Monday, 19 May 2014

Operational effectiveness

Any manager will at some point have worried about achieving reliability and efficiency in delivering a service. There’s a powerful combination of two established management tools which can help you.

The first tool is to use Standard Operating Procedures – SOPs. This isn't (just) an instruction manual for how to do something. It’s also a set of habits which keeps that recipe card current. Here’s how.

Document the procedure – and have it done by those who actually operate it. SOPs are common in laboratories and in manufacturing processes – here's guidance from the US EPA which includes examples – but they also apply to administrative processes, and particularly those which use complex databases or other IT systems. SOPs should articulate the critical steps; and identify any choices that the operator has to make, and the parameters for those choices. They should also not be so long that they become unusable.

Have the procedure reviewed and signed off by a senior member of staff, not involved in its drafting – the head of section or, if it's a small team, their manager. This is so that the process has formal authority as well as the expert authority that comes from the knowledge of its authors. It also means that any organisational or resourcing issues have to be addressed. And finally, it shows that the SOP is serious: make the sign-off process a real hurdle, and people will see that it matters.

Include in the document the reasons for the steps. Tell people why something matters and they are more likely to do it. Robert Cialdini reports a fantastic example of this in his book ‘Influence’, reporting on work done by Ellen Langer of Harvard University. Ellen Langer conducted experiments in which she asked people queuing to use a photocopier if she could push in.

  • When the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I'm in a rush? 94% let her go ahead of them
  • When the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine? only 60% let her go ahead of them
  • And when the question was Excuse me, I have five pages. May I use the Xerox machine because I have to make some copies? 93% let her go ahead of them

So when you give a reason – because – you get much more agreement. And note that the reason doesn't even have to be a good one – ‘because I'm in a rush’ and ‘because I have to make some copies’ get pretty much the same response, but the second reason adds no extra information. Why stand in a photocopier queue if you don’t want to make copies? So use a because and people will more likely notice.

Train people in using the procedure. It doesn't have to be a full day's training session, but at least talk them through the procedure; let them ask questions; observe and coach if they're unsure.

Set a review date; stick to that date; and involve those who operate the procedure in the review. Keep the procedure current; make sure you take account of any other organisational or priority changes which might impact; and learn from the experience of operating the procedure.  What tips and wrinkles have the operators identified? What would they change to make it better?

So that’s the first tool – standard operating procedures.

The second tool comes from Lean thinking, and is both simple and devastatingly powerful. It’s about identifying the nature of the tasks to be done, and makes the following distinction.

  • Runners are tasks that occur on a daily basis, and are of sufficient volume to justify having a specific process to deal with them
  • Repeaters are tasks that occur on a regular basis, but not frequently, and are not part of the day-to-day business of the organisation
  • Strangers are tasks that occur infrequently

Now apply this distinction to a standard operating procedure. Does a single procedure try to cope with too many different types of event? Are you dealing with repeaters and strangers when you could be focusing only on runners? This can lead to delays where questions get passed around the organisation, and bottlenecks are created in workflow. I've seen this happen in processes around the student journey, where one non-standard case delays processing a whole batch of students, resulting in disproportionate problems.

The trick is to design the bottlenecks out. Make the procedure work for one specific task. If there’s another task which occurs, have another procedure. You can’t make apple pie with a recipe for blancmange. And make sure that you have triage at an early stage: work out if a case has the right features to be dealt with by a given procedure. If it has, then process it. If it doesn't, then refer it elsewhere. Just like a hospital, making sure that the broken bones go to the fracture clinic, and the blocked ears go to ENT.

And there you have it. Think about runners, repeaters and strangers, to make sure that your procedures have the right scope and focus. And then write and use a standard operating procedure to improve quality and reliability.

Good luck!

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