My younger son likes to use ‘inside-out’ as a verb. For example, when his socks are inside-out, he’ll ask me, “Can you inside-out my socks?” It’s one of those phrases I’ve never wanted to correct because it makes me laugh and gets me thinking deeper about the untwisting of organizations to get them better aligned with ‘outside-in’ thinking.
My personal story on outside-in thinking stems from a career on the road; partnering with customers in the trenches to help deliver on their supply chain initiatives. For many years I took my customer accessibility for granted and didn’t understand why my colleagues didn’t share my customer-centric view of the world. Then one day my job changed.
I was promoted to oversee product management based on my depth of customer knowledge. My first product release hit the mark. I knew what the customers wanted and delivered it. But over time, winning the support of my company’s internal stakeholders eclipsed my bandwidth to stay engaged with customers. For all of my experience and contacts on the customer frontlines, I slowly lost touch. It was so ‘inside-out.’
One of my mentors noticed my struggles and offered the following advice. It was true then, and it remains true now for the manufacturing community:
- The answer to most of your questions is not in the building. He borrowed this from Pragmatic Marketing but it immediately rang true. For all of the customer-centric thinking methodologies, nothing beats actually sitting down with a customer to talk. Customers are not shy about sharing their challenges especially when you approach them as someone wanting to help. These simple conversations are instrumental for grounding your customer-centric vision.
- Outside-In thinking is not natural. As logical as customer-centric, outside-in thinking sounds, it is not the natural state of the world. Organizational entropy gravitates away from the customer. After all, customers ask hard questions and they tell you things you may not want to hear. It’s easier to stay focused on your email. Awareness of these organizational tendencies is critical as you travel through your customer-centric journey.
- Ingrain your job with outside-in thinking. He challenged me to tie my organization’s success metrics to my end customers. Rather than focusing on my commitments to release schedules, I reframed my commitments around customer impact. This helped me channel time wasted playing departmental politics to rallying the company around how best to serve the customer.
How do I ‘inside-out’ my manufacturing organization?
Step 1: Improve organizational listening skills: Customer outreach through Customer Advisory Boards, Quarterly Business Reviews, and Industry Conferences are great ways to seek answers outside the building. Also, analytics should play an increasing role in finding new trends in customer data. Whether you’re listening or not, there is a sea of data out there on your customers, your markets, and your products waiting to be tapped.
Step 2: Build outside-in thinking into your metrics: Challenge yourself to reexamine your personal and organizational metrics and how they tie to the customer. If they don't connect, how can you transform them? It could be as simple as shifting a release target to an adoption target; an internal quality metric to a customer’s view of quality. This is less about dropping internal metrics than it is about framing your metrics from the customer's perspective. This becomes especially powerful when rallying other departments to support your efforts.
Step 3: Ingrain outside-in thinking into your job: We are creatures of habit. Unless we build these outside-in practices into our organizational routine, the initiatives will fall to the wayside like over-ambitious New Year’s Resolutions. The best manufacturing examples I’ve seen for ingraining outside-in processes are through Integrated Business Planning (IBP). When done right, IBP establishes a monthly cadence, aligns with executive priorities, and creates the opportunity for organizations to align with their customers. Coupled with analytics, IBP can also provide a more dynamic perspective on your companies changing landscape.
There’s no easy button for inside-outing an organization. It’s a journey, and for every plateau reached another hill lies on the horizon. But in this world of big data, global markets, and IoT-everything, the simplicity of outside-in, customer-centric thinking still provides the best path for staying relevant, winning market share, and ensuring your products hit the mark with your customers.