In this article we discuss we four issues that businesses commonly experience around their people-driven processes and discuss ways they can be dealt with.
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Challenge 1 - Dealing with client demand
Businesses tend to struggle to predict demand, describing it as patchy, with hugely busy periods followed by quieter periods. To further complicate matters, staff book holidays and could be off sick, all leading to issues such as work load, staff burnout, labour utilisation, skills availability and productivity.
We are typically asked, “How do you stabilise demand across the team, whilst still delivering great client service and being productive?”
Firstly, we have listed questions below to allow you to better understand the context of the variation in demand you are facing. They will help the selection of one or more of the proposed solutions we list further.
What type of work is being performed?
Does it require high or low skills to perform the work?
Are decisions made discretionary knowledge based, or simple rules based?
What type of training is required for employees - short and basic or long and complex?
What level of supervision is required?
Is it low due to high skills being needed to process the work, or is it high due to low skills being needed to produce the work?
The key point here relates to understanding the work and segmenting it to a granular level. This will give you more options to find solutions and respond to demand changes.
For work types with high demand variation, what skill is the main constraint? For example, across conveyancing processes, the task 'approve contract' requires high skill. The other tasks are mainly rules-based and can be performed by low-skill staff. Therefore, finding and training staff to perform the basic tasks is usually easy, but finding staff to perform high-skill tasks is usually more complex and time consuming.
Whilst we always analyse the issues by asking the above questions to develop bespoke solutions, rather than jumping to solutions, in this blog we will break that rule and simply set out some common strategies to assist your business.
Here are some of the common improvement actions to consider when responding to changes in demand.
Increase customer participation and self-service
Introducing self-service can be time consuming and costly, but consider the benefits. What proportion of the demand can be reduced by customers completing tasks themselves instead of contacting the company?
Consider an online knowledge base with a collection of:
Password reset capabilities
Online ordering and payment
The ability to log a service request
Community forums for customers to share information and provide helpful tips
Bots to help customers fix problems or respond to status and software updates
Maximise efficiency and cross-train
The most overlooked solution probably relates to efficiency and cross-training, but it has the biggest long-term benefits.
For efficiency, analyse the process to establish the skills required to perform the work, and where every second of paid time is being used. Where there is paid time being used on non-value adding tasks, there will be opportunities to digitise and automate rules-based tasks.
For cross-training, consider tasks needed to maintain the response times. Identify other functions where capacity is not constrained, cross-train those people and bring them into the service when needed. This solution gives staff from other functions the chance to see, feel and understand what front line workers have to deal with every day. With more eyes on the process, more innovation takes place and overall organisation capability improves.
Don't be surprised to find your processes contain 90% non-value adding activity. If you could find only 10% to 20% capacity quickly, what difference would it make to managing demand and what financial benefits would be achieved?
Review your pricing in regards to demand during peak periods and non-peak periods. It’s the same principle as the cheaper ‘off-peak’ train tickets to stabilise passenger numbers. If this strategy wasn't used every peak train would be rammed and the network unable to cope.
Developing non-peak demand
Many companies wrestle with ideas to increase volume during periods of low demand, especially where there is a high-fixed, low-variable cost structure. Can you find ways to retain staff for busy periods by increasing demand at quieter times? Think of the impact of the incremental revenue on profitability. Can you provide another service to your customers or internal departments?
For example, think of all the offers we receive from hotels in order to encourage visits during the week or outside of the school holiday periods.
Can you use the quiet demand time to work on improvement projects or take the opportunity to train, coach and develop people?
Creating reservation systems
Using a reservation system can control demand, as customers can be encouraged to access the service at different times. Think of the pre-booked time slots you get when requesting technical help from your broadband provider, or delivery companies stating a delivery time slot for your goods to arrive.
Use temporary and part-time employees
For demand requiring low skills, hire temporary or casual workers to address peaks in demand. This is a common tactic for some companies during peak times such as Christmas and bank holidays.
Challenge 2 - Team members raising concerns about workloads
If your business is confident that workload concerns from employees are genuine, below are some strategies you could consider implementing.
Firstly, you need to identify where work is coming from. Is demand being created by a manager, or is it client driven? Does the manager have full visibility of what a typical day looks like, how long tasks take, and what skills are required to process the demand? It's important to get to the data, context and information using a Lean tool termed a DILO - a day in the life of - analysis.
The DILO is a simple method to record what every minute of paid time is used for. It highlights how people organise their day, and can be analysed to produce standard operating times for tasks. The analysis also assists in the future capacity management and allocation of work.
Skills and capability
Employees who are less skilled in their role may struggle to deal with volume and complexity. Consider the skills mix for a team - is this recorded anywhere? Are managers confident that work is being handled at the correct skill and capability level?
Producing a team skills matrix is an essential tool for work allocation. It helps inform what skills are required, where and when they are needed, and crucially, where training needs to take place to grow organisational capability.
If you have resource and recruitment issues, take a look at the skills of the people you employ first, then identify what skills you need and consider up-skilling to fill those gaps. Companies using this approach are successfully developing their good people, and at the same time reducing recruitment challenges and operating costs.
With an up-to-date skills matrix, managers have the ability to objectively identify genuine performance issues. For example, if it can be demonstrated that a person is trained and capable, but they are taking short cuts or resisting work, it’s time to start a capability management process!
Training and coaching
If this is a simple skills issue, train and fix it! But don’t fall into the trap of thinking one session of training will solve the problem. Training needs to be reinforced through on the job coaching, with timely observation and recording of how people actually work.
Correctly applied 1:1 coaching methods get under the skin of how people are really feeling, what obstacles are getting in their way, and what they can do to overcome them. However, not all managers feel comfortable in running coaching sessions, so companies need to make sure they are fully trained and capable, and critically they have time to do it.
When was the last time your manager sat down with you and coached you to improve your skills and performance levels?
If your company ran a 1:1 coaching improvement initiative, would it help increase staff retention and attract new talent? Would staff feel better supported and listened to?
Standard working practices and procedures
Does everyone work in the same way? Is there standardisation and consistency across the team?
All too often, we find teams work differently which impacts the amount of work an employee can reasonably manage. Other issues include variation in output rates, customer complaints and overall efficiency.
Having set processes with defined one-best-way procedures means everyone works the same way, to the same standard, and with the same objectives. Or at least it should.
Getting your teams involved in developing the best ways of working means they are more likely to follow the processes. The people who are ‘at the coalface’ have invaluable insight into what works and what doesn’t work, which tasks are causing bottlenecks, and where improvements can be made.
Would workloads and individual performance improve if staff followed 'one best way of working'? Think about the potential HR benefits if you were able to increase the number of employees that followed one best way of working.
If team members are complaining about workloads, there must be a problem or problems to fix! Form a team and explore potential root cause factors that are likely to impact workload.
A few questions to ask:
Do you know how long tasks actually take?
Have you defined a capacity model that uses task time, output rates and volumes per person?
Does the problem sit with the output rate per person, or is it related to the input rate?
If the problem resides with the output rate, ask:
Is the employee trained and capable (check the skills matrix mentioned earlier) to complete the work types in their work bank?
Is the employee using standard ways of working and following procedures?
Is the manager coaching and removing challenges for the employee?
If the problem resides with the input rate, ask:
Is the capacity model and work allocation process correct and being used?
Has the work content or task time changed?
Is the work volume truly higher than the capacity model defines?
Is this a simple matter of employees being awkward and refusing reasonable management instructions? If so, there is a process for that! Time to reach for the ACAS code of practice.
However, consider the aforementioned topics first - work allocation, skills matrix, training, 1:1 coaching, standard ways of working practices and procedures and problem solving. Are you able to provide evidence that employees are trained, capable, organised and supported correctly? Or, have they been set up to fail?
Moreover, before starting emotional, costly and time consuming conduct proceedings, make sure you have checked all these boxes. Can you demonstrate the company and manager has provided the employee with the satisfactory level of resources, training and support? If so, and the employee is capable to perform the work but refusing reasonable management instruction, then it's time to follow the ACAS code of practice.
Challenge 3 - Increasing fixed costs is a concern
With managers screaming they are understaffed and over tasked, the only answer has to be adding more people and increasing those fixed costs? Correct? Not necessarily!
The answer to these business problems is not necessarily the case of recruiting more people.
Whilst recruiting new people fixes an immediate problem and addresses the concerns of potentially stretched middle managers, the reality is that the business is increasing fixed costs whilst covering over, potential efficiency problems in the organisation.
The big issue here is recruiting in further heads to allow elaborately over-engineered or plainly inefficient processes to continue, is a problem we often uncover. Jumping straight into fixing the problem with recruitment is not the answer to the question.
Before hiring - understand what employees do on a day-to-day basis. A common method is using a day in the life of (DILO) analysis. They always reveals surprising results! Finding out how people organise their day, how they work and how long tasks actually take, provides the insight needed to understand where operating costs can be reduced.
A few questions - can you reduce non-value-adding wasteful tasks? Can you reduce hand overs? Can you reduce rework and delays? Can you reduce task time? Can tasks be simplified and automated? Can a task be assigned to a lower cost employee?
With a short investment of time to get to this detail, the need for recruitment is reduced and heads can potentially be reduced.
Challenge 4 - You can see the opportunity to take on new clients and grow the business but can you really give existing staff more work, or do you need to hire more resource?
A committed team with an ‘all hands to deck approach’ may be the way to go for some. However, you should stop and consider; can your team handle this extra pressure or are you simply ‘sweating your human assets’? After all, a stretched and complaining team is not necessarily going to deliver the results you desire. As they say though – ‘there is always another way!’
Ignoring the complaints of managers or sleep walking into a recruitment exercise which increases fixed costs, is seldom the answer. With ambitious growth targets, taking steps to understand what is going on now is crucial.
Businesses should start the journey with identifying and eliminating the time waste involved in business processes and hence uncovering untapped resource potential in the organisation. This may then give them the headroom to take the next steps and pull ahead.
This untapped resource is the ticket to growth without further investment in costly human resource. You may think this sounds too simple, but believe me, there is untapped resource and waste activity in every business, no matter how efficient they think they are!
We've completed hundreds of projects within high cadence people-based front and back office operations and know that on average only 10% of work performed actually adds value! Of the remaining 90%, a significant proportion some 50% is pure waste the company wants to pay for. Within the 50% half of the wasted time is relatively easy to get at and eliminate. That's a whopping 25% of capacity waiting to be unlocked! Would your recruitment plans change if you could unlock 25% capacity?