How to solve the problems highlighted by customer surveys

Research carried out amongst major European businesses by Customer Champions has found that nearly all large companies claim to gather some form of customer feedback. Yet, as we all know through our day to day practical experiences as consumers, there is extremely limited improvement in the service levels that we receive from these companies. Companies make the right moves in talking about the importance of customers in their annual reports and mission statements and they gain customer feedback on their performance. This article reviews root cause analysis, countermeasure developments, storyboard analysis and Six SIGMA, all measures that have successfully understood the customer feedback and successfully implemented change.

So where does it go wrong?

Over the years, dealing with a variety of clients, we have found there are two major internal barriers that companies put in the way of gaining maximum value from customer feedback. The first is the lack of a link between the customer data and the overall business strategy. Without this link, management teams review business scorecards examining such items as profitability and market share, yet struggle to identify the direct impact of their customer feedback data on these KPIs. This frequently results in a shortage of resources to put in place against any corrective actions that have been developed. In addition to this, the other barrier we have identified is not having a formal structured approach to understanding the root-causes of customer issues, and developing and deploying countermeasures. Without this it is difficult for teams to become established and gain the support of their colleagues, and very importantly their management. This again leads to little or no resources and therefore no action.

This lack of structure is particularly surprising when you consider the investment that companies made in deploying Quality processes throughout the 1980s and 1990s. The Quality mantra of Plan–Do–Check–Act was well heard but maybe the lack of a consistent approach to understanding root causes and implementing countermeasures has caused problems. Having collected data, analysed it, and then presented it, companies need to identify which factors are to be acted upon where improvement will bring substantial benefits to both the business and their customers. It is at this stage that companies appear to struggle in converting that desire to act into reality. The introduction of a structured approach to understanding the issue and successfully acting upon it would be a significant step forward.

The structured approach would need to have the following components in order for it to succeed:

  • Clear purpose. What is the reason for the need for improvement?
  • Set of clear objectives for the group established to tackle the identified problem, including a timetable.
  • Defined roles and responsibilities for each of the group members.
  • Standard, understandable set of tools for data analysis.
  • Knowledge and skills to identify possible root causes, and develop appropriate countermeasures.
  • Skills to rollout the agreed countermeasures.
  • Tools to track and evaluate the impact of the countermeasures.
  • Skills and authority to change / fully implement the countermeasures.
  • But, above all, a communications framework to work within to ensure that all parties know of progress, issues, and successes. This has to cover upwards in an organisation to the team that agreed the areas for action, out to their colleagues who will implement / be impacted by their recommendations, and out to their customers.

QI story – storyboard analysis

In the early 1990s AT&T took the overall Total Quality Management (TQM) approach and started to widely use a tool called QI Story. They described this as a “quality improvement problem-solving process that is a systematic, data-based approach to problem solving”. In order to communicate progress the vehicle used was a Storyboard, hence the name storyboard analysis. The storyboard was a structure allowing a team to display its work in a standardised fashion. An example is illustrated below:

QI Storyboard

The storyboard has seven key steps to it:

  1. Reasons for improvement
  2. Current situation
  3. Root Cause Analysis
  4. Countermeasures
  5. Results
  6. Standardisation
  7. Future Plans

Each step had a documented list of questions that needed answering, and a set of tools to be used, before the team moves onto the next step.

Speaking as a user of QI Story or storyboard analysis, one of its great benefits is that it is easy to understand and use and didn’t need intensive training. It also proved to be an excellent tool for communication both within and outside the team.


A greater restriction on time to invest and this need to gain fast results were the major drivers behind Work-Out TM, born within GE under Jack Welch The motivation behind its introduction was the failure of TQM projects. GE describe Work-Out TM as “the start of our journey, it opened our culture to ideas from everyone, everywhere, decimated the bureaucracy and made boundary-less behaviour a reflexive, natural part of our culture, thereby creating the learning environment”.

The great advantage that Work-Out TM appears to bring is strong employee participation and ownership, coupled with management support utilising basic management analysis tools to deliver a solution within 90 days. The structure of this is illustrated in the table below.

Stages Key Activities Elapsed Time (Days)
High level planning Strategic objective
Select planning team
Planning teams Define stretch goals
Select Work-Out team(s)
Collect data
The Work-Out Root causes
Town meeting Present
Implement Progress assessments every 30 days Next 90

Six Sigma

GE sees Six Sigma TM as the next stage on from Work-Out, embedding quality thinking – process thinking – across every level and in every operation of their company.
The best, simple definition of what Six Sigma TM is I found was “a disciplined, data-driven approach to process improvement aimed at the near-elimination of defects from every product, process, and transaction”. It gets its name from its manufacturing-based background where the sixth sigma, a statistical term, is aimed at developing processes that deliver no more than 3.4 defects per million ‘opportunities’ or items.


It is not possible in this short amount of space to examine the advantages and disadvantages of each of these techniques, but it does appear that each of them has their strengths in providing a framework for root cause analysis and countermeasure development. Ultimately whether it is one of these tools, a hybrid of them, or a different one, it is a company by company decision. The extent by which the company is already process focused, the speed with which change is required, the level of accuracy needed in the analysis, and the culture of the company are all factors that will strongly influence the approach chosen.

One such company that has successfully deployed a structured problem solving approach is BT. They refer to it as the Performance Accelerator. This has 10 steps to it, with predefined actions required in each step, achievement of which need to be formally signed off. The steps are illustrated below, and again they are logical and easily understandable. The key benefit is having the consistent structure so that progress against a number of initiatives can be compared.

Performance accelerator

Performance AcceleratorPerformance Accelerator has been used within the area of improving customer satisfaction and decreasing dissatisfaction. Both, new programmes had to utilise the approach, and programmes that were already underway were forced to ensure that they could satisfy all of the criteria of each stage.

Success of approaches

They all do appear to provide significant bottom line advantages, with GE claiming to have estimated benefits through the use of Work-Out TM and Six Sigma TM in the order of $10 billion during the first five years. Motorola who inaugurated the use of Six Sigma TM in the mid-eighties claimed to have reduced their manufacturing costs by $1.5 billion by 1994. And finally Honeywell, who reported an increase of $1.4 billion on their bottom line after 3 years of Six Sigma TM improvement, have now developed Six Sigma Plus.

Although in its early stages of deployment, the Accelerator programme within BT is already beginning to deliver benefits with reductions in customer dissatisfaction being achieved.

Take the next step

If you are interested in taking the positives from the negative in your customer surveys, please get in touch.

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