Today more than ever, businesses need to squeeze more out of every dollar they spend. Efficiency is key to everything, but we’re often too busy engaging with our processes to see how inefficient they are.
Why write about this, you ask? Well, the SA Health Minister John Hill tweeted about the report on efficiencies that SA Health released today and my mate, Nick, replied:
Fair question, right? Paper pay slips in 2012? Yeah. It’s happening. Is that someone’s fault? Maybe. But I don’t think it’s for any other reason than we all get so busy working away inside whatever our process is that we don’t see that, just perhaps, we could be doing things better.
The obvious answer to this particular issue is to e-mail people their pay slips as a PDF. That’d be 1000+ envelopes saved per week. Not to mention savings on transporting that paper across the state, or the fact that the staff would get their hands on their pay slip a good two or more days sooner than they would via snail mail.
But pay slips aren’t the only thing in a large organisation that could benefit with some modernisation. There are stacks of examples of manual data entry, duplication of information and inefficient processes that could be improved. They exist in every corner of a big organisation. The problem is, in many ways, quite overwhelming. It got me thinking and here we are.
Inevitably, a business or department develops processes which, over time could be done more efficiently. The dramatic drop in price of modern technology has made access to computers ubiquitous throughout an organisation and consequently, processes changed.
Take the library, as an example. When you wanted to borrow a book in the pre-computerised library, there was a manual, paper-based process used to keep track of what was borrowed, by whom and when it was due back. The librarian would remove a little card from the front cover of the book and record your membership number and stamp a date. Keeping track of overdue books was a manual process that involved sifting through the cards for the loaned books.
Fast-forward to the age of the modern computer and we have databases and barcodes and all manner of electronic wizardry that saves us from spending valuable work hours doing repetitive work. The notion of technology as a business tool is now well established.
Technology has changed the way we work. And it moves at such a pace that, oftentimes, we’re not keeping up. We’re doing some things better, but, of course, some things get forgotten or left behind. Sometimes, we’re so busy running the system, feeding the system, that we don’t have the opportunity to take a step back, look at the process and ask, “is this the best way we could do this?”.
Somehow, you need to facilitate that step back.
I’m a bit of a fan of 37 signals and the way they go about things. I was particularly intrigued by a couple of posts: A Teams = 12 people and 2010: The year of the products + a new way of working. I’ll walk through the ideas that underpin the concept.
Small teams are agile teams. Agile teams move quickly and get results. Matt from 37signals contrasts special forces teams with conventional troops:
The small team size comes with a bunch of advantages: They’re self-contained, can work swiftly and quietly, don’t have the presence of conventional military troops, and are able to operate without a big infrastructure.
So, translating that to our large organisation context, the notion is that small, highly skilled tactical teams can be used to produce results disproportionately greater than their size. They can work on problems that impact a large number of people and get results quickly. These teams use technology (that is, they write task-specific code) to automate, streamline and improve business processes that have been left behind. I’m calling these teams “hit squads”.
What do these teams look like? Well, 37signals put their teams together with two programmers and a designer. In a large organisation, I think that team need also include a subject matter expert who can act almost in a business analyst role.
You need someone who intimately understands the process you’re trying to improve, someone who works at the coal face, to be a part of the team. That person acts as an interface between the people using the system and the programmers making it all happen.
Thus, my hit squad is comprised of:
- Subject matter expert/business analyst
These teams work together (following the 37signals model) for two months at a time. They work on a specific project in that time and the goal is to deliver the completed project at or before the end of that two month block. At the end, the team is disbanded. You reform different teams (i.e., you’re not always working with the same people) for the next project.
In a big organisation, a tactical, business-problem-solving, tech hit squad is a low-risk proposition. Four people for eight weeks. If it works, great! You’ve just improved the business. If it doesn’t, then, you’re only down 8 x 4 weeks of salaries, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.
I’ve found the most frustrating challenges I’ve faced in big organisations is navigating the bureaucracy. You might have a great idea, but it’s got to be vetted, discussed and thrown around by seven different committees first, then be get budget approval, have a spec written up, go to tender… Only to be told by the corporate IT department that it can’t be done. I can’t emphasise enough just how toxic that process is to grassroots-led improvement.
To make these hit squads effective, they need to be given the authority and resources to get the job done. For me, that’d probably mean things like:
- Not having to use the company IT stack (I’m way more productive with my own gear)
- Cooperation from the stakeholders (people need to talk to you and respond quickly)
- Support from management
- Support from IT to deploy a “non-complying” solution
Without wanting to hijack the post and turn it into a complete corporate-IT-bashfest, here’s the deal: technology is developing at a ridiculously, unbelievably fast pace. The traditional models of networks and servers and applications and IT departments… That’s all changing. Heck, it’s changed. There’s a start up appearing every other week building the services of tomorrow and they’re using next-generation technologies to do it. Corporate IT has to keep up, because it’s the greater business that they’re there to support that will suffer if they don’t.
Like most people, my employer asks me to keep a record of the hours that I work and submit them to the pay office every week. I sit down at the end of each day and fill in my hours with a pen on a specially printed carbon-copy book. At the end of each week, my direct boss collects and signs the time sheet (authorising it) and then forwards it on for checking. That next person checks it to ensure I was indeed working the days I said I was and then forwards it on to the pay office. The pay office staff then manually enter in the data from my hand-written timesheet to generate my pay. In dot-point form:
- Employee hand-writes time sheet
- Line manager collects and authorises time sheet
- Employee’s recorded hours checked against database for accuracy by administrative person
- Time sheet forwarded to pay office
- Pay office manually enters my hours into pay system
The hit squad would deal with this problem by developing a web-based time sheet that allowed all people involved to do their part easily and without double-handling data:
- Employee fills in an online form
- Employee’s hours automatically checked against database for accuracy
- Line manager authorises time sheet at the click of a button
- Time sheet sent electronically to pay office - no manual data re-entry
That’s an example of a project a hit squad could deliver in eight weeks that would have multiple benefits to the organisation:
- Employees can manage their time sheet anywhere they have Internet access
- Administrative person to check hours for accuracy no longer required
- Line manager no longer has to physically collect and sign time sheets
- Pay office time sheet entry eliminated, turn around times dramatically reduced
To my mind, that’s a better service for less money. And what would it take? Eight weeks and a hit squad.
Any large organisation has old processes that could be better, but aren’t, because that’s how they’ve always been done and people don’t have time to step back and see that they need improving. Small, focussed, well-resourced tactical technology teams can rapidly develop solutions that revolutionise business processes, improving service and saving money.
I’m @ndrewreid on Twitter and I’d love to hear your thoughts.