Friday, 20 June 2014

Operations File: The Art of Tweaking - 10 Steps to Efficient Working

There is no question in my mind that the smaller an organisation the easier it is to review, assess and analyse faults and identify inefficiencies. The fewer parts there are in any machine or system the fewer points of failure it can have or develop. It becomes a relatively quick process to fix a problem, to reorganise a system, to develop it or add and expand it.

Faults, spanners in the works, inefficiencies can only be in a limited number of places in the smaller enterprise operating in isolation. For larger concerns (including government departments and banks) such challenges become ever more complicated to nail down to just one cause as several factors are always in play at any one point. Put simply, problems multiple proportionately according to complexity of the systems devised. This situation is exacerbated when prior expansion plans were not thought through or could not predict excessive demand and no contingency plan was considered.

Leaving aside health and social care (the subject for a future blog) this blog outlines the basic principles for any other organisation. The reason to separate health and social care is because the effect of changes are far more complex as real lives are at stake and the entire history of such services has to be taken into account. It merits a more detailed understanding.

Signs of overload

Hands up all those who have encountered difficulty getting through to the right person in the right department to resolve a problem; from supplies of raw materials to contractors and delays in applications for funding, loans, getting repairs done and all manner of bureaucratic tick boxes to wade through – all hold us up in our endeavours. This is nothing new, the only thing that has changed is our lack of patience. I am no exception to this at all though I do try to be.

With increased demand comes a higher risk of inefficiency, mistakes and delays exponentially speaking. With increased inefficiency comes an increase in frustrations, complaints and overloading systems and ultimately... collapse. The solution is to calm down. The expedient to deploy is forward planning.

However when a crisis occurs forward planning is not the priority and if no contingency plan has been anticipated for any particular situation it can result in a recipe for disaster. The only way to cure inefficiency is to work methodically through all the following steps.

10 Steps to Cure Inefficiency

Step 1: Identify areas of high risk of overload – they are your priority.

Step 2: Identify specific labour intensive, time consuming tasks – they are areas that need attention.

Step 3: Look at the whole system to see if some faults are occurring everywhere – if so do they have the same root cause?

Step 4: Identify where and how duplicated effort occurs and why – opportunities to simplify should start to become self evident.

Step 5: Identify what still works efficiently and why – you’re going to need to protect it to continue to work.

Step 6: Research ways in which to simplify tasks and reduce duplicated effort that will suit your workforce and its way of working – there’s no point trying to get staff to work in a way that causes stress or worse, disinterest – and discuss options with all staff.

Step 7: Propose a 3 phase plan of action to the workforce and amend according to priority of need for each and every department.

Step 8: Finalise plan of action and set target dates for each phase.

Step 9: Monitor, review and adapt each phase as it is being implemented.

Step 10: Start planning how the new system can be modified and developed for expansion and don’t forget to design a contingency plan to prevent panic should it need to downsize – it substantially reduces risks of stress which enables people to adjust more easily.

All this sounds simple but in practice it requires the full co-operation of everyone, patience and commitment. Just a surgeon wishes to avoid snagging a lung when operating on a heart, success depends largely on NOT disturbing what works as little as possible. The key steps I find that commonly get glossed over or totally ignored are Step 5 – identify what does work and why, and Step 6 – research and discuss with staff. You can delegate or take the first 5 steps in any order it you like, but ensure you do them all thoroughly. 

In one overhaul of systems the instruction came to me to “change everything!” This came from staff and managers alike. What followed was the eradication of duplicated tasks by different departments, increased access of information that anyone needed to do their work. This didn’t mean all information was made available, merely that which was relevant to each department with the addition of overviews from other departments.

During the transitional period staff found that they had to relinquish some responsibilities and take up new ones, but by asking staff beforehand this was achieved amicably so that it all worked out rather well. It did so because things were not such much overhauled as methodically, systematically tweaked into working at every stage of the process across the whole operation at the same time. The result was an overhaul. Everyone was behind it because they totally understood both the risks and the benefits throughout the process.

The practicalities of tweaking is more of a specialism of the staff than managers in practice but only when managers are on top of the whole picture so that they can highlight pitfalls to avoid and reinforce the long-term objectives. They co-ordinate the whole, but it’s the staff that make it happen. Regular updates are vital during any transitional period so that no one department races ahead before others are ready to. If one department is lagging behind to achieve its targets, the others who are waiting for them should help by teaming up with them which increases unity in any workforce.

Efficiency to me automatically means less stress in the workplace and always entails empowering all parties to utilise their skills to their full potential. Collectively we can and do devise solutions that benefit all. In isolation we can only devise systems that will suit a few.

Hard work need never be devoid of fun so enjoy the Art of Tweaking your way to a less stressful and more successful stress free future!

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