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).
If 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.
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?