A Workforce on Steroids – Creating a Purposeful Work Environment

We all have routine (robotic) tasks that we hate doing, but they just have to get done.  These can be anything from reviewing and answering “routine” e-mail inquiries, to regulatory and legal reporting requirements.  Most of these activities fall into one of two categories – essential non-value adding activities and purely non-value adding activities.  How do we maximize the amount of time that our teams spend on value-added, cognitive (thinking) tasks and minimizing the routine tasks that offer little or no value-add?  Can we utilize a lean culture in terms of processes, while at the same time providing a more interesting and stimulating work environment?

I was recently reading a presentation, using Lean Principles, that was developed by the University of California – Davis School of Organizational Excellence.   To download the presentation, click here.  The presentation starts out by summarizing lean as having 3 main pillars:

  1. Increasing value
  2. Reducing waste
  3. Respecting people

Among other things, a Lean culture will constantly challenge the status quo, use team-based problem solving, emphasize communication and leverage talents.  It does this through standardized processes, eliminating anything that does not add value, continually improves, routine tasks are automated and uses clear metrics and goals.

An important concept is that value is defined from the end user or customer’s perspective.  A quick way of thinking about this is for any task ask yourself “would a customer be willing to pay for this?”  These items directly contribute to customer expectations and as a result they need to be done right both the first time and every time.

As a simple example, consider taking a check to the bank and making a deposit.  The traditional process means driving to the bank, waiting in line, completing the transaction and then driving back home.  Out of these 4 steps, only the completing the transaction provides value.  The person lives 10 minutes away from where they bank, and they normally have to wait in line for about 5 minutes to complete a 1 minute transaction.  Based on this example, the customer waste 25 minutes to do a simple 1 minute transaction – an efficiency of only 4%!  Now most banks are offering the ability to deposit checks with a smartphone app.  The example given in the presentation suggests that an average user will take about 30 seconds to enter the deposit information into the app, take about 60 seconds to capture a usable image of the check and then another 30 seconds to complete the transaction.  This reduces the wasted time to 90 seconds and reduces the value added task to 30 seconds.  The efficiency ratio is now 25% and the overall time spent is reduced from 26 minutes down to 2.

We can see a similar situation that goes on in our Operations departments.  Many of us still use a traditional system where most customers either call in, or e-mail in load orders and these requests are handled by Customer Service Representatives (the definition of CSRs vary greatly from carrier to carrier).  By having a friendly person answering the phone. and talking with the client we are offering great value to our customer – right?  Maybe not.

CSRs offer value when the customer has a one-off shipment or something that requires special handling or routing instructions.  In these situations, the CSR is truly offering a solution to a unique situation.  However, if I am a shipper and I have a daily run of in-process parts from Birmingham into Chattanooga that are always 16 bins, and 40,000 pounds with a pickup time of 8AM Monday to Friday, then forcing me to talk with a CSR is taking extra time and creating no value for either party.  This situation is a perfect candidate for automation – such as a standing order that the shipper only communicates exceptions.  Now when the shipper talks with the CSR, it is a situation where the CSR can actually provide value.  If the customer is large enough and provides it, consider going to a full EDI solution instead of just utilizing a web portal for things like load tenders, status updates, etc.

Another example is with customer updates.  Normally the customer calls into the CSR, who then needs to find the shipment, see what truck and driver are assigned to that load and then determine that vehicle’s location.  A much more efficient process would be to offer some form of customer web access to allow your client to check on the status themselves. Many carriers are providing this type of service via Freight visibility services such as Four Kites, 10-4, and MacroPoint (however, this is typically driven via the shipper). The customer can get the information when they want it (not just when your Customer Service department is staffed) and your employee is freed up to take on cognitive tasks.  Now they are able to spend more time on problem solving, such as updating customers who have a shipment that is in danger of being late due to breakdowns, weather, traffic conditions or potentially impacted by the new hours of service regulations.

What about those non-value added tasks that are still necessary for regulatory or compliance reasons?  First, look for ways to at least partially automate them. If you don’t think a routine task can be automated, read this article. If you have an item that you need to do, such as periodic reports to a regulatory body, are you tracking them in a spreadsheet or do you have a report that will gather the necessary data for you?  Secondly, have you recently confirmed that this task/report is still required? A audit of routine tasks should be done regularly – why do them if they are redundant – you’re paying for them! A similar case can be made for those reports that customers ask for.  Have you done a recent follow up with the customer to see if they still want or even use the reports you are sending.  Could they be done in a simpler format that takes less time for you and provides more value to them?

Some employees will resist some of these changes. Humans generally don’t like change. If you build explain the importance of these proposed changes in a big picture narrative, instead of simply telling them to stop, you will get much more buy-in.  You may be worried that by pushing some of these items onto your customer you are reducing that “personalized touch”.  The focus needs to be on asking “is this something that the customer actually values and is it something that they would pay for?”.  Instead of having a CSR just take routine orders, empower them to do customer checkups, such as a review of historical loads versus contractual commitments.  Maybe identifying lost accessorial revenue that could flow straight to your bottom-line.

Continuous improvement does not mean constantly taking things away.  By removing repetitive “busy work” you can make the job much more enjoyable. You are allowing them to use their talents and abilities more often.  However, keep in mind that there are some people who prefer to do more routine type jobs, and do not enjoy problem solving.  If in a department you have one person like this and four others who would prefer to deal with unique situations, you may consider redistributing tasks so that the routine situations are handled by that one person and the others get their time freed up to work on something more creative.  The third pillar of LEAN is respecting people.  Different people have different motivations and desires.  Asking a person who prefers routine to handle exceptions is not going to satisfy them.  Similarly putting a lot of routine, repetitive tasks on a person who has excellent problem-solving skills will result in a dissatisfied employee who is probably looking for another job – sooner rather than later.  By knowing and respecting the players involved, an organization can structure itself in a way that is always looking to eliminate waste, creates value and truly becomes customer focused while still creating opportunities to better leverage individual talents and goals.