Beware of Invisible Waste!


When analyzing and improving processes, it is often very valuable to understand customer demand and focus on reducing waste. Wasteful activities include those that do not add value from a customer’s perspective, and those that are unnecessary, convoluted or duplicated. There will always be some necessary supporting activities that fall under the strict definition of waste, but the general principle is to reduce and remove as many wasteful activities as possible.

When observing a manufacturing process on a factory floor, waste can be very visible. When a piece of part-finished product is left waiting, you see it. When stock is over or under-ordered, you see it. When a workstation is organized ineffectively (so the worker cannot find their tools), it is easy for a trained eye to spot.

Yet, increasingly we may be looking to optimize information-rich processes. Imagine "optimizing" the process a call center worker utilizes when providing an insurance quote to a customer over the phone. It would be easy to think that the factors mentioned above—levels of stock, arrangement of the worker's desk—might not apply. Yet in reality these, along with many other factors, continue to be extremely important and warrant consideration. Take the following 4 examples:

1. Incorrect tools for the job

This is as relevant for information processing as well as the production of physical goods. It is valuable to assess whether the worker ha s access to the right software—and if they do, does the software provide them with the data and information that they need to effectively do the job? Is the software flexible enough to help them respond to the customers’ real needs?

2. Invisible inventory

Often in information processing, inventory will be equated with some kind of backlog—a tray of post or a queue of calls for example. These are undoubtedly worth considering, but there is one other significant factor that is very easy to forget: E -mail. Often e-mail traffic includes direct customer queries, responses as well as inter-office communication, news and updates. Some teams use e-mail as a repository for notes and guidance, and time is then spent finding the relevant guidance note when it is needed. One challenge with e-mail is that it's invisible. If you walked past somebody's desk and they had 500 memos stacked in an unorganized in-tray, you'd be surprised. Yet, I'm sure many of us have experienced times when we've had an 'invisible inventory' of hundreds of e-mails that we are working through .

3. Conflicting guidance

Sometimes, people on the front line may be presented with daily dilemmas as they are given conflicting priorities by middle management. An overzealous team leader may incentivize staff for the number of calls they take and encourage short-cuts to be taken, whilst official guidance stresses the need for quality. This leads to a decision needing to be made in every case: "Do I do this quickly, do I do it the official way, or do I choose another way"? These kinds of dilemma, whilst being stressful for the person involved (who may feel they are under pressure to do things quickly rather than properly) also create inconsistent customer experience. Far better to empower front line workers with flexible guidance underpinned by values and a culture of accountability.

4. Shadow processes

We may find sometimes that entire “shadow” activities or processes have emerged. They appear in no formal process manual, but represent the way things really happen. They have often been created for very good reason, often because previous process and change projects did not consider the real customer needs or process impact. Yet, since they are below the radar, there is a real danger something will fall between the gaps or there may be elements of inefficiency and waste. We may even find that these processes are underpinned by unofficial applications developed by end-users in a desperate attempt to provide better service for the customer. Yet if customer data is being manipulated in spreadsheets or local databases without relevant controls, this presents a whole range of potential compliance and security risks.

In order to identify and analyze these points, it is important to carefully consider the elicitation and investigation techniques that we use. A mixture of interviews , workshops and observation would be important, alongside other techniques like document analysis and even some form of quantitative analysis. However, building rapport with the key stakeholders and users and understanding the way things really work is probably the most important.

In summary: assessing customer demand and understanding waste is extremely useful in information-rich processes. This involves us working with our end-users and stakeholders to gain a rich understanding of how the work is actually carried out. We should be on guard for invisible waste, and work with the team to find ways to combat it.