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Broken printers and the importance of end-to-end processes…

A maze with a blue arrow exitingI remember in the dim and distant past, technical commentators painting a euphoric picture of how offices would work in the 2000s – paper would be obsolete, and information would be passed around electronically.  Well, I know I certainly use less paper now than I did even 10 years ago, but I still rely heavily on a trusty laser printer in my home-office.  As much as I try to read documents on my PC or tablet, sometimes it’s just far more convenient to print them out.  I was therefore rather unsettled when my printer started to make worrying whirring and clunking sounds a couple of weeks ago and eventually ceased working completely, accompanied by several warning lights flashing and a slight smell of electrical solder.  Of course, this happened immediately before I was due to meet a client – a true case of “Murphy’s law”!


Having searched for the printer receipt, I noticed that it was less than a year old and still under warranty. “Fantastic”, I thought, and I rang the manufacturer’s warranty helpline.  A rather long phone-call ensued… I’m sure we’ve all experienced these types of phone call when trying to deal with some organisations.  Whilst the phone call ended in a good outcome, it reminded me of the importance of understanding business processes from end-to-end, and the pitfalls that can happen when organisations compartmentalise their processes and focus on silos.  Here’s a summary of what happened:


  • I rang the telephone number and was prompted to enter the serial number of the printer.  It wasn’t recognised, so the automatic call-routing system made a “best guess” at where to direct me.
  • I was initially directed to the wrong department, so had to explain my issue several times before reaching the right person.
  • The manufacturer’s records showed the incorrect purchase date, so I had to speak to the “out of warranty” department first.
  • I had to e-mail a copy of my purchase receipt to prove the printer was under warranty.  This enabled the operator to transfer me (again) to the “warranty returns” department.
  • Having been transferred to the right person, and proved the unit was in warranty, the operator arranged for a replacement to be shipped out the next day (fantastic!).
  • However, the operator also arranged for the current (non-functioning) printer to be collected three days later.  I explained that I was going to be away on business for a week, but was told there was no flexibility – the collection would automatically be scheduled for three days later (even though I wouldn’t be available).  This seemed crazy!  The printer manufacturer was going to send a courier knowing that nobody would be home.
  • A courier arrived three days later, and left a card saying they’d attempted to collect an item.
  • The courier tried again for two subsequent days; both days I was away on business.
  • I e-mailed to request a new collection slot upon returning home.
  • Finally, the courier arrived at a time when I was available, and I returned the item.


So why does this matter?  Well, after the call, the operator asked whether I’d be prepared to speak to his supervisor to give some feedback about his performance.  I did so – but the supervisor was only interested in how effectively that operator had undertaken the specific tasks that he was involved with.


I have to say that the operator I spoke to was extremely friendly and knowledgeable and helped me to solve my problem.  I have no doubt he was carrying out his task efficiently given the constraints he was working under.  However, the process that the operator had to follow was inflexible and certainly wasn’t designed with the customer in mind.  In fact, I wonder whether anyone had ever mapped or analysed the process and customer experience from end-to-end.  Certainly, it seems unlikely that the organisation would be able to understand the true cost (waste) that had been caused by the misdirection, multiple delivery attempts etc.


It’s common in organisations of all sizes, whether multinational or mid-size, to see situations where every individual task or activity is optimised, but the end-to-end process (i.e. the one that delivers value to the customer) has delays, duplication and waste.  This is reinforced by individual teams measuring performance of individual tasks: Perhaps a call-centre is focussed on keeping call lengths to 3 minutes or less (which may conflict with serving the needs of the customer); as I have written before you get what you measure and inspect, but that’s not always what you expect.


Two key take-aways from this story:


  • Analyse processes from end-to-end in the eyes of the customer:  In this case, the trigger was “Customer rings with broken printer” and the end of the process should have been “Printer returned”.  It doesn’t matter how many organisational boundaries this crosses, it’s essential to see the handovers, delays and potential problems from end-to-end.  And it’s important to collect relevant and appropriate tracking metrics to allow the end-to-end process to be monitored.


  • Your front-line staff know where the problems lie:  In this example, I am certain that the operative I spoke to knew there was a problem with the process.  Front-line staff are often closer to understanding real customer needs than many middle-managers give them credit for.  Continuous improvement can start from the front-line.


Getting processes right is important for organisations of all sizes.  For mid-size companies that are growing, it might just give you the edge over your competitors.  Good customer service is a great competitive advantage.



This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions

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2 thoughts on “Broken printers and the importance of end-to-end processes…”

  1. Hello Adrian, great write-up!

    The points you raise are so crucial. It’s indeed very important that we understand the customer’s view of the process: “the outside-in” perspective. What you describe is similar to customer journey mapping which points out the kind of experiences customers have when interacting with a business and can go a long way in improving efficiency.

    Great processes and customer service can indeed be a source of differentiation.

    Keep it coming.

  2. Fantastic post! I see this one from both angels.
    Yes, it is a lesson to all businesses about mapping and understanding your processes. It is also specific story about IT support. As Adrian mentioned, too often in IT support the focus is on the performance of the individuals and not on the system of support. The quality of the system is crucial and cannot be ignored.

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