When I was in production, we used the term “waves” to describe the ebb and flow of work to the factory. Some days there would be very little, and others a big heaping pile. When the waves came, we worked overtime, bumped queues, and sometimes used less experienced workers to fill in gaps. So-called work-in-process was piled everywhere, and workers and supervisors flew around the factory, escorting the stodgy production flow.
Sometimes this experience was, dare I say, exciting—so much was happening at once. Most times, however, problems arose in the wave, and the experience was a nightmare. In all cases, the waves hurt productivity and quality. This unevenness created a multitude of potential problems, including mistakes, strain, and injury, the need for excess resources (and cost), and ultimately, workers with 10,000-mile stares.
So that was production, circa 1985. Over time, we discovered that much of the unevenness was self-inflicted, the outcome of crazy sales or operations policies. For example, sales bonuses paid on quarterly shipments forced orders out the door early (built on overtime). Then, the first couple weeks of the subsequent quarter were without full work—ebb tide.
A more recent chance discussion with a friend, Amy, who is an HR manager, yielded a wave example outside the production realm: Amy complained,
“Once each quarter I get an employee health benefits report. For each of our 130 employees, I have to check for dependents whose 26th birthdays will occur within the next quarter, and then notify the policy holders that their kids will no longer be covered.”
She went on to explain that the process was arduous and prone to mistakes. Further, she noted that employees with children whose birthdays were very early in the next quarter received only a few days’ notice and were annoyed by this.
“I lock myself in my office for most of a week, just to get this out of the way,” Amy said.
“So what about the rest of your work?” I asked.
“It just waits,” she replied. For four weeks out of each year, work waited while Amy handled her wave, in this case, of information.
“Why do you do this quarterly?” I inquired. “Why not more frequently?”
Amy responded, “We’ve always done it this way,” then added, “Four times per year is often enough!”
“But birthdays occur every day of the year,” I said. “Couldn’t your IT department flag these? Rather than a three-month batch of records, you’d have to handle only one day’s worth at a time.”
Amy reflected. “Maybe I’ll check with our IT department.”
Two months later, Amy called to let me know that in fact the IT department was sending her a weekly health benefits report—all sorted and ready for action. “I can’t believe I just got four weeks of my life back,” she said.
How many unexamined processes are there out there? Do you have a wave story? Please share.