Customer Service

What’s Your Problem?

The problem statement

The Collins dictionary describes a problem as

‘a situation that is unsatisfactory and causes difficulties for people.’

The problem definition, or problem statement if you like, is the cornerstone of any process improvement project. The problem statement enables the team and stakeholders to understand WHY the team is addressing the problem, WHO is affected by it and the IMPLICATIONS are for the organisation and possibly its customers and suppliers. Above all, a well written problem statement emphasises the ‘unsatisfactory’ and ‘difficulties’ elements from a ‘people’ point of view.

Very often I come across projects that have been based on someone’s expectation of the solution. This someone is often the department manager who just wants a solution put in quickly. An example of a poorly written problem statement is the following:

“We need a new application that will enable us to run the annual customer survey more efficiently. ”

Some issues with the above problem statement include

  • It focuses on the technical aspect of the problem, rather than the difficulties being experienced by people using the process;
  • It immediately directs the team towards looking for a system solution, rather than gaining a true understanding the difficulties in the process and their causes, and
  • It references efficiency rather than effectiveness. There is not much point in running a bad process efficiently.

A better problem statement would be:

“The annual customer survey takes 4 months elapsed time to complete, uses about 2,000 personnel hours, and about half the results are out-of-date and cannot be actioned by the time we get a chance to analyse them. The current process involves wasted time and effort, and results in disappointed customers and a frustrated customer service team.”

The above problem statement leads us to ask open questions such as:

  • Why are we doing a customer survey?
  • Who are our customers?
  • How do we communicate with them during the survey and why?
  • Is there a better way?

In this particular case, the annual survey was an institutionalised dinosaur of an approach, that took a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to surveying customers. During the Define and Measure phases, the green belt project team discovered that there were 5 distinct categories of customers. One category alone accounted for 75% of the company’s revenue.

Corresponding SMART goals

Thus, the team were enabled to establish project goals that spoke to the problem statement as follows:

  • Reduce the number of customer categories addressed in the annual customer survey from five (100% of revenue) to one (75% of revenue) by 30th March 2020.
  • Increase the number of key customer issues dealt with within 3 months from zero to 3, by 30th March 2020.
  • Reduce the time spent on administering the annual customer survey from an average of 2,000 personnel hours to 500 hours, by 30th March 2020.

Note that the goals specifically call out a process performance metric, the current state, the planned future state, and the deadline date i.e. a measurable focused target.

As a follow-up project the team developed an online feedback portal for the remaining customer categories (25% of revenue) inviting them to provide feedback on an ongoing basis.

Summary guidelines for writing an effective problem statement

When composing the problem statement, examine the following issues (in order of priority) to assess if they are features of the current process performance.

  • Safety – employees, customers and suppliers
  • Compliance – risk of lost revenue, penalties, discontinuation of service
  • Customer satisfaction – do you know?
  • The 7 wastes
    • Transport
    • Inventory
    • Motion
    • Waiting
    • Overproduction
    • Over processing
    • Defects
  • The 8th waste – underutilisation of human creativity.

It can take time to craft a proper problem statement for your project, as the true problem may not be immediately obvious. A gemba walk, to the actual place of the work, and review with the people working in the process, will prove invaluable and time well spent.









Are you an effective project sponsor?

Why do projects need sponsoring? What are the do’s and do not’s of sponsoring? How can you be a bad sponsor? These are some of the questions that I regularly review with clients who are eager to see their lean six sigma project teams deliver successful results.

Project sponsorship is a subject infrequently addressed in continuous improvement and project management literature. Many people believe that a good project leader, that is someone who is well organised and has good interpersonal skills, is the most important factor in bringing a project successfully across the finishing line. However, in my years as a management consultant I have come to believe that effective sponsorship is the single most important factor in guaranteeing project success. I believe the following to be three essential guidelines for effective sponsorship.

  1. Strategic alignment. The sponsor is responsible for ensuring that the team leader and the team understands the business or strategic importance of the project. He/she is responsible for clearly articulating and restating the strategic objective during the project lifecycle. Example of strategic plan summary objectives are ‘zero lost time accidents by close of year and ongoing’ or ‘expanding into 3 new markets within the next 12 months’ or ‘30% productivity increase over the next 18 months’. This strategic focus is a key enabler of team success, and lean six sigma project participants are encouraged by the sponsor to take pride in their contribution to organisation development. If the project is not supporting a strategic pillar, then it simply should not be undertaken. It is assumed that safety and compliance with the law (or regulations) are always priorities.
  2. Scope and timeline management. The sponsor acts as a coach for the lean six sigma project team, without actually taking part in any project activities. Above all, the sponsor must not guide the team towards a particular solution. The lean six sigma team must be allowed to follow due process during the DMAIC project lifecycle, and occasionally make mistakes along the way. It is very disheartening for any team to be shown the solution by an overenthusiastic and under aware sponsor. Where the sponsor may intervene, is to provide advice on scope of the project and to prevent scope creep if the project leader is relatively inexperienced.
  3. Reward and recognition. This third most important role of the sponsor is to ensure that the team is rewarded at the close of the lean six sigma project. This reward is not monetary in nature. The reward should include a very clear ‘thank you’ from the sponsor to all team members, and public recognition of the project achievements. It may also include a token reward such as lunch vouchers for the team members.

In his/her capacity as coach, the sponsor may be instrumental in smoothing over any interdepartmental barriers and perhaps giving budget approval for best practice site visits. Beyond that he/she should encourage the team and not interfere. The most effective sponsors are very adept and confident in using the three magic words ‘I don’t know’. This ensures that they do not take on any team leader responsibilities, and give as much autonomy to the team as possible, in executing the project. In fact, it is good practice for any senior manager to encourage development of his/her people by regularly refusing to take on the monkey of process problem solving. Those who are most effective in developing their people, are also those who are most adept in developing their team’s problem solving skills.


Examination Tips

Six Sigma Certification is important for those aspiring to advance their career in the quality management sector and who want to implement Six Sigma Methodologies in their organisation to make the projects successful.

However the most daunting part of many of us doing such a course, is preparing ourselves both mentally and physically for the exam.

Here are some essential tips we at Lean Ireland have put together for you…



Check out the exact location of your exam venue on Google Maps. Know exactly where it is and how long it is expected to take you to get there.

Make sure you understand the nature of the examination in terms of how it will be conducted, and what you can and cannot bring to the exam with you.

Check out restrictions regarding text books, sample questions sheets and calculators. Most examinations will not allow any devices that can connect to the internet.

Ensure all your notes, prompt cards and text books are clearly annotated with your subject headings. Use coloured markers to highlight key topics and formulae. Only ring bound or spine bound notes are allowed. Stapled notes and index cards are NOT allowed.



Arrive in plenty of time to register, at least 40 minutes in advance of the start time.

Be prepared for strict security inspections regarding before being granted access into the exam room.



Acknowledge that you will not know the answer to every question on the paper. Be comfortable in that knowledge.

Develop an examination timing plan, like the one below.


Breathe into your abdomen three times, slowly. Do not look up notes in the last few minutes. Breathe.



Read through each question individually, slowly and carefully. When answering, keep referring back to the question to ensure you are on the right track.

Skip the question if the answer is not obvious, and move on to the next one. Do not worry if you don’t know the answer. Sometimes a later question will prompt an answer an earlier one.

Following first pass completion of the questions go back re-read the unanswered questions slowly and carefully.

The best of luck!


A more complete guideline listing of tips for the online ASQ examinations, is available by clicking the button below.


The Continuous Improvement Funding Menu

Time and again when visiting prospective clients, we hear the refrain “We’re too busy at the moment to start a lean programme” or, just as likely “It’s not in this year’s training budget”. These responses are true, because personnel in every dynamic company, working in a challenging marketplace, will always be busy. But this is the problem – if you have process efficiency issues, you are busier than you need to be, addressing failure demand. Failure demand is defined as work that has to be done because something that should have worked, didn’t.

The availability of funding, to invest in information systems, or boost the training budget, is a great incentive to step back from the business ‘busyness’ and re-charge your continuous improvement programme. If you are eligible, an external resource will support and coach personnel as they learn smarter and more customer friendly ways of delivering value to customers. This impacts significantly and positively on customer service and the bottom line. Check out the following funding avenues. The list is not exhaustive, and you are advised to contact your local funding body representative to discuss options and eligibility.


1.1 Research and Development (R&D): Companies can avail of financial incentives to carry out in-house R&D projects and collaborative projects with third-level institutes and industrial partners. There is also a 25% tax credit available for companies engaging in R&D.

1.2 Capital Grant: The level and availability of support is dependent on location and size of the company. This grant also covers investment in software applications.

1.3 Training Grants: Available across the country to develop the competitive capabilities of companies already located in Ireland.

1.4 Lean/Green: This is designed to encourage clients to adopt Lean business principles to increase performance and competitiveness that will sustain and grow its operations in Ireland. Support is also available to client companies to introduce good Environmental management practices through its Lean/Green business offer. This offer is aimed particularly at IDA SMEs (fewer than 200 employees)

Cordatus Consulting Limited, trading as Lean Ireland is a registered Lean consulting advisor with the IDA. For details see, and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local IDA representative.



2.1       High potential Start-up: The High Potential Start-Up (HPSU) team provides hands-on support and advice to entrepreneurs and early stage companies that are considered by Enterprise Ireland to have an innovative product, service or technology, and have the potential to achieve international sales and create employment. for support and investment.

2.2 Operational Excellence Offer: This latest funding scheme is designed to aid Irish companies (both SMEs and large) looking to evolve and expand, and become more competitive in the global market. The application of the funding is broad. There are 3 categories – Capital Assets (Equipment, Software Licenses), Business Innovation (Salaries, Overheads, Consultancy, Testing, Materials, etc.) and Training (including travel & subsistence).

2.2 Lean Business Offer: Similar to the IDA programme this suite of initiatives is designed to encourage clients to adopt Lean business principles to increase performance and competitiveness that will sustain and grow its operations in Ireland and exports abroad. Support is also available to client companies to introduce good Environmental management practices through its Lean/Green business offer.

2.4 Established SME funding: A variety of grants are available include Market Research and Internationalisation Supports, Supports for Product, Process or Services, Development including RD&I Funding, Supports to Enhance and Develop your Management Team, Productivity and Business Process Improvement Supports and Company Expansion Packages.

For details see, and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local Enterprise Ireland representative (



For companies in Gaeltacht areas, Údarás can provide a range of financial incentives in the form of grant assistance to assist varied business needs. Support incentives include:

3.1       Feasibility Study Grant

3.2       Research and Development Grant

3.3       Capital Grant

3.4       Training Grant

3.5       Consultancy Services Grant

3.6       Development of Market Research Skills

3.7       Innovation Voucher Initiative

3.8       Online Trading Scheme

3.9       Lean/Green service offer, similar to Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

For details see,  and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local Údarás representative.




Local Enterprise Offices (LEOs) provide a range of financial supports designed to assist with the establishment and/or growth of enterprises (limited company, individuals/sole trader, cooperatives and partnerships) employing up to ten people.

4.1       Feasibility Study Grants

4.2       Priming Grants

4.3       Business Expansion Grants

4.4       Technical Assistance for Micro Exporters

4.5       European Globalisation Fund

4.6       New Agile Innovation Fund

4.7       Lean/Green service offer, similar to Enterprise Ireland and the IDA.

For details see,   and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local LEO representative

Cordatus Consulting Limited, trading as Lean Ireland is a registered Lean consulting advisor with Enterprise Ireland, the IDA, Údarás na Gaeltachta and LEO. .



The Skillnets network around the country has been a wonderful source of supplementary funding for lean six sigma and supply chain training and development.  These include, and are not limited to

  • BioPharmaChem Skillnet
  • CILT Skillnet
  • First Polymer Training Skillnet
  • ICBE Advanced Productivity Skillnet
  • Irish Medtech Skillnet
  • ITAG Skillnet
  • Lean and Green Skillnet

Please see for a complete listing of Skillnet networks.



There is a variety of funding opportunities and structures available to companies be thesaech and process improvement training. y small or large, including:

6.1       In-Company R&D

6.2       Collaborative R&D

6.3       Start-up Company R&D

6.4       EU R&D Funding Programmes

6.5       R&D Tax Incentives. R&D Tax Credits are worth approximately €700m per annum to 1,500 companies in Ireland. The credit is calculated at 25% of qualifying expenditure and is used to reduce a company’s Corporation Tax. Revenue provides guidance here:

6.6       Knowledge Development Box

6.7       Manunet is a network of development agencies whereby each agency uses its own funding programmes to support international collaborative projects performed by companies in the manufacturing sector. MANUNET supports innovation-driven, close-to-market research and development projects in manufacturing. It aims to encourage cross-border value chains that emerge from advancing technologies. Contact the IRDG at for advice on R&D funding.



InterTradeIreland has been helping small businesses in Ireland and Northern Ireland explore new cross-border markets, develop new products, processes and services and become investor ready over the last 20 years.

7.1 Acumen sales and marketing programme

7.2 Elevate, specifically aimed at Micro-Enterprises

7.3 FUSION provides financial support to help you get the specialist skills

7.4 Seedcorn competition

7.5 Business Angel investment

For details see www. and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local InterTrade Ireland representative.



As the regional business development agency, Invest NI’s role is to grow the economy of Northern Ireland, by helping new and existing businesses to compete internationally. Some funding programmes include:

8.1 Capability development

8.2  Innovation and R&D

8.3 Start ups with export potential

For details see and to check your eligibility for any of the above, please contact your local Invest NI representative.


So, the big question – “Am I eligible?” All of the funding opportunities come with terms and conditions. There’s no magic wand, and the application process can sometimes be off-putting (who likes paperwork?), however it is well worthwhile. The funding typically gives a scaled percentage of your actual investment, in redesigning your business model to increase competitiveness, and enhance your market position so you grow further in new markets. Also, there is typically a cap on the amount of funding that can be claimed from the agencies over a defined period of time. Your local representative will be able to help you out.

The above is only a sampling of funding and is not designed to be exhaustive. If you know of any other sources that may help companies, please post in the comments section below. I wish you well with your funding research and application process.


The role of the contract Lean Six Sigma Black Belt

Black Belt

The Certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt (BB) is a professional who is well versed in the Lean Six Sigma methodology, who leads improvement projects, typically in a full-time role. A Lean Six Sigma Black Belt possesses a thorough understanding of all approaches and tools within the phases of lean six sigma project. They understand how to perform and interpret Six Sigma tools and how to use standard principles of Lean.

A BB is results driven, trained in advanced project management and statistical analysis tools. He/She is expected to contribute between €250K and €1M to the company’s operating profit each year by undertaking process improvement projects that lead to enhanced customer satisfaction, and lower cost to the company.

Why use contract Black Belt support?

Employing contract BBs has become popular for every employer type, ranging from multinationals to SMEs and even start-ups. One of the reasons why it’s beneficial for companies to employ a BB contractor to work on specific projects, is the specialised expertise that they can bring to that role. They can also adapt quickly to the organisation’s processes and culture, and deliver measured value on a quick return basis.

The contract black belt service compliments existing operational excellence department resources, or can act as a stand-alone professional support to the management team and project teams on site. The advantages to the organisation are many, and include:

  1. Senior project manager with cross-sector experience;
  2. Access to a wide and deep knowledge store of programme management approaches, and lean six sigma data analysis and problem-solving tools;
  3. The support of a professional who is senior enough to influence management thinking, without having the natural hesitation that might inhibit a more junior permanent employee;
  4. Use of support days in line with the organisation’s needs, and
  5. The freedom to wind-up the contract when it best suits the organisation.

Black belt duties

Duties of the black belt will vary from company to company, however will most likely include the following. In consultation with the management team and others:

  • Development and maintenance of the continuous improvement roadmap;
  • Project selection and team selection;
  • Project planning, team mentoring and individual team lead mentoring;
  • Process problem-solving with teams in manufacturing, laboratory, warehouse and office areas;
  • Data analysis and report writing, with recommendations and project plan

Support days & duration

The range of support days varies typically, from 3 days per month to full time 20 days per month.


The organisation may be eligible for IDA or Enterprise Ireland lean funding, under the Lean Business Offer suite of programmes. Talk to us about it today.