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Make Government Faster By Focusing On The Space Between Tasks

This is part 2 of my series on Ken Miller’s great book Extreme Government Makeover. In part 1 I explained how Miller describes government as a house where the important work goes on in the pipes hidden from public view behind walls. Miller’s position is that the problem with government is that it cannot meet the demand for its services becuase the pipes of government are a rusted tangled mess, which makes it difficult to moves things through in a smart, fast, cheap way.

Miller claims that he can make your program, department or agency operate 80% faster. How? Not by making employees work faster but by making the time between tasks faster. According to Miller the space between tasks is where opportunity lies for improving government performance.

Miller states: ”The actual work time — the labor in a process — typically consumes less than 5 percent of the total time a customer experiences. Ninety-five percent of the time a customer spends in our pipes, nothing is happening.”

Miller has five strategies to make your systems faster. They’re focused on that 95 percent of the time that gets lost in the system — not the 5 percent in which the actual labor takes place.

Strategy #1: Triage

Most pipes in government are of the one-size-fits-all variety. We have one long, twisted pipe, and we make every customer travel through it. One of the most powerful strategies for speeding the flow is to actually create more pipes — that is, give customers other pathways they can travel.

Strategy #2: Simultaneous Processing

Our pipes are divided into sections, and the water must travel through these sections one at a time. For example, building permits move from plan reviewers to code enforcement to the fire marshal and then the public health department. Your expense account goes to your supervisor, then her boss, then his boss, and then over to accounting, where it is reviewed and then processed and then approved. One of the simplest tactics for moving water through our pipes more quickly is to use simultaneous or parallel processing.

Strategy #3: Bust Your Bottleneck

In your whole agency, I’d bet there aren’t more than five places that are kinking your pipes. So how do you find your bottleneck? The simplest way is to go out and look for it. Put your waders on and find the puddles. In front of every bottleneck there’s usually a pile. It can be physical (stacks of paper, rows of file cabinets, overflowing inboxes) or virtual (a pending file, a queueing system, a workflow management system).

Strategy #4: Quit Your Batching

Batch processing holds one customer hostage to a larger group. Batches can be quantity-based or time-based. A quantity-based batch would be something like waiting until we have 100 applications before we send them on to the next unit to be reviewed. A time-based batch would be, say, a policy to only process payments on the third Thursday of the month. In either case, the customer does not flow smoothly through the pipe. Instead, he has to wait.

With a batch, we’re essentially adding a dam mechanism into the pipe: Water gets stopped until the level rises to a certain point. Then all that water floods into the next section of the pipe at the same time, which often creates backlog. Again, we have sitting water with all of its side effects: phone calls, tracking mechanisms, expediting, and so on. In an effort to save work, we create work.

Strategy # 5: Eliminate Backlog

The DMV is actually a great case study of the effects of backlog; you can literally watch the effects of falling a little behind manifest themselves every day. An office can open at 8 a.m., fall a little behind by 9:15, and by noon there are fifty angry people standing in line. The reason this happens with DMV offices actually has nothing to do with the productivity of the employees. It’s a function of random variation. At DMV offices (or food stamp offices or public-assistance offices), the number of customers who show up at any one time is completely random. With the exception of lunchtime, there’s no rhyme or reason. There is as much probability of four people showing up as forty. If four people arrive at the same time, the office is fine. But if forty people show up at once, the game is over and the office is wrecked for the rest of the day.

Fast-food restaurants also have the same problem of unpredictable customer patterns, with the obvious exception of mealtimes. That is, there is as much a chance of two customers walking in as twenty. If you’ve ever been at McDonald’s when a bus full of customers shows up, then you have seen the chain’s very sophisticated process for dealing with this. It’s called “BUS!” That is, when a bus is spotted rolling into the parking lot, an employee screams “BUS!” and the entire restaurant is transformed. Managers and supervisors stop what they’re doing and double-man the counters. Cooks start making popular items as fast as they can. All hands are on deck to get the line of customers served as quickly as possible — because if they don’t, the lines will be with them all day long. The whole day will be wrecked.

Armed with this insight, Miller created a “bus” process for the DMVs. Whenever a large group of customers all showed up at once, the entire office transformed. The managers came out of their offices and double-manned the counters. Back-office paperwork specialists came out to work the lines. Everybody pitched in until the line was gone, and then they went back to their regular jobs. It was an amazing thing to watch as everybody cooperated with each other. It was hard work, but the benefits were astounding. By not getting a little bit behind, they never got a lot behind. And life in the office got a lot better.

Designing processes so that you never fall behind requires a whole new way of thinking. In government we tend to practice the ancient art of annual management.To avoid ever falling behind, you actually have to manage more actively. For DMV or public-assistance offices, this can be a minute-by-minute battle. For licensing and permitting offices, this may be a week-by-week battle. You also have to cross-train your employees so they can step in to help during high-traffic times. Sound like a lot of management? It is. But not as much management as it takes to handle the call centers, the tracking systems, and the ever-growing pile of documents you get from backlog.

You can make government run faster by focusing on the space between tasks. What do you think of the above strategies for making government run faster?

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