The World Today
Dealing with customers and service users can be wearying and time-consuming. This is true in every sector of UK business (except transformation consultancy, where every customer is a joy), but particularly true in the UK public and not-for-profit sectors where, generally, organisations are not free to pick and choose their service users. If someone presents to A&E they have to be dealt with (if only to persuade them to go somewhere else). If someone moves into a property, the council has to engage with respect to Council Tax, anti-social behaviour and provision of school places, no matter how difficult the person is to contact. Police services generally see themselves as the back-stop for the public sector; if all other services pass-up the opportunity to engage with a member of the public, the police may well have to get involved.
What this means is that, unlike the private sector – where business can, to a degree, choose their customers – public and not-for profit organisations have to engage with all service users, irrespective of their ability or willingness to speak to you. However, with the pressure to reduce costs and improve service levels, these same organisations are seeking to standardise or automate customer interactions. Whether it is a housing association handling tenancy issues, or council Adult Social Care teams managing demand, there is pressure to speed up interactions, move to self-service, self-directed support, self-something else, or automation of actions.
From a Lean perspective, this is a good thing and bad thing. On the one hand, making processes faster, slicker and more customer-focused is clearly a good thing for both the service user and the organisation. On the other hand, introducing another barrier to get through before speaking to someone who can actually help you is not good. Equally, using a slicker front-end, with the implicit promise that the back- end is also slicker, is less effective if all we have done is find a way of getting things into a queue faster, rather than getting things done and out of the queue faster.
There is much discussion amongst Lean experts in the public sector about whether contact centres are actually a ‘good idea’ or not. In one sense, for the simpler customer demands, the ability to be dealt with quickly and have an issue resolved at first point of contact is clearly of benefit for everyone. As a customer however, if the first person I speak to is not able to resolve my issue, then contact centres can just present an extra wait whilst the person who has answered my call is trying to speak to the person I actually wanted to answer my call. Call lengths rise and messages are left with a promise to the customer that ‘Mrs AN Other will phone you back as soon as she is free’. How often that happens I will leave to your own imagination.
However, even contact centres are proving expensive when dealing with those pesky customers. The procurement of premises, equipment, staff, etc. means that the cost of a single contact centre interaction can be 20 times higher than the same customer achieving the same aim through web access and self-service.
The language of transformation is now digital, with the need for web portals, mobile technology, digital strategy and digital inclusion resounding across many organisations. However, as anyone who has completed the Ad Esse paper plane exercise will know (and if you haven’t, then get yourself onto one of our seminars), just improving a bit of the process makes no sense unless it means more output, or a better quality output, from the end of the process. Our Lean terminology talks about Value Streams (from customer demand to the satisfactory meeting of the customer need). Value Stream Mapping looks at all the activities along the whole end-to-end process, mapping the steps, the resources required to complete the steps, the capacity of each step, the queues at each step and the management of flow between each step. We know that getting work through the first half of a process faster, just so it can sit in front of the bottleneck longer, is actually worse than having a slow process to get things to the bottleneck. If your new digital strategy is not looking at the end-to-end provision of a service then you may make things worse rather than better.
Equally, the use of mobile technology means that clients often make a bad process faster rather then producing a good process. In our social housing clients, many of them currently have mobile-working strategies, introducing tablets and PDAs to digitise the work previously done with a paper and pen.
Unfortunately, without a Lean review of the end-to-end process, they can end up automating steps that a proper Lean review would have removed anyway. One example involves the use of surveyors for pre-inspection of work by a contractor, post-inspection of work by a contractor, and even mid-work inspection. Some housing providers have spent lots of cash finding ways of replacing these inspection forms with complex web documents updated via mobile phone networks, whereas others have removed the need for the inspections by relying on contractors’ inspections or just trusting a contractor to get on with the work and do it well. All too often, mobile technology is a solution looking for a problem rather than the solution to a specific process problem that cannot be resolved any other way.
So What Does All This Mean?
Our view of improvement is very simple. Define value for the customer. Work out the most efficient way of delivering that value to the customer. Then look at the technology (if any) that most reliably delivers that value. If I want to renew my library book, then why not let me log in to the ‘My Account’ web portal at midnight (which is when I usually stop writing articles for Actuality) and renew it. This is low cost for the council and faster for me.
However, if the whole process is not automated or digital, it is imperative to map the complete process from need to fulfilment of need and to understand the value stream from end to end. If most of the work required to meet the need is real people, doing real work in a real office then our experience is that there is more benefit to be gained from applying your transformation skills and Lean Thinking to this element of the process than just getting the customer need to the office faster. Once there are hand-offs between different functions, and decisions to be made, processes can slow down dramatically. The Value Add Ratio (the amount of value adding work to complete a single customer need divided by the complete end-to-end cycle time to deliver the output) of most processes is less than 1%. Most things spend a lot longer waiting to be worked on than being worked on. Because of this, doing the doing faster is pointless if we don’t address the waiting. Getting information from a surveyor in 15 minutes rather than half a day is pointless if the current process means it then sits in a queue for a week. Equally, using a mobile device to automate a non-value adding step (like getting authorisation) is of less value than challenging why we need to wait for someone to authorise something that happens every day and always ends up being authorised. Addressing these other wastes will save you money and deliver a speedier, more predictable process.
Customers and service users may be frustrating, but our processes add to that frustration. If you want to improve, then review and challenge your end-to-end process and the value it adds rather than looking for simple digital solutions that may promise, but not deliver. At the end of the day, it may be that hands and brains can still solve more of your problems than can digital.