Where Has our Capacity Gone? Excessive Processing

It is frustrating when you ask for something and it takes weeks to appear. There is a good chance that your processes are too complex, have too many steps and require more effort than they should to get the job done. It’s known as Excessive Processing and it is one of the worst of the eight Lean wastes that can drain staff capacity and lead to a backlog of work. Fortunately you can do something about it, so long as you know what to look for.

Here are four categories of Excessive Processing that typically occur in knowledge work.

One Size Fits All: pushing low-risk files into a complex process designed for high-risk files.

We worked with a team at a federal agency to improve their briefing note process. After a review of the types of dockets produced, the stages of the process, the length of time it took to get to approval and other data it the team found that a typical medium-complexity docket took more than 25 hours of effort and four weeks to get to the Deputy Minister for approval. Heavy tracking, numerous levels of review, endless formatting and preventable editing were the main culprits. This level of effort was necessary for high-risk, complex files comprising about 60 percent of the workload but for the remaining low-risk files it was a classic case of overkill. Instead of defaulting to a one-size-fits-all approach the improvement team built a tasking checklist to ensure that the simplest, low effort options were considered leaving the existing process to handle the more complex files it was originally designed for.

Is a formal briefing note the best option?  Consider instead:
o E-mail o Data table
o Verbal briefing at next meeting o Diagram
o Other

Over-writing: answering a question posed by the requestor, plus seven other unasked questions and/or spending as much (or more) time on a document’s formatting as on the content.

Over-writing occurs when the person drafting a document isn’t 100% clear on what question the end-user needs answered and so drafts a longer response to address multiple questions, asked or not. The longer the document, the more likely it is to be over-edited making the problem even worse. Add to that the compulsion many of us have to spend as much time formatting documents as we do on the content itself and excessive processing relating to document creation and approval can get out of control.

Asking questions upfront about the job a written document is destined to fulfill is a good way to avoid this. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Ask your client, “what job are you using this document for? What problem should it solve?”
  2. Ask yourself, “what does this document need in order to do that job, or solve that problem?”
  3. Is a document the right solution? Is this really a value-added output?
  4. Draft with these questions as your guiding star.

Creating editing guidelines and using templates can reduce effort, number of drafts and elapsed time by up to  50% in the case of one communications shop we worked with.

Bureaucratic Coral: when we identify a weakness, so we add new controls or reports on top of the existing controls or reports, creating processes that are overly and needlessly heavy.

When something goes wrong in a process the knee-jerk reaction is put an immediate counter-measure in place to correct the problem. Over time, the new controls are installed on top of old controls from previous generations and presto, bureaucratic coral takes over and excessive processing kicks in. Similarly, requests for ad-hoc reports have a habit of becoming permanent. One branch with a staff of 50 produced more than 200 regular reports many of which sat unused. The sad part is that delivering these unnecessary reports makes us too busy to take time to identify and eliminate the ones that don’t add value.

The best way to find and eliminate bureaucratic coral is to make it visible. Map the process. Taking the time to show, visually, the steps in a process will highlight where redundancy occurs allowing for fewer, more effective controls and reports while keeping the auditors happy.

Handoffs: when work gets passed on from one person to another

When someone takes over a piece of work from someone else, the total effort expended is increased. Why? The recipient needs to review the file, ask clarifying questions and get up to speed. Misunderstanding often occurs during the transfer creating even more work. Instead of breaking a task up into small pieces consider combining steps to reduce the number of handoffs and the accompanying preventable effort.

These four examples are by no means the only types of excessive processing but they are illustrative of what to look for. Even if you see them happening in your organization and take steps to address them you may need to go a step further and look at the root causes that lead to the excessive processing before you can eliminate it.

Root Cause #1: Lack of trust.

In environments of low trust, processes expand to add more time and effort spent verifying, checking and re-checking. In a high-trust workplace and when the business process is robust enough that it has proven to be trustworthy much of the over-reviewing and controlling drops away. Stephen M.R. Covey’s book “The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything”[1] is required reading on this topic.

Root cause #2: Lack of visibility

Nobody likes to spin their wheels. The previous examples of excessive processing would likely not have occurred if people could have seen what was going on. Mapping the steps in the process, the effort involved and the time it takes makes the issues visible so they can be addressed. You can’t manage what you can’t see – and if you can’t see it, you probably can’t improve it.  nor can the people you rely on to get the job done. Making the process visible is the first step, keeping it visible so people stay on track is crucial. Lastly, creating habits like a weekly stand-up to identify and address problems can prevent excessive processing from creeping back onto the scene.





Root cause #3: Overwhelm

If someone told you “I’m too busy mopping up the floor to turn off the faucet” as a deluge of water poured out of a nearby sink you would think they were crazy — but it happens all the time in the workplace. When we are overwhelmed by a high volume of work, it is incredibly difficult to understand and remove the root cause of the problem. We go into a kind of hyper-drive to try and get things done without taking the time to consider if there are other, better ways to complete a task. We will look at how to spot if people are overwhelmed, and what to do about it in the next article in this series.

[1] Stephen M. R. Covey and Rebecca R. Miller, The Speed of Trust: The One Thing that Changes Everything, (Free Press, Oct. 17 2006).