What does your customer really need?

I've been working this week with the finance department of an $18 billion company. They're creating value stream maps of their forecasting process in order to reduce the time it takes to roll up the financials from the 100 countries in which they do business. As with most companies, an internal process like this has grown without much planning, and it's now pretty damn messy. People spend days gathering data, inputting into Excel spreadsheets, then uploading to an SAP system. . . all for internal customers (the CFO, investor relations, and to some extent, the country managers) who don't really need all that data.

Why do they piss away so much time on an exercise that's largely futile? Because the finance department hasn't taken the time to talk to its customers to find out what they really need. As a result, they confuse data (reams of numbers) with information (status reports on the few items that are really affecting the business). It's not the finance department's fault, of course: at some point, their customers asked for more information on some item or another, and that item got added to the monthly rollup ad infinitum. As did the next request. And the next. And pretty soon what should have been a two or three day process turned into nine -- count 'em, nine! -- days of grueling data crunching. And that's data crunching that adds practically no value, since the customers don't care about it.

The same problem existed in the credit department. They recently were running 500 reports on various aspects of customer credit. After sitting down with their customers, they found that they didn't need all that information, and they reduced the necessary reports to 33. The other 467 reports? Pure waste.

I tell this story because I often see people in administrative functions working their butts off to fulfill job expectations without realizing that much of the work is pure waste: their customers just don't need what they're making. But because the person producing that work hasn't talked to the customer, she doesn't know what's really needed.

So take some time to assess the work you're doing. Talk to your customer and find out what business decisions he's trying to make, and what information he needs for that decision. You may find that you don't have to work nearly as hard, and that you'll have more time to solve other problems.