articles that are regularly published on his blog. Follow him on Twitter and LinkedIn for more awesome insights on everything to do with customer experience, customer service, and employee engagement.
Olivia McMillan is the Senior Manager – Customer Experience at REA Group, a multinational digital advertising company specialising in property. Fluent with the agile delivery process and passionate about customer centric innovation, Olivia manages a team of 30 agents in REA’s Customer Experience Centre.