If your organisation is currently facing the challenge of seeking out efficiency gains, or you have just sat in a meeting wondering “Why am I here?” this blog may be for you.
There is often the assumption that all activity undertaken by an organisation is necessary, whether it be front-end public contact or back office support functions. Certain types of activity, processes and norms become embedded over time and are accepted as ‘what we do here’, and therefore go unchallenged. Even where something instinctively doesn’t quite seem to make sense, or its value to the end-user isn’t obvious, we often still do it. This quiet acceptance leads to stagnation and waste.
Eliminating waste is the key to building capacity and enhancing efficiency, and the good news is that it is really, really easy to identify and eradicate. All it takes is the will to do it.
In my experience, waste seems to fall into three categories (I may revise this to two categories in future, for the purposes of efficiency):
Waste Type 1. The things an organisation shouldn’t become involved with in the first place.
This concept is discussed in my blog “Why We Must Learn To Say No”, and in a policing context manifests itself in a desire (or perceived obligation) for us to take the lead (or sometimes even assume complete ownership) in matters that belong fairly and squarely within the ambit of other agencies. I argue that this is driven partly by the ever-expanding societal role of the police, partly by our ‘can do’ organisational disposition, but also because of deep-seated risk aversion.
It goes without saying that if we are taking on additional work that we have no expertise in or jurisdiction over, there is a real and ironic risk we may make the situation worse. In any case, once embroiled in such activity, the rule of not being able to be in two places at once applies. Organisational effectiveness also suffers, as the incident the police should be dealing with has no one free to deal with it.
The concept of saying ‘no’ also applies to addressing those individuals who make demands for service which are, to put it bluntly, totally unreasonable. I appreciate we are a public service but for the greater good of those who genuinely need the police we have to be prepared to politely decline the demands of the selfish and dysfunctional minority who put an unacceptable strain on our resources.
To therefore reduce the first type of waste, ‘just say no’.
Waste Type 2. The activity undertaken to put right what we didn’t do properly in the first place (‘rework’).
Being really honest about this, we, the police, sometimes excel at creating this type of waste activity for ourselves. We don’t always record or respond to incidents as well as we should; we sometimes take a long time to sort things out; we don’t always get back to callers with updates. Ironically, this is often because of constraints created by waste in the first place, but I’m not going to make excuses.
Every time we don’t get something right first time, this drives waste into the system and creates unnecessary work for someone further down the line. Work activity within a system can be described as a ‘flow’ and this flow is interrupted every time someone has to go back to an earlier stage to rectify a problem. This causes delays, mistakes and frustrations for all concerned. It could be compared to an electrical signal passing along a wire: the longer the wire and the worse its condition, the weaker the signal at the other end. Sometimes the signal becomes corrupted and never emerges from the other end. Efficiency, on the other hand is generated by short processes and inbuilt quality.
In the simplest terms, if someone has to spend time fixing something that was broken when it was handed to them before they can proceed with it down the workflow, it slows the process down and builds in waste. Whilst they are reworking the original activity they are not doing something else more important. Rework also includes dealing with the exasperated member of the public who phones up asking who is dealing with their case, or trying to find out what the update is. Also termed ‘failure demand’, servicing these essentially avoidable queries ties up a huge amount of capacity which could be gainfully employed elsewhere, if only we had kept the caller updated or given them the correct information in the first place.
Unfortunately the organisational response to rectifying poor initial input into the system is often the introduction of a raft of inappropriate measures, standards and targets. These are enforced through audit and inspection regimes, which of course require time, effort and staff to implement and maintain. At first, the creation of such audit and inspection mechanisms seems wise, but why would an organisation choose to insert third-party quality control mechanisms somewhere mid-stream or even at the end of the process? It’s too late then! The best that can be achieved is that defective product is identified and sent back to the start for rework. What is wrong with building in quality from the beginning?
(Note: I use the term ‘product’ as loosely as possible – I am careful about the use of business terminology when discussing public services. We are not a business; neither are our ‘customers’ consumers).
In Simon Guilfoyle’s ideal process world, the same person would own a piece of work from start to finish. This eliminates the need for handovers, which by definition introduce a pause in the process and increase the risk of errors. It also shortens the overall process, and enhances personal responsibility, ownership and professional pride. This is ultimately the best outcome for the service user.
I accept, however, that particularly in policing this is not always possible. What is possible though, is to mitigate the emergence of waste by ensuring that each person in the chain takes responsibility for their own work, and maximises quality before it is passed on. Incomplete or defective work should not be forwarded otherwise it will either be sent back at some point in the future, or worse still, leaves the system in a condition that is unfit for purpose. If the latter occurs, a member of the public receives a sub-optimal service from the police, and this is not acceptable (especially as it is avoidable).
The lesson here therefore, is to strive to eliminate errors at every stage of the process and ensure that defective product does not sneak further down the flow. Everyone has responsibility for quality control, not just supervisors. Imagine the huge amounts of capacity that can be generated within the system if effort is focused on getting it right first time, every time. No rework. No need for retrospective audit and inspection regimes. Increased professionalism. Better service.
Waste Type 3. The activity within a system that does not provide value for the service user.
This third type of waste is often the most insidious, as it quietly grows around organisational structures, constricting innovation and reducing flow to a crawl. It becomes the foundation for internal empire-building, unnecessary bureaucracy and a plethora of baseless processes and reporting requirements. It stops the organisation growing, saps efficiency and prevents effective service delivery. It is absolutely parasitic.
In public services, we must never lose sight of the fact that the reason we exist is to serve the public. (The clue is in the name I suppose). I therefore argue that every single one of our activities and processes must be subject to constant rigorous scrutiny as to whether they contribute towards this aim. If the answer is ‘no’, then we have to scrap them. There is no other alternative.
One example of the type of waste that achieves nothing for the public is the obligatory meeting that seems to drag on for hours, where one eventually walks out of the door at the end uncertain about what, if anything, has been achieved. Even where a meeting or agenda item was necessary at some point in the past, there is the real risk that unless under constant review, these matters become standing items that are no longer relevant. This results in ossification, where issues of little or no currency become standing items and no one seems to know why, or is courageous enough to let go.
My position on meetings is threefold: 1. There must be a clear purpose to the meeting. 2. The number of attendees and length of the meeting must be proportionate to what it seeks to achieve. 3. There must be clear decisions and outcomes that everybody understands and acts upon when they leave the room. Anything less is an absolute waste of time, and as we know, time is money.
Another example of this third type of waste is the requirement to report back huge amounts of unnecessary information to the centre. By introducing processes that mandate the creation of plans and strategies for even the most straightforward aspects of daily business, this builds more waste into the system and slows things down. The situation is then exacerbated when operational staff are required to follow prescriptive one-size-fits-all tactics to address the issue the plan was generated to tackle. This type of approach ignores local context, nuances and expertise, and results in more waste. It also disempowers those who know best how to tackle the issues in their field – the workers.
The situation is further worsened by the requirement to report back what activity was subsequently undertaken, as this bears no benefit to the citizen whatsoever and serves only to populate internal task returns or data collection requirements. Unless a particular intervention was truly innovative or unique, this whole cycle becomes riddled with waste, and adds absolutely no value to the experience of the service user. Indeed, it actually impacts adversely on the ability of the organisation to deal effectively with relatively straightforward matters, as it limits the amount of time available to actually deal with the problem! The result is that effort is preoccupied with introverted recording activity and the public experience a sub-optimal service. Workers can either spend time doing the job, or writing about it; there are only still the same amount of hours in the day.
When the focus of the mandated activity is not actually based on any real evidence of a problem, or understanding of the statistical activity that provides a real insight into the situation (see my blogs on understanding systems and SPC charts), the demoralising fact is that not only does all this waste activity prevent us from providing the quality service we so desperately want to, but it was all for nothing, as there wasn’t really a problem in the first place. Even after the next ‘priority’ has supplanted the most recent issue, it is a sad fact that often no proper evaluation takes place, and the opportunity to learn and improve is therefore missed.
These examples are not limited to the policing environment, and of course there are many more examples of this third type of toxic organisational waste. The common thread that runs through this third type of waste is that these types of activities quietly grow within organisations, pushing value activity to the extremities as they expand. This is why it is critical that the test of whether the activity benefits the service user is constantly applied, and that those processes that do not meet the threshold are removed.
I am not advocating a simplistic ’scorched earth’ policy for all meetings or planning functions. Naturally there are some internal processes that are necessary without having obvious or immediate tangible benefits to the service user (e.g. payroll department) but there still has to be a review of proportionality in respect of whether these functions are undertaken effectively. The overarching argument is that if a function or process can be removed without detriment to the organisation or public, then it wasn’t necessary in the first place.
So, the third path to reducing waste and creating capacity is through ongoing examination of existing organisational processes, ensuring that those deemed necessary are maintained proportionately, and those that aren’t necessary are confronted and eradicated.
I argue that this approach to identifying and removing these three types of waste is a superior alternative to the traditional practice of ‘salami slicing’. Simply cutting budgets or staff posts without examining the work is futile and actually increases costs. Doing more with less, or the same with less, is a redundant doctrine as it simply means that organisations continue to operate in the same wasteful manner as before, with systems and processess that are clogged with waste. It is highly optimistic to expect a reduced workforce to maintain or even increase productivity whilst being expected to shoulder the burden of the waste in the system that hasn’t gone away. The reality is that productivity will decrease as there are less people mopping the floor and still no one has thought about turning off the tap.
When scrutinising current systems and processes it is important to appreciate that if waste is evident there is no point in tinkering around the edges. A few slight tweaks to a system that is laden with waste activity will make no difference to productivity. If waste is entering the system then the source must be traced as far upstream as possible and shut down. It is not a question of doing what we have always done but slightly better – if waste is found it must be eliminated, and if the existence of the process itself is untenable then it must go. Be radical.
By following this approach to identifying and eliminating waste, organisations can create huge capacity overnight. This additional capacity was always there, but was being consumed by doing the wrong things. Its liberation will result in enhanced performance, better service delivery and reduced costs. This opportunity awaits now – it’s simple, and free.
A final thought: Consider how bad things get when all three types of waste become entangled and waste begets waste. There’s a lot of it about. Act now.