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What Spammers and Scammers Can Teach You About Lean

Every morning, as I clean out the assortment of spam, scams, and general junk mail from my inbox, it strikes me that the senders seem to have a fairly strong understanding of Lean principles.

Don’t mistake that comment for me saying that I approve in any way of what they do, or that they are in any way principled. I just mean that they are following some of the same concepts that I teach when trying to improve legitimate processes.

  1. Spammers are flexible. They know what the current issues are, and they can quickly get their fake messages out. Lately, I have been receiving an Intuit email scam about my tax information being incorrect, and started getting job postings “that I may be qualified for” in recent days. They are able to quickly change their bait to match the needs of the day. It is only a matter of time before the “Help Syria” scams start. Similarly, Lean organizations must be flexible enough to change products in a fluid marketplace.
  2. Scammers know human behavior. They know what makes people tick. The messages that get responses strike a chord with people. Obviously, the messages they send won’t hook everyone, but they don’t have the luxury a boss does of knowing her employees. But since leaders do know their workers, they can link their messages and incentives to the personal motivation of the members of their team.
  3. Scammers improve incessantly. The grammar in junk mail seems to have improved considerably over the years. Still not great, but better. And recently, I heard about ‘pass-through’ websites. If they manage to sneak a password from you, they actually pull your real info off the real site so that you think it is real. But they scrub out the fraudulent transactions they are making. So the account looks clean. (By the way, those aren’t the “three reals” I advocate.) When something doesn’t work well, it costs scammers money. When your processes are poor, people get frustrated, waste is high, and profit is low.
  4. Scammers break convention. Scammers don’t follow generally accepted ideas. In their case, it is the laws of the land that they disregard, which obviously, I don’t advocate. But I do suggest that you cast aside conventional wisdom. Some if it is founded in facts and data, but much is based on tradition or outdated assumptions. Challenge, challenge, challenge.
  5. Spammers reinforce success. Spammers find something that works, and then pour their resources into it. Most people focus their energy on fixing the failures. That’s not to say you should let problems go, but you should add weight to the ones in areas where you are doing well. Your reputation is built on what you are good at, not what you are trying to fix.
  6. Scammers focus on their target market. When a scammer blasts out an email for cheap software, or mail order pharmaceuticals, or about that girl you met on the bus yesterday, the message is very specific. Sure, they cast a wide net, but they know that if the message is too general, they won’t hook anyone. So they press send knowing that most people will quickly delete the message. But the message will ring true for some. Your company will never please everyone either. If you try to make processes that match everyone’s needs, you’ll fall short across the board. But if you choose a customer segment and tailor your processes to them, you’ll delight your target. At Velaction, for example, we focus our product sales on online transactions. Purchase orders take more time that we prefer to spend on prompt shipping and new product development. We alienate a few customers who don’t like credit card transactions, but we please the ones we focus on.
  7. Scammers are process oriented. They think through each step of the scam. I am sure they have lots of materials at the ready to keep the target on the hook. If they just winged it, the delays would create suspicion. In Lean companies, process should be one of the most common words that is mentioned. It is impossible to make an improvement if there is not a process to improve.
  8. Scammers take risks. They risk jail or the retribution from an angry victim. In a Lean company, you risk fallout from a failed improvement attempt. But the truth is that there is more risk in stagnation than there is in a well-trained, well-mentored team taking calculated risks to improve an operation.

So, the next time you get a scam email (without opening it or clicking on anything!), consider how the sender was using the power of Lean to make money in his unscrupulous industry. And then think about how you could apply those lessons to your own job.


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