Improving Efficiency in Lean Times


by Jamie Stannard


 

Do more with less. Sounds familiar, right? As pressures continue to rise, we ask our support center and desktop support teams to take on more incidents with fewer resources and smaller budgets. And even though they’re being squeezed, we still expect them to maintain the same quality of service.

Some of the most effective techniques for doing more with less come from lean management. Using these techniques, I’ve been able to mobilize my teams while maintaining or improving morale and customer satisfaction. But where do you start? How do you identify the areas that will have the biggest return? In this article, I’ll share what I’ve discovered and what’s helped my teams successfully reduce waste and become more efficient.

Identify and Categorize

It’s not hard to find processes or procedures that need improvement; it is, however, hard to narrow that list down and focus on the improvements that will have the greatest impact. I recommend using a simple four-quadrant matrix to create a shortlist of potential improvements.

The columns separate the activities that do and do not add value. Value-added activities can be any process/operation that shapes or transforms a product/service into something customers are willing to pay for. Conversely, non-value-added activities are process steps that take up time, resources, or space, but do not transform or shape the product/service sold to the customer. The most important thing to remember when categorizing your activities as value-added or non-value-added is to look at them from the customer’s perspective. To do this, you have to clearly identify the target customer; for example, is this customer an internal employee or an external client? Once you’ve identified this target customer, consider how they might pay for the activity: cash, internal funds transfer, barter (swapping resources/services), etc. The actual form the payment takes isn’t important, but you don’t want to rule out noncash payments as a value-add either.

Once you’ve categorized your activities as value-added or non-value-added, consider necessity. The rows separate the activities that are and are not necessary to the business. Necessary activities are those that are required based on law, company policy, or common sense. (Avoid the “that’s how we’ve always done it” trap at all costs—just because that’s how you’ve always done it, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s actually necessary for your business.) Let’s look at an example. The customer in this case is an external client. Based on the table below, what might the customer see as a value-added activity?

Would the customer pay for an agent’s time to document troubleshooting information in a ticket? What about developing a fix for a software bug? Some customers want their information to be correct in the tracking system and are willing to pay for the time this takes; some aren’t. The same goes for software development. Do your best to categorize activities based on how you think your customers might feel about them. Once you’ve identified them as value-added or non-value-added, determine whether or not the activities are necessary to the business.

Now that your matrix is complete, you can start prioritizing and taking action. First, the two easiest steps: eliminate the activities that add no value and aren’t necessary, and look for ways to improve on the activities that both add value and are necessary. Next, focus on the two areas that require more research: non-value-added/necessary and value-added/non-necessary. Non-value-added/necessary activities brings no value to your customer, so they should take as little time and effort as possible. There really should be no activities in the value-added/non-necessary category. Even if your company sees these activities as necessary, challenge that perception and, if possible, eliminate those activities. Take, for example, a customer who’s requesting extra reporting and is willing to pay for the time it takes to develop and generate the report. If this won’t bring significant revenue to your company (i.e., it’s a value-add for one customer but not all customers), you should challenge this activity because it’s not really necessary.

Once you’ve freed up time and resources by eliminating activities that aren’t necessary and/or add no value, the next step is improving the remaining activities.

Identifying and Eliminating Waste

Taiichi Ohno, the father of the Toyota Production System and lean management, identified seven wastes in daily process and procedures. He believed that if you could identify and reduce waste in your daily processes and procedures, then you would be more efficient (i.e., able to do more with less). While it’s important to remember that lean management originated in the manufacturing environment, it translates well to the transactional support environment. Understanding how the seven wastes translate to support can help you improve the activities you identified by building your matrix.

  1. Inventory: In manufacturing, inventory is any completed product that is waiting to be sold or used. In a transactional support environment, inventory can be defined as an open incident, a call waiting in queue, or a voicemail. Inventory in itself is waste; you should strive to have no inventory. Processing incidents using a one-piece-flow method is the most efficient way to provide just-in-time service. You can also reduce excess inventory by adjusting your agents’ shifts to meet customer demand or implementing self-service for call avoidance.
  2. Waiting: Any time spent waiting or not providing service to a customer is time wasted. In a no-wait environment, all agents would have 100% utilization rates. However, because it’s impossible to create a perfectly load-balanced schedule and resource pool (since you have no way of knowing when customers are going to require service), you should focus on reducing, not eliminating, waiting as much as possible. One example is an agent waiting for a screen to refresh. It sounds simple, but I challenge you to calculate the amount of time your team spends waiting for their screens to refresh and determine how much that’s costing you. How much time, effort, and money might you save by improving processing time?
  3. Quality Defects: In support, a quality defect could be defined as a bug in released software, incorrect data logged in an incident ticket, or bad replacement parts. Reducing quality defect waste requires team effort and common quality control processes.
  4. Overprocessing: Overprocessing waste is commonly the result of unnecessary approvals (“that’s how we’ve always done it” strikes again!). Challenge yourself to review your approval processes. Is the approval necessary? Can we empower our agents to make more decisions on their own? Any time you hear “that’s how we’ve always done it,” you should take notice and challenge.
  5. Transportation: This type of waste is common among desktop support teams. How much time is spent walking from place to place? Is there a way to centralize service to reduce transit time? For support agents, transportation waste is generated by transferring tickets from one place to another. How much time and effort would be saved by not having to transfer tickets?
  6. Overproduction: A good example of overproduction is a knowledge base with too many articles. Relevant knowledge base articles are helpful, of course, but how much agent time is wasted by having to sift through unnecessary or outdated knowledge base articles? Ask your agents how long it takes them to find the correct information to resolve an incident. Is there any way to speed up this process?
  7. Motion: Unlike transportation, which involves moving yourself or objects from one location to another, motion accounts for the movement of your body while completing task. Closing and opening windows or copy and pasting between different applications could be defined as motion waste.

Calculate Improvements

After determining which areas to focus your improvement efforts on, try to quantify the potential value of the improvement. Take the time to fully identify and understand the actual waste in your processes, as well as the potential impact of waste reduction. You’ll be amazed with the results! Here are two real-world examples.

Transportation

An administrator processes, on average, 20 RMAs per day. For each RMA, a form must be filled out and faxed back before a replacement can be authorized. The printer is forty feet from the administrator’s desk; the fax machine is ten feet from the printer. The administrator will have to walk a total of 100 feet (50 ft. to the fax machine + 50 ft. back to the desk) to complete the RMA process. As we just learned, transportation is one of the seven wastes. If we make certain assumptions about the relationship between time and distance, how much time was being wasted processing an RMA? By implementing electronic faxing, we were able to save forty-five hours and 480,000 feet of walking per year!

Motion

Each member of our forty-person support team was required to log incident troubleshooting notes in two separate tracking systems. The average amount of time it took to copy and paste this information was eighteen seconds. At first glance, this motion waste didn’t seem to have a significant impact. However, when we crunched the numbers, we were shocked at the extent of the team’s motion waste. The team as a whole spent a total of thirty-five hours per week just copy and pasting! We worked with IT to implement an automated replication solution that saved the company the equivalent of one full-time team member.

Measure, Sustain, and Repeat

The first important step to be successful is to take the time to identify and categorize your areas for improvement. This will give you a blueprint to follow. Then, measure your current state to get a benchmark; as you make improvements, take new measurements and compare them to this benchmark.

Remember, change is neither natural nor comfortable. You will encounter resistance. How you manage and lead past this resistance will be the key to your success. Find champions who can support and promote your improvements to help you to sustain the change. Finally, never stop looking for areas to improve. Continuous improvement is the cornerstone of a good lean management initiative. Even the smallest wins can add up—start doing more with less today!

 

Jamie Stannard is currently the director of support services at Thinkgate. Jamie has more than eighteen years of experience in his greatest passion, technical support. He’s a Master Black Belt in TPI and he’s earned his HDI Support Center Manager and Knowledge-Centered Support: KCS Principles certifications. Jamie became a member of HDI in 2000 and he is the VP of special events and president-elect for the HDI Atlanta local chapter. Jamie received his MBA from Kennesaw State University and his BS/BA in business from Central Michigan University. 

Tag(s): continual service improvement, leadership, organizational change management, process-improvement, support center

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