A huge number of businesses are still functioning with a distributed workforce, working from home and largely delivering what they have always delivered. Are they using the same processes though? I strongly suspect many businesses have reviewed what people do and eliminated many tasks that are expected when people are in work, but become impossible when they are at home. The question this creates is if these tasks are not essential when people work from home, are they needed at all?
This is a great opportunity to think carefully about the tasks we do each day and ask how much value they really add. There is much to learn from remote working, some of our time is taken up with tasks that are done because “we have always done it that way”. Two phrases that come to mind in this situation are
“Necessity is the mother of invention”
“When needs must, the devil drives”
Why are these important?
We have seen some incredible efforts to do new things, for example Formula 1 teams designing ventilators, engineering companies manufacturing ventilators, ordinary people using 3D printers to make facemasks, cosmetics companies manufacturing hand sanitiser.
When we have an overriding imperative we embrace our ability to be resourceful and inventive. Suddenly staff working from home is not a risk to productivity, it is a vital contribution to saving lives. Many managers and workers have found themselves working from home and needing to find new ways to communicate, new ways to manage their time, and are having to adjust their priorities to fit everything in. Inevitably some tasks are not a high priority in this situation. Now if those tasks are not significant in a crisis, how critical are they to the business overall? It is a question we should all ask, often we are too busy spinning the wheel to ask why we are doing it. This creates several wastes such as overprocessing (e.g. duplication of effort), waiting (sometimes for things that don’t really matter), motion (physical transfer of forms), defects (errors caused by rushing or distraction). We are also becoming more aware of pockets of overburden and unevenness in our organisations, as we observe people looking at new ways of working. As we decide some things are not important for now, perhaps we should consider if those tasks should be retired permanently.
Lacking access to meeting rooms and face to face meeting time has forced us to look at alternative meeting formats, for example Zoom, Google hangouts, Microsoft teams meetings. For many these technologies have been available for some time but have been shunned because they are new or “that’s not how we do it around here”. Needs must however, and now we find ourselves embracing new formats, new platforms and new behaviours. There is an opportunity in these new technologies; perhaps instead of everyone going to a specific room at a specific time for a meeting, we can use Teams to meet virtually at that time. If that saves five minutes at the start of the meeting and ten minutes at the end, for a daily meeting that is sixty hours a year per attendee. Five people in the meeting amounts to 300 hours per year. What could you do with that time? Another benefit of a virtual meeting might be a greater focus on the information that is being shared. Perhaps we can become more attentive to the business information, and in doing so think more carefully about how to present the required information in manner that is clear and accessible. Another example is accounting packs. Do we really need to prepare ten accounting packs, print them out and send them out to all attendees? Or do we need to prepare a single report in a teams folder and give everyone the same time to read the important information before the meeting. If you produce ten accounting packs a month, with let’s say 30 pages, that is a paper saving of over 7 reams of paper a year for one meeting. Not huge, but again why us eit if you don’t need to?
It is when you start multiplying all these benefits by the number of meetings and tasks across the whole business that your capacity problem becomes clearer. I often hear people say we don’t have time to improve, or e are already fully loaded. They also spend a considerable amount of time each day reworking tasks and replacing defects; do you not have enough time to fix your process? How much time and money could be saved by getting things right first time? Your investment in right first time will pay off.
If we reduce the demand for staff, what do we do with them?
This is a critical point and it is where many businesses kill their improvement programmes. They discover the tasks can be done with less staff and lay them off. They can do the same with less. Short term this is a cost saving, no doubt about it, but long term what is the impact on process improvement? Will your staff give their best efforts to improve the process if it endangers their livelihood? Would you? And what of the skills they take with them, they will undoubtedly use those skills in their next role, which could be with your competitor. Now think about this again. What happens if you use the time crated to increase capacity and grow the business. Redeploy them to relieve bottlenecks in other areas, retrain them to develop new capabilities, think more of their capabilities and potential than their cost. While the business is growing you can use all those staff who you have just trained in improvement techniques to find improvements in other areas. You will gain even more capacity, reduce costs and improve lead time. Exactly what you have been doing to cope in this time of crisis. A bonus is that you will also create a continuous improvement group from within your own staff.
When we go back to a more normal life, it will be tempting to resume all of the tasks we have been happily living without. Old meeting styles will be like an old favourite coat, comfortable and familiar. Consider this as you return to a business life after this crisis; you are able to choose what waste you reintroduce to your processes. Do you take the opportunity to adopt new ways of working and discard wasteful process steps, or do you limit the effectiveness of your operation? The organisations that let go of the activities that they have discovered were not necessary will thrive and grow in the wake of COVD19. We all need to thrive and grow, so I encourage you to create a new normal.
You have an opportunity to take the things you learn from coping in this crisis and use them to strengthen your business, create a continuous improvement culture and improve not only your immediate prospects, but also your long term future. Or not. I’ll leave you with this thought, W Edwards Deming said it best
“You do not need to change, survival is not mandatory.”