As we move into a new phase of our Front-End process and system improvement efforts at IWCO Direct, we are focusing mainly on how to improve our speed-to-production—in other words, how quickly we can collect all client input and create instructions for our production departments.
Back in November, Debora Haskel was on a flight and read this fascinating and timely article by Atul Gawande. She immediately sent it to me because I had just emailed all our Front-End departments with a project status update regarding the challenges the teams were reporting about our revamped process and promised to dedicate special attention to solve these matters.
The new processes were supposed to work effortlessly with our updated systems, but process missteps caused flawed system inputs, which snowballed into greater downstream process issues. Likewise, system challenges were causing some of these process questions, snowballing again. We were trapped and our workflow tools were not working for us—we were working for them!
When Workflow Tools Become Barriers to Progress
Gawande described this same problem in the healthcare industry. Their medical software was so elaborate and complex that it took healthcare professionals much longer to perform system tasks (e.g., record keeping, test ordering, etc.) than the old “paper version” of their process. Although the platform promised to be the one-stop-shop for everything these professionals needed, it instead increased the amount of time they spent staring at a screen and reduced the time spent face-to-face with patients. The system tasks even spilled over into after-hours work, leading to more burnout within the healthcare industry. The cost of implementing the system for Gawande’s hospital and clinics was $1.6 billion, mainly due to lost revenue because they had to scale back the number of appointments and scale up technical support to accommodate the employees’ learning curve.
These quotes from Gawande’s article stand out to me and inspired me—more than ever—to simplify our Front-End systems, make workflow tools more accessible, and improve the job satisfaction of our Front-End teams:
“A massive monster of incomprehensibility”
Gawande interviewed several professionals who complained about specific aspects of their systems—new required fields that prevented them from moving forward; filling out detailed forms for a simple request; multiple people contributing to the same system inputs in various ways, causing duplication, noise, and ambiguity; system improvement implementations that cause new unforeseen bugs—all leading to, as one doctor called it, “a massive monster of incomprehensibility.”
Our goal is to avoid this monster for our Front-End system and process updates. We are actively working on reducing the number of system inputs, starting with simplifying our Order Entry requirements. Teams will see a shorter, more user-friendly form rolled out in the coming weeks. We are also working on eliminating obsolete fields from our ERP system, reducing the noise on each user interface and minimizing confusion over what inputs are actually needed.
“Clogged to the point of dysfunction”
Gawande’s situation exemplifies the need for concise, accessible workflow tools in any industry. We should not be, as Gawande describes, “hunched over our screens, spending more time dealing with constraints on how we do our jobs and less time simply doing them,” and our email inboxes should not be “clogged to the point of dysfunction.”
The Front-End teams recently spent more time understanding and documenting exactly what our Planning team needed to receive in order to smoothly plan a job. Previously, missing inputs would lead to a massive amount of emails from other team members trying to gather and clarify information about each project. Now that we’ve identified exactly what Planning requires and why, we can train the Account Management teams how to provide only the right information—nothing more, nothing less—using a newly created workflow tool. Teams will receive training on this new tool in the next few weeks.
Why We’re Working Toward a Smoother Workflow Process
Many organizations have faced the situation Gawande describes: Installing a large system where the smallest changes require committee debate, approval, weeks of testing, troubleshooting, and resources overburdened by too many change projects at one time. We want to avoid moving from an inefficient paper/email process to a system-driven process only to end up needing to hire more people to deal with the complexities of new tools.
Our goal is to create nimble and flexible workflow tools to help our teams test ideas before we ask IT to build a system to handle the inputs and automate communications. We want our systems to strengthen teamwork and efficient collaboration. Our best business asset is our people—their knowledge, care for our customers, and ability to innovate and overcome challenges. We build and update these systems to make each employee’s tasks easier, yes. But after all, these improvements are not only to benefit ourselves, but to benefit our clients and exceed their expectations.
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