Want a more customer-centric business? Try origami
Remember being a kid, grabbing a piece of paper and folding and turning until you looked at (what you sincerely hoped) was an approximation of a crane or aeroplane?
There’s something about the tactile nature of creating a model in three dimensions that our human brains really enjoy. It makes us engage differently with a problem, giving a spatial dimension to the way we conceive the relationships between people and things.
And those traits can be harnessed when we are working with clients to understand the relationships, needs and interconnections that typify the kind of complex systems we design in at ThinkPlace.
We sat down with ThinkPlace Australia Principal and energy sector specialist Danny De Schutter to talk about how he recently used the technique of business origami to help a large electricity network service provider better understand its customers and begin to engage with them more meaningfully…
SAPN is an Australian distribution network service provider. They manage the network that transports electricity from generators (like power stations) to households and businesses. They connect new generators (including renewable energy sources) to the network as well as new customers.
Q: What problem were we responding too?
DDS: While most people will know their electricity retailer, they really only get to know their network provider when there is a service disruption, such as those caused by a bushfire or storm, or a planned maintenance activity. Our client was keen to lift their profile with individuals in the community as well as businesses. They wanted their customers to understand their role and to appreciate the value they provide in our energy system.
Q: What was the project about?
DDS: We worked with the client to examine some key activities that are part of their operations and where they have different types of interactions with customers, with the aim of improving them and therefore improving their relationship with customers.
Q: How did we do that?
DDS: In this case we used business origami. It is an excellent way of mapping out complex activities that involve many people or organisational units and are geographically dispersed. The method allows for the discovery of interconnected relationships and helps identify pain points in the process, some of which we contributed as a result of our research with customers.
Q: Why get people folding paper and placing it on boards? What does it achieve?
DDS: Working on a horizontal surface creates more equality between the people - it is easy to contribute from all angles. Using the small whiteboards to depict different boundaries and interactions also allows people to wipe out and change as they go along. The cut-outs represent people, tools, vehicles and other elements in the system and add a third dimension. When played out over time, additional elements (such as pain point cards) can be added.
In this case, each group was assigned a specific process that forms part of the company’s business and a moment when customers come into contact with SAPN. Examples included a connection request for a rooftop PV installation and a planned upgrade of an electricity transformer.
Q: What impact did this approach make?
DDS: Our client is well versed in business process mapping. Using this method however brought a totally new perspective and made them realise that what happened in real life rarely met the theoretical internal business processes they thought were governing their interactions.
Going through this method it became apparent that often the existing processes were optimised for internal efficiency but in fact created a lot of headaches for the customer. Making that ‘connection’ opened up their minds to re-craft their processes with the customer at the forefront.
Q: What’s something interesting you learned from this process?
DDS: Each time there is planned maintenance, SAPN distributes hundreds of cards to the affected neighbourhood advising people of the likely outages.
Life-support people get even more notice, often with a personal visit, as there is a $20,000 fine for the client for each life-support customer who does not get adequately notified. This is a big effort for SAPN’s field crew, and often works get cancelled at the last minute when a new life-support customer is added overnight. A better understanding of who SAPN’s customers are and what their needs are in this case could greatly help with this problem.
Q: Who will benefit from this work?
DDS: All customers (households and businesses) will stand to benefit, as the organisation starts to eliminate unnecessary steps, simplify documents and information requests to customers, and starts interacting with customers through their preferred channels of choice.
Knowing who your customers are and understanding the points at which they have contact with you and what they want or need at that moment, how they want to be communicated with. These things sound simple but when you run a large, complex organisation they are not that easy to achieve.
Many companies never think to ask these questions, or else struggle to know how to come up with answers to them. In this case, using business origami was a neat way to get people to think differently and make the right connections.
Q: What kind of organisation or problems could this method be successfully applied to?
DDS: When used appropriately, many organisations (private or public) stand to benefit from a method like business origami. It is a great leveler – unlike business process mapping there are few rules so both experts and lay people alike can participate. So particularly in sectors where there are many actors at work, say in social services, health and education this method could really help lay bare the complexity of services offered to customers. Imagine running an exercise where the customer is at the table with you, pointing to their pain points as you build out the model!