Continuous improvement and personal development: the role of competition

Continuous improvement (CI) is often heard as the answer to moving forward in organizations that want to do better. Much of it is rooted in Toyota’s Production System (TPS) and targets the company’s faulty processes in iterative fashion.  In this post, I will try to briefly discuss a more personal aspect of CI.

The PI/CI approach

Organizations interested in improving performance eventually come to an understanding that this is a journey, not an overnight task.  They are willing to transform, and for this they engage the help of outside consultants, they train their workforce, they put processes in place where none existed or they re-engineer current ones, they strive to meet regulatory benchmarks, and so on.

This is all well and good as far as collectives go. And yet, the question I have is how to transform ourselves by using the same principles?  Is it possible to continuously improve as individuals?  Is there a clear progression?  How do we advance on this path?

At first sight, the obvious answer may be in getting more education.  One can never know enough, so the old saw goes.  One buys books, watches videos, travels to conferences when financially feasible, and, yes, one keeps taking tests and obtaining certifications.

Is this enough, or can we do more?

Motorcycle racing to the rescue

I will digress now, but only apparently, by recounting what somebody I know says. This person races motorcycles in what is known as ‘hare scrambles’. These are competitions for dirt bikes, dating back many years, in which riders race off-road and across open pastures, woods, and narrow, boggy trails at full speed, while negotiating a variety of obstacles.  This very successful rider has uploaded a number of action videos to YouTube, which many watch and follow. He races an older, heavier bike, which is also under-powered when compared to more modern ones used by the competition. Regardless, he performs quite well and places consistently.

When people witness success, they become curious as to how to replicate it and ask questions. More often than not they tend to focus on tools, as if something they may purchase can magically level the playing field or even give them a much needed edge.  Predictably, this rider was asked questions about modifications made to his bike.  These questions came so often that at some point he felt compelled to make and upload a video where he clearly went over all the ‘mods’, which added up to basically none.  One can only imagine the disappointment felt by those who were hoping for a quick fix to their real or perceived riding deficiencies in the form of a souped-up engine, a better and costly suspension, a lighter exhaust, and so on. Unfortunately for them, as i said, no significant mods had been made to the bike in question, which remained ‘standard’ as bought.

This was enlightening to many, or should have been. The message is clear: one can do well, indeed very well, even with sub-par tools.  This also begs the question, what is the secret sauce then? How can this be? Is it raw talent or is there something else at work?

The answer came in a reply by the rider to someone’s comment on one of the videos. He said: ‘Race with those faster than you, and you will get faster.  This is quite the pearl of wisdom, and if I were giving a talk in the context of PI and CI it would bear repeating: competing with your betters makes you better, and competing frequently ensures you are on a continuous path to improvement.

The role and benefits of competition

When it comes to PI and CI, can we improve our skills in continuous fashion by ‘competing’ with those who are more experienced or talented?  I believe much of our personal development does not occur in a competitive enough environment, and therefore we self-develop as described earlier up to a point, and then plateau.  We should keep in mind that competitions are not new, and are certainly not limited to the physical.

For example, contests are being held constantly in the data science arena by Kaggle and other organizations.  Individuals and teams from the world over strive to squeeze every last drop of performance out of existing algorithms to solve the data analysis problem posed.  The problem is typically defined by an organization, which then posts anonymized data sets for the contestants to analyze. The organization also determines the financial incentive to the winners.

Note that this is a welcome influx of money to the top scorers, but is an even bigger win for the company, because it manages to focus the best minds on a tough question at a far more modest cost than via in-house resources and with a much higher likelihood of success, given the breadth and depth of the talent pool. The main difference from the real world is that the data furnished are already ‘clean’, something that does not occur in real life when facing a new situation.

There is little doubt that taking part in these events tests and improves the skills of participants. Repeated efforts at solving a score of problems tunes those skills continuously.  Some of the benefits of competing in this fashion include:

  • collaboration (within your team, or via advice from others) and focused pooling of strengths
  • learning ‘by example’ and in hands-on fashion what works and what doesn’t
  • having to be ‘up to speed’ in the ever-changing world of machine learning
  • stretching the mind to solve problems outside one’s own comfort zone
  • receiving immediate feedback in terms of a score that depends solely on how well one’s algorithmic solution does relative to others in improving the current best solution, thus leaving politics out of the equation.

Complacency and stagnation are not good things.  It may be time for people and organizations involved in CI to think along similar lines to the above and try to develop more and better skills in people in a manner that exemplifies continuous improvement on a personal level.



Rethinking work as the ultimate Lean process

Work is the topic of an interesting and recent post on LinkedIn, as it discusses how France is trying to legislate on the appropriateness of after-hours work emails to and from employers and employees.  Several perceived threats exist, including psychological stress to staff who for a variety of reasons can never quite ‘disconnect’ and are always on the hamster wheel of constant availability and endless communication, as well as the anticipation of the same.

Work: the trad view

Much discussion has taken place worldwide over the years about work, workers, hours, overtime, pay, rights, and so on.  I believe much of this arises from a particular viewpoint, namely working to a schedule or to meet a quota of hours, and in fact being able to get paid so one can put food on the table is based on just such a concept.  The discussion centers around how many hours are enough to constitute a ‘work week’, what then counts as overtime, who is eligible, and if and how much they should be compensated for it.

Having been an employee myself for many years, I can attest to the rigidity and utter lack of meaning and benefit of certain schedules, in many instances adhered to by all involved just because ‘it’s always been done like this’ and because putting on a thinking cap to assess alternatives would be almost unseemly. The inertia of entrenched thinking in this regard is truly something to behold. It also flies in the face of the evolution from heavily industrial economies towards more information-based ones, and from ‘widget-making’ jobs (not all in factories, by the way) towards intelligence-based ones.  In parallel, the move by AI into the mainstream economy means perhaps half of today’s jobs will disappear in the next twenty years or so and governments may have to experiment with options, including paying an income that is not a function of work performed (ex. Denmark.)  It is a changing landscape for all.

One alternative to the traditional view described earlier might be to work to specific goals instead of aiming to be in the office for a set number of hours, which can be quite unproductive, and is often demoralizing.  Bogus attendance requirements underestimate the ability and intelligence of the workforce and emphasize ‘metrics’ that prove nothing and require data that are costly to collect, not to mention the gaming of the system that occurs when people are present but not gainfully busy.

What is important is to be able to deliver a desired outcome, preferably well matched to the customer’s needs. More often than not, this is not the case.  Too often management ducks the issue of what work is and how far it is from what it should or potentially could be, by taking the much easier route of equating work to hours, arguing unintelligently and ad nauseam about something completely irrelevant, and wasting endless energy on micromanaging absences instead of improving work content.  Discussing this would fill a tome or two and this is only a brief post.

Redefining the work process

My thought on this matter is that management (and employees) need to focus on what work is and attempt a (re)definition which is more in line with the times than the traditional one.  By this I mean thinking of work not as a filler in terms of ‘stuff to do’ or ‘a place to be’ to meet hour quotas but as an interesting means to an end, the end being what I already stated above, i.e. a customer need met.  Work is a process, perhaps the ‘ultimate process.’  In Lean terms, any work that does not add value and helps reach that end is waste.  Thinking of work as the process that 1) causes a desirable outcome to be realized, where 2) workers use their intelligence to constantly adapt and improve their approach (which then becomes their work), may be a way to start redefining work as a rewarding endeavor and framing related discussions. After all, we don’t typically fill our car’s gas tank just to drive around aimlessly until it is time to fill it up again.  We do it so we can drive somewhere, presumably.  Driving is not an end in itself, with precious few exceptions.

In terms of work, the equivalent question that is rarely posed and never quite answered is, what is the destination?




PI considerations in a call center environment

Call centers serve customers in many industries and service sectors, including healthcare and  insurance, often in the context of claims. These may refer to property damage such as a car crash or theft, a house fire, or illness or damages suffered by the person, such as a serious injury or even death.  This post focuses on Lean considerations and other process improvement (PI) aspects that may lead to better customer service.

A Lean take on call handling

It is well known that call center staff follow prepared scripts in trying to answer customer queries and respond efficiently to people who are often angry, scared, or stressed due to unforeseen events such as those mentioned above.  Looking at this aspect of call handling, it is easy to spot potential deficiencies in customer service, to wit:

  1. overly long or unstructured scripts
  2. scripts that require the customer to answer questions that are not applicable to their specific situation, because the script is either too structured or too generic
  3. forcing the customer to stay on the line while a rep becomes available
  4. not having the customer information immediately at hand when the conversation starts
  5. making the customer repeat information they already shared with another handler on a previous call or even on the current call, as they are transferred.

Lean teaches us that there are several categories of waste potentially incurred when performing a task. By definition, waste does not add value and we should do what we can to eliminate it.  Types of waste include overproduction, excess movement, defects, waiting, inventory, and non-utilized talent, among others. In our case, all of the above examples have non-value-added (NVA) steps involving, at the very least, defects, extra-processing, and/or waiting. Transferring a call without much thought to a handler whose skills do not allow them to properly service the customer while the a handler with the right skills sits idle is, additionally, an instance of talent not utilized.

Potentially wrong fixes

Much of the corrective focus by management tends to be on retraining staff to follow deficient scripts that are judged to be too time consuming to redevelop.  Another tack often tried is brute-forcing a ‘solution’, by throwing more bodies at the problem to try to reduce wait times in the face of growing work volume. Doing this is likely to be insufficient and results in outcomes that are just as poor but that come at a higher cost. For example, the cost of having to train new handlers becomes an additional, distracting task for experienced but potentially overworked call center staff. The alternative, classroom learning, is unlikely to be good enough to allow a new rep to hit the ground running. There is also the additional complexity of coordination overhead due to more resources on the floor of the call center, and this is complicated by the potential unavailability of more senior staff on unpopular night shifts or weekend rotations. As work volume grows, the temptation exists for management to skimp on training and treat every staff member the same as to proficiency, even when individual capabilities clearly indicate this is not the case and the need for something else exists.

Sources of error

As we have seen, not having the right training and tools can negatively impact call center operations.  A more subtle source of errors and poor service comes from processes that are not well thought out, including not assigning the work to reps with different degrees of skill according to its complexity, not capitalizing on handlers who may be better at managing their queues, and making senior staff who are specialists at handling certain very complex situations be on the phone as ‘first responders’, a task to which other specialists may well be better matched.  The impact of constantly having to refocus on the work after a call has been wrapped up leads to repetitive setup time, cognitive overload, and reps feeling weary. From there to making mistakes or sub-optimal decisions is but a short step. These mistakes may lead to being out of compliance as well as failing to treat or compensate the victim of the damage accurately and in timely fashion.

Ways to try address these issues include paying great attention not only to both staff and complaint tiering, but also to scheduling and leveling the workload in the sense of calls handled per person, and to performing proper call (re)routing when the right rep is not available and response time targets are not being met, which may end with calls being assigned willy-nilly to anyone on the shift. I mentioned already the skill some reps have in managing their queues, and these ‘heuristics’ as to prioritization should be studied and used to teach others how to be more efficient, something that is separate from being proficient at claim assessment.

Proper metrics and the pace of change

Another aspect requiring close attention is designing good metrics.  This is no easy task.  For example, performance metrics should take into account the potential conflict between the number of calls handled (typically, higher is better) and the rest of the work to be done and having to do with the actual processing of the complaint or claim. It is unfair to penalize staff for what are conflicting goals set by management.  The average handling time (AHT) for a call is one such heavily used and abused metric, since it does not reflect the quality achieved in servicing the customer. It is no good to be ‘quick’ if the customer is dissatisfied, just as dragging a call on for an unnecessary length of time is no guarantee of better service.

It is also important to use metrics to teach first, rather than to penalize. Metrics should be introduced gradually, starting with, for example, first-pass yield, meaning what percentage of the work done is done correctly the first time and does not need revisiting. Attention should also be paid to the time frame and significant effort involved in data collection, and to ‘fitness for purpose’, for example whether these metrics are best used to gauge individual behavior or should be employed to gain a collective team view for the purpose of, say, outlier detection. Having too many metrics is confusing to all, and as bad as not having any. It may, in fact, be worse, because the illusion of having things under control and an excess of ‘executive dashboards’ lulls us into complacency.

Time is a valuable commodity, hence the reason why times are measured and pored over from many angles. These times, however, are often at odds with one another, and if management is not specific as to priorities, imposes conflicting priorities, or does not have a handle on what quality is, the call center staff may be left in a situation of involuntarily gaming the system to get better ‘scores.’  Management may also attempt to prematurely optimize a process, typically when standardization and consistency in execution have not been reached, thereby making any ‘insights’ arrived at virtually meaningless. These faulty insights are often used to drive change at a pace that is too fast and does not allow for settling down and the proper evaluation of its effects, further compounding the lack of understanding as to what may be going on.  The end result is usually customer service that does not reflect the right service values, as well as incurring unnecessary costs.

This has been a quick overview of a few of the call center issues that management needs to focus on if truly exceptional customer service with an eye on ROI are priorities.