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Back Office / Front Office

The terms ‘back office’ and ‘front office’ refer to customer contact. Those that have direct customer contact are the front office. Others who work in administrative roles are the ‘back office’. The terms originally came from the physical layout of an office building, but with the advent of improved communication, the delineation is murkier. Many people now spend all day in contact with customers on the phone and via electronic communication, and hence have many front office characteristics, despite never seeing a customer face-to-face.

Note that back office work can still be related to individual customers, but may not directly contact them. A person processing loan application falls into this category. Other back office functions, such as engineering and HR indirectly support customers in the aggregate.

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There are some major differences in how front and back offices operate. Obviously, front offices must cater to the customer interaction. For the Lean world, that means fewer noticeable visual controls, more open space, and less equipment left out at the point of use. On the phone, it means more data recording after the call rather than making the customer wait.

The primary intent of a front office function is to enhance the customer’s experience rather than make the operation more productive. Obviously, you want to be effective and efficient, but some improvement ideas from the perspective of the company may need to be discarded to preserve the customer experience. As an example, clear, spacious countertops are pleasing to customers. Tightly packed, efficient workspaces are less so.

In the front office, production boards are generally not placed in plain sight. Andons and other audible signals are also less apparent in the front office, as they can confuse customers. Think of an aircraft. The cockpit is full of instrumentation, chatter, and warning lights (andons). Most customers (passengers) would not understand what was going on as lights flashed and buzzers sounded. The hectic pace also is not well matched to customers. The back office is like the cockpit. You can put whatever you need, wherever you need it to make it function well.

Continuous improvement efforts are still critical in customer-facing processes, but thought must be given to how the customer will view the changes as well.

Some of the main differences in applying Lean to the back office are:

  1. Visuals can be displayed more prominently in the back office than in the front office, making daily management easier.
  2. Front offices cannot be shut down during kaizen events the way that they can in back offices. One option is to do kaizen at night or when the office is closed.
  3. It is difficult to work ahead in the front office. In the back office, if ‘normal’ is about half a day’s work in queue, then a team can get the queue down to nothing to support improvement activity.
  4. Customer interactions can be highly variable in the front office. This must be accounted for in the process.
  5. Arrivals in the front office tend to fluctuate by time of day. Back offices tend to nearly always have something in a pile waiting, and can work at a more even pace. Track customer patterns to manage staffing. Often, back office personnel can support the front office during peak times. Special offers can also entice people shift the time they come in.
  6. Customers don’t ‘keep’ the way back office work does.  Very seldom will a loan application get up and walk off of a pile. A customer in line or on a phone might abandon their wait. Customers might even see a line and choose to not even come in. Those are even harder to understand, since you might not know if a car passing by had intended to stop (think drive-thru’s). Track abandon rates, and work to reduce them. A survey might help to understand when customers change their mind.
  7. Waiting customers are angry customers, unless they are entertained. Purchase orders in the back office don’t get a short temper if they have been kept waiting. Try to avoid waits, and if that doesn’t work, make the wait more tolerable. For example, people waiting for elevators estimated the wait time to be significantly shorter if they had a mirror to look at after pressing the call button for the elevator. Be creative.

Make sure that continuous improvement efforts are taking place wherever they are needed. Don’t let the proximity to the customer, or the unique challenges of the improvement efforts sway you from attacking problems wherever they occur.

Keep this in mind, though. Errors in the back office are generally much easier to correct without impacting a customer relationship than a front office problem. The magnitude or cost can be higher in the back office, but the impact in the front office on a customer is immediate, and apparent. Mistakes in front of a customer are much more likely to cost you business than mistakes that you are able to correct without a customer realizing that there even was a problem.

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