Case Study in the Universal Value of Well-Designed Operational Processes
Do operations and process principles apply everywhere?
We have had a hypothesis that good operational and process design disciplines are in some ways, “universal truths” regardless of the industry or process. A recent client gave us the opportunity to test our process design and operational management principles against a type of work that was very different to anything we’d worked with before. This is a government department that assesses the need for intervention with “at risk” members of the community. The “industry” is dominated by the idea that this is “case work” and “social work” practice. Experts from the United States had built software and decision support tools to help take these life changing decisions. In this case we’ll describe how classic service design principles and operational disciplines produce results even in areas as complex as “person at risk of serious harm” assessments. In this case study we will describe the starting situation and then look at which principles applied, how we applied them, and the results obtained.
The client situation - specialised social services
The purpose of the areas we worked with were to assess “reports” of risks to vulnerable members of society. The main function handles inbound calls and electronic reports made by agencies and members of the public regarding welfare concerns. Case workers would take information from reporters and make an assessment as to whether these concerns justified further intervention from field offices (that we also got to visit and assess).
Most of the staff were tertiary qualified social workers and some stated that this “wasn’t a contact centre”. Many of the Team Leaders had come up from doing field-based case work or grew up in the function, so there were very few who knew how to run an effective contact operation. There was a belief that the work was too specialised and important to be driven by process principles and some of the US experts had told them things like “no just let the reporters talk; - that’s the most important thing”! We didn’t agree.
We gained some early insight of the culture in a comment made to us that “it’s good to have you guys here to look at process, we just focus on people”. This got us to thinking, don’t the two need to work together? Is such a specialised field really different to any other process?
Why they needed help
Management of the operation faced a common challenge: increased demand for the work (more reports) and a finite budget that government didn’t want to increase. Service levels were a constant struggle even at levels that most corporates wouldn’t accept e.g. a goal of a five-minute wait time which was rarely met. The electronic work had built up a “backlog” of several thousand unactioned cases so there was a risk that someone needing care or assistance would not receive it. The “final straw” was a new system that had increased effort and “handling times” but worse, had left the management team without some key measures and reports. Handle times were unknown, trends weren’t clear and therefore sizing the workforce was more guesstimate than estimate. As well as call waits, electronic reports were going into a backlog and field offices were not getting reports quickly enough, putting vulnerable citizens at risk.
Would our “normal” diagnostic work? No-one in our team is a qualified social worker so we were concerned that our normal process of observing and assessing the work, how it’s executed and managed wouldn’t work. The client still liked the sound of our process to “analyse” contact handling practices and measure what couldn’t be measured today. After a week of interviews and informal observations, we knew our tools and methods would be invaluable. A typical Report Assessment process took well over 70 minutes, but the client couldn’t measure it or understand what drove that time. When we found that 100% of the work got checked and that’s what Team Leaders did all day, every day, we realised that our process and operations ideas could make a difference.
How standard design and operational principles applied
1. End to end process thinking is essential
The process we encountered seemed to have been designed in organisational silos each not trusting or understanding what had occurred before or later in the process. For example, it appeared that staff didn’t trust the work previously completed by their peers, so the same information was checked multiple times in the process. Worse, the checking was not aligned to the risks that the checks were trying to control. A Team Leader would spend as much time checking “high risk” reports that were bound to be re-checked out in the field as they would reports that had been classified as “low risk” which might result in a dangerous situation being “missed” because of this low risk classification.
2. Lack of process design and documentation leads to variation
As we sat with different workers or visited different field offices, it was clear that the process varied everywhere, and no guides or reference materials were ever referenced. There was no defined “best way” of handling a report so staff all had different practices that drove a wide variation in handle times and outcomes, despite them working on the same types of allegations and using the system and decision support tools. The new system had compounded the problem by providing a very flexible data structure that allowed staff to store the same information in many different places. Flexibility is great but not in a process where staff need to find critical historic information that could be then hidden and or duplicated many times. This lack of logical steps and definitions meant that Team Leaders were constantly approached by staff “checking in” on issues that were non-critical, Team Leaders were interrupted for much of the day, so their checking work was also inefficient.
3. Routing theory must be grounded in the realities of the work
Throughout the day, case workers could work on either live calls or electronic reports. In theory this “blended” work environment should have provided great flexibility to meet all service levels. They had even configured their platform to automatically route work in a way that should have delivered great productivity. However, the problem was that these were long and complex work items. Each “assessment” could take between 50 minutes and two hours. If the available staff were all busy on completing electronic assessments and new calls arrived, wait times could be excessive. The workforce management team could see the issues but had no authority to act and re-allocate work. Staff believed the poor service levels were the new normal so had lost their sense of urgency and paid minimal attention to call queues or where they spent their time. They believed they couldn’t do anything about reporters abandoning calls despite the important reasons for the contact.
4. Visibility is the fuel of effective management and human behaviour is predictable
Two other issues made it impossible for management to know what was going on. The codes that workers used to record their time were confused. Staff would complete many different activities in a state of “not ready”. Management couldn’t tell if this was important assessment work or just staff needing a short break after a stressful call. With work taking 60-70 minutes per item, workers were reluctant to take on a new case an hour or more before their end of shift or even before meetings. We noted many case workers making themselves unavailable for long periods particularly near the end of shifts and large pockets of underutilised time that was invisible to management.
5. No information for observation
The role of the Team Leader had become one of checking and approving. Team Leaders spent their time either as a help desk or approving 100% of the final assessments submitted. This meant the Team Leader spent time looking at the outputs, but no time was allocated to observing how these had been compiled by the case workers. There was also limited reporting or performance visibility so low performing case workers could keeping working in the same way without coaching or consequences.
Applying Design Principles
Having validated that our principles of operating model were applicable, we set to work using our proven design methods to get some discipline into the operations and the role of Team Leaders. We applied four major solutions to the five key issues we’d identified.
Designed new processes with the “next step” in mind and built trust into the process
In our diagnostic we found many case workers were very accurate and experienced with their assessments. The Team Leader checks were not needed for these case workers. This meant we could reduce the checking required on an assessment going to field offices from the best performing case workers. This reduced Team Leader approvals by 20% in an initial pilot with potential for 40% with no extra risk. We had observed that many of the help requests were mere confirmations. We encouraged case workers to trust their judgement and discuss with peers more and this reduced the need to approach Team Leaders.
An effective support model
The new “help” function was rostered so that while one Team Leader assisted case workers, the others could concentrate on their work. The rostered Team Leaders kept a simple Log, so their peers could review when their team sought help and coach appropriately. Many case workers had felt “obliged” to consult in the past and felt empowered by knowing that their leaders trusted them to make the right judgements under this new help model combined with the more trusting checking processes.
Introduced a model of operational management to drive resource efficiency
We introduced our two key operating framework activities to put more control into the hand of the management team
1.Twice daily “Stand Ups”
These are short, sharp meetings where Team Leaders planned for the next part of the day and reflected on how well they had run the previous period.
2. Active management of the centre
Team Leaders and Real Time Analysts worked in shifts together to manage inbound queues actively and allocate urgent work quickly. They often got case workers to park low priority work and action it later in the day. This parked work was completed at the end of a case worker’s shift, thereby filling the under-utilised time. The active management also switched case workers between call and electronic queues. Matching case workers to their strongest channel increased their output.
Freed up Team Leader time applied to coaching
The changed processes freed up Team Leaders’ time. This was re-invested in side by side observation of how their staff did their work. We introduced simple productivity and quality reporting to help them prioritise who to coach. Side by side observation meant Team Leaders could see what made the high performers so much more effective and could share this with other staff in their teams. They started understanding why they got such variable outputs and productivity and could coach on hidden best practices.
This was a major change for Team Leaders, who went from being glued to their desk approving work, to active management and side by side coaching. It wasn’t easy for them at first but as the pilot phase progressed they showed that operational management skills can be trained and embedded in a short amount of time. It just needed a little willingness to “try something different” and good leadership.
What was achieved
The results in our Pilot group delighted everyone. Case workers in this group increased their assessments per day by over 25%, helping to decrease the amount of outstanding work on hand by 70% from the same time last year.
Better active management meant calls were answered 66% faster than last year and assessments needing additional action are getting to the field quicker because of the reduced Team Leader approval time.
We were relieved but not surprised to find that our principles of good process and operational design are universal – they have worked just as effectively in a social working environment as they do in more traditional contact centre, administration and retail environments. This also demonstrated that to redesign the work you need to understand the real behaviours, and observation is key to that. It showed yet again that Team Leaders or mid management are key to operational improvement.
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