Great Expectations

Recently I had a minor prang in my beloved car. (I won’t go into detail for legal reasons, but I was neither texting, daydreaming about systems, nor changing dodgy 80s CDs in the CD player at the time it happened).

Poor ScoobyIf you look closely, you’ll see a snapped number plate (no that’s not my actual registration number), a few scratches and dents, plus the bonnet has been pushed back a bit on the passenger side. Don’t worry – it’ll live.

At least I was impressed with the prompt and friendly service at the bodyshop that my insurance company directed me to, and also relieved to find that I should be reunited with the Scoobmeister ‘in about a week’.

Anyway, a week passed. No update. I phoned up to chase what was happening (failure demand), to be told that it would be ready during the next few days. To cut a long story short, it’s been two and a half weeks now and I’m being told it will be next Monday before it is ready to be collected. During that time, I’ve phoned up another two times, and the projected completion date has been pushed back further each time.

Now, this is clearly not a matter of life of death. Neither is it a particularly unusual occurrence. The thing is though, that whilst I’ve been trundling around in my little courtesy car, struggling to overtake cyclists and pedestrians, my mind has been tormenting me with the systems lessons that you’d expect would haunt me.

Issue 1: First of all I wondered how much value work has occurred on my car whilst they’ve had it? (I actually know this now, because I asked – ‘about 16 hours’. So… that’s 16 hours divided by 12 working days – 96 hours – equalling 16.7% of the time. Or in other words, 83.3% of the time the process has been inactive). Not a good ratio. (This type of calculation is called Value Stream Analysis by the way. If you map any process you will identify where the waste occurs – usually in batching, queuing, passing the work between departments, waiting for authorisations, rework, retrospective inspection, and so on).

Solution: If you get rid of the waste, you tighten up the process and end up with a shorter end-to-end time, a larger percentage of value work, and a happier customer.

Issue 2: Next, when being told the reason for the delay is that they’ve ‘been busy’, it led me to wonder about whether they have designed their system to meet predictable demand in the first place. Did my car arrive amidst a sudden and unpredictable spike in repair jobs? Possible but unlikely. The situation is similar to the recorded messages you regularly have to endure whilst on hold to various types of ‘customer service’ desks – “We are experiencing an unusually high call volume at the moment”. No you’re not, otherwise you wouldn’t have that message recorded in the first place!

Solution: Understand the type and frequency of predictable demand and design your system to handle it.

Issue 3: When I was originally told it would take about a week before I’d have my car back, this must have either been an out-and-out guess, a deliberate over-estimation, or something unpredictable subsequently happened to render the one-week turnaround unachievable. Now, from speaking to staff I know it wasn’t the latter, so which of the others was it? I’d much rather be told from the outset, ‘This is going to take three weeks week mate”, (along with that hissing noise that mechanics make when they point out ‘it’s a big job’). It’s only about effectively managing expectations isn’t it? In any case, would it have hurt to have kept me updated with progress?

Solution: The system must always be designed to meet purpose from the perspective of the customer or service user. For example, the purpose here should be to repair my car quickly and do a good job of it. Result = Happy customer. In this case, I wonder what other ‘purposes’ were at work, skewing activity? Perverse incentives that put jobs initiated by insurance companies behind individual ‘paying’ customers? Targets? Conflicting interdepartmental priorities? Who knows.

car plant

Anyway, to wrap up I’m going to quote a comment I get thrown at me a lot when talking about systems thinking:

“It’s okay for car manufacturing, but this is the police / NHS / local government / other” (delete as applicable).

Load of nonsense. It’s okay for all of the above. Transplant the issues described into your own world. Think about it – cumbersome processes, failure demand, inefficiency, waste, badly-designed systems, disconnections, insufficient capacity to handle predictable demand, interdepartmental rivalries, perverse incentives, conflicting priorities, dysfunctional behaviour. Recognise any of this stuff?

Well, if you do, then at least don’t try and obscure the limitations of a badly-designed system by fobbing off your customers / service users with unrealistic promises about what it can achieve. It doesn’t work.

Now, where did I put that Hulk picture?

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About InspGuilfoyle

I am a serving Police Inspector and systems thinker. I am passionate about doing the right thing in policing. I have a big problem with numerical targets, unnecessary bureaucracy, and anything else that stops police officers from providing the best possible service. I believe that by adopting a systems approach, policing can be transformed beyond the wildest expectations of many.
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9 Responses to Great Expectations

  1. ijfoster says:

    Thanks for the insight, I hope it gets fixed. Lean has a place in service as well as manufacturing. The rework and waste as a process stalls in the intray is at a massive cost to the business. Your last comment on customer expectation is key, if you had the correct info you could plan and implement your side of the process more efficiently. As it is you process is affected by the other businesses inefficiencies.

  2. AngryofAlton says:

    All true Inspector, all true.
    What also infuriates me is the wasted money. How much is your hire car costing? how much does it cost to “store” your car at their premises?
    Did you turn up out of the blue, so that they didn’t know you were coming?!
    Did they not know how long it would take to supply the replacement parts?!
    If they knew you were coming and knew how long the parts would take to arrive, then why take your car off you way too early for the system to cope with. If it’s a 16 hour fix, then a half decent garage would keep your car for no longer than 3 days.
    Sadly, what you describe is completely typical of most break/fix systems. Refer back to your Taguchi curve for the predictable effects :-(

  3. Dave Hasney says:

    Once again a perfect analogy of why stuff is going so wrong within the police. Your concluding comment is the one that hits home to me; “…at least don’t try and obscure the limitations of a badly-designed system by fobbing off your customers.”

    This is a factor so prevelent within policing; senior managers making promises to the public and politicians that are neigh on impossible to achieve, instead of telling the truth. The result is that you automatically set yourself up to fail after giving the ‘customer’ unrealistic expectation.

    I’d love a fiver for every time some senior officer gave me a bollocking during my service…For telling the truth to the public!

  4. yo mo says:

    Commiseration on pranging your ‘jam jar’. And very bad luck to catch one of the front corners, damage in the crumple zone, always creates much more work than the exterior damage would suggest, it might need jigging and even the inner and outer wings might be distorted along with the scuttle. So that will need straightening, or cutting out and replacing, not to mention all the prep, two undercoats, two colour coats and lacquer and a 4 hour bake. A quick count, and there are about 5 or 6 delays in that process that are outside the control of the process owners, and they all have antecedents further up the chain to make them next to impossible to plan for.

    Your VSA is not quite true ;_) , it implies that the system has been idle for 80+%, but those resources have been deployed to other tasks. They may not have been working on your baby, but they were doing something else. There is a list of canonical ‘wastes’, but its not that simple in the real world. I don’t want to pull them all apart, batching can reduce transport/transit costs. [Milk rounding]. Queuing may be inherent, letting a tasty, tasty pie cool down before packing it. Mmn, pie……….. where was I?….. Ah yes, or it can help with load balancing. I’ll let you have rework though.

    Even if you can predict demand, car repairs for example will have a large diurnal shift, without a costless, elastic supply of personnel, through-time will at best increase, at worst the system will collapse. The G4$ circus during ‘Sports Day’ being a prime example. There will always be unforeseen peaks in demand, even it the best managed systems. The options are either run with extra underused capacity idling empty (Trumpton for example), or buy in extra capacity at an increased cost (Overtime, sorry to use that word).

    Where time is a commercial differentiator, there is a tendency to over promise, and then once the customer has no effective choice, then the excuses start. I once worked in a company where the ‘Sales tarts (all male)’ were giving out wildly inaccurate delivery dates. We eventually dragged them all into a meeting to discover what they were doing, (it got a bit ‘rugged’ as I remember and they all ‘enjoyed’ meetings without coffee afterwards).

    They had ‘evolved’ a ‘system’ based on the density of the product, not the complexity, but the weight multiplied by the volume. So in their ‘system’ if you could hold it in one hand, 7 days, two hands, 14 days etc. And while crude, was not the worst approximation ever. The problem was that was as far as their imagination went, and anything bigger was offered with 4-6 weeks delivery. (Not realistic when some products would fill a shipping container, and require 200 hours of post construction testing. A sample of which would have to be validated by customer representatives before shipment. A waste you might argue, but the logistics of returning a faulty product weighing several tonnes, was thought some what more problematic.)

    Customers will demand impossible things, and there is no way to win. Both lying and honesty have a potential reputational risk, in your example, the honest firm will lose trade because they appear to take too long, and the liars might win the business, but disappoint with their level of service. We are back to game theory, rather than a purely systems approach.

    In that vein, customer perception is a very odd thing, being efficient and fast can lead to customer dissatisfaction. After that outrageous statement I’d better come up with an example.
    Let’s say you have a blocked drain, and all the hot water and magic potions from B&Q won’t fix it. So you call the man in the van with the rods, you will have to pay a callout charge and agree a ongoing hourly rate. Let’s say £100 for the first bit, when he turns up you expect a bit of work done. If he turned up lifted one cover, gave it 30 seconds with the rod, and fixed the problem you’d feel a bit cheated.

    Because it looked so simple, not really a £100′s worth of effort, forgetting that despite appearances you have hired an expert. Who knows all about drainage systems, ancient and modern, where the problems are likely to be and how to fix them. A fully trained professional, who studied at college, and spent a long badly paid apprenticeship, while his mother took in washing to make ends meet, to finally earn his turd-wrangling certificate, proudly displayed on his bathroom wall, (well where else would you put it?) There is just no pleasing some people.

    Trying to keep this in sequence. Customer communication is important, but it is very difficult to get right. There is no precise recipe, some people are needy, some fairly chilled, the first will never get enough calls, the latter will wonder why you keep calling.

    The failure to meet expectations is most often rooted in a failure to set expectations with the supplier, both sides need to be clear on what is required and what can be delivered.

    This has got too long, and I didn’t get to your last paragraph, damn. I’d better stop because I can hear the plaintive cry of beers in the fridge crying out to be responsibly enjoyed. But I’ll ask this question.

    How far does the category ‘other’ go? Are you arguing universal applicability?

    • Thanks for another fullsome and considered response. I enjoy your alternative perspectives and humour, although I always think of a line from a Pet Shop Boys album track that goes, “If I said black was white you’d say it was grey’. ;-)

      I’m also impressed that your polymath-like knowledge extends even to accident damage repair; something that is not my forte at all.

      In response, I’d say that I agree about waste being less codified in real life than, say, Ohno’s 7 types – I take a much softer line on that than I do with ARBITRARY targets for example. Re the unforeseen peaks you mention, again quite right, but this is all about designing to meet predictable demand. Lastly, I’d say that ‘yes’, broadly speaking, the ‘other’ applies universally to systems, unless I’m shown examples to the contrary.

      The main thing is though, you are my all-time most prolific blog commenter. Come on, email me and tell me who you are!!

  5. Is the workshop’s system really that badly designed?

    If they had said to you that it would take 2-3 days work to repair, but they couldn’t fit you in for a few weeks, you might have gone elsewhere – maybe to a garage that was happy to over-promise?

    The risk of over-promising is that you don’t get the repeat business. Hopefully you’re not going to have to go back there again. But I guess you were using a workshop offered by your insurance company? In which case, who is the real customer: you or the insurance company? I suspect insurance companies have measures such as time to book a slot, etc, and will also be ‘touting’ around for the best offers from workshops for business, so there will be pressure on workshops to offer a certain number of slots within a prompt timeframe. The insurance company’s customers won’t be happy if they have to wait too long for a repair.

    I’m sure there will also be measures about the time and cost to complete a repair, with benchmarks for the most common jobs. Obviously, if you end up with a hire car for 3 weeks when the job should only have taken 3 days, you won’t be happy and the insurance company will be out of pocket. However, I suspect there are plenty of excuses that could readily be proffered to explain delays. For example, I note you drive a rather exclusive foreign marque, so parts may be unexpectedly out of stock and then have to be ordered in from a long way away?

    If the workshop has a deal with the car hire firm, then there may be a profit motive that encourages jobs to be drawn out. Lots of people such as lawyers, recovery companies, claims adjusters, private health firms, etc, all have an interest in ambulance chasing your claim, and it’s not a problem If everything’s on insurance anyway! The plot thickens somewhat if your insurance company also owns the workshop where the repairs are being done, and employ the solicitors who progress your claim through the legal expenses insurance you bought, and own the recovery company, and have also insured the other party. But that’s for another time and place.

    …On the other hand, it may just be that a couple of staff went sick unexpectedly, and a vital part had to be shipped from Japan (strange, we usually have plenty in stock…)

    • Yes, I had to take it to an ‘approved garage’ as directed to the insurance company. Fancy suggesting that perverse incentives may have been an influencing factor, rather than just a badly designed system… How cynical! ;-)

  6. dictadicit says:

    Actually, I think it is also not so good for the car repair shop to have your car standing around for so long. A car takes up a lot of space – which needs to be provided. So the repair shop has to maintain a parking lot or garage. In times where every manufacturing plant tries to minimize stock (as stock binds money, but also needs space to be stocked in), it seems strange to hoard damaged cars for no good reason.

  7. Pingback: When is enough, enough? | Wouldn't It Be Nice If….

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