Process Doc Opportunity #4: Fixing Unbalanced Work
Increasing Throughput by Helping the Weakest Link in the Value Chain
My all-time favorite process improvement video is Lucy in the Chocolate Factory. It teaches lessons about management style, training, and the risks associated with unbalanced workflow. It’s also a fun illustration of the theory of constraints.
If you do not have time to watch it, Lucy and her friend Ethel get a job in the wrapping department of a chocolate company. Their task is to take freshly made pieces of chocolate and wrap them in tissue paper. The chocolate rolls in on a conveyor belt from the kitchen and then rolls out to the packing room. Sounds simple enough, but…
Lucy and Ethel get no training but are forewarned “if one piece of candy gets past you, You’re Fired!” Things start off well, but as the pace of the conveyor belt quickens, havoc ensues. While it’s easy to see the ladies as ineffective employees, it’s clear by the end of the video that the kitchen turns out chocolate much faster than any two people could wrap it.
Suppose the sales department said, “We need more chocolate. Demand is higher than production.” Would it make any sense to invest money in new kitchen machinery that would produce even more candy? No, because the wrapping department still limits how much candy we can deliver to our customers. A faster machine would just make the process more unbalanced.
Orion ran into a similar – but less funny – situation in Dakota County, MN. Child support was an important process that made sure single parents received the financial resources they were due. The level of effectiveness was also critical because there were federally funded incentives to close a high percentage of cases.
The process sailed through all the swim lanes until it got to Legal. Not only was the Legal team’s work more complicated, but it was also dependent on the calendars of judges… something they could not control. The Legal department was the bottleneck. Dakota understood the Lucy-in-the-Chocolate-Factory management approach was not the answer. (“If one case is not closed on time, you’re fired!”) They needed to take the load off Legal.
One simple solution was to have clerks instead of lawyers show up in court for uncontested hearings. There was no legal mandate to have a lawyer if the case was uncontested, but they’d always done it that way. This allowed Dakota to add more capacity without adding more cost. It led to a greater level of success in their mission – getting financial resources to single parents. It also helped them qualify for an additional $1 million in support from the federal government.
When documenting processes, always try to find the bottleneck or the weak link in the chain from a capacity perspective. Eliminating that bottleneck is crucial to the effectiveness of any process improvement solution.
"I Love Lucy" is a trademark of CBS Broadcasting.