The Ultimate Guide to Creating Efficiencies in the Workplace (Part I)
I’d like to tell you a story. Like all good stories, there’s an important moral at the end, with twists and turns along the way. There are no pirates, dragons, or interstellar travel, but there’s a good-hearted group of adventurers on the path to greatness … just maybe not the greatness they envisioned at the start.
This team was building a work management platform that would be used by peers across the land -- a VERY exciting adventure. The foundation of the platform, tracking information about their products, was complete, and the focus had shifted to tracking the processes that created the products. While there had always been a process in place, the specific details were hard to come by. This led to questions about product readiness, staffing needs, regional differences, and ways to improve the process.
Our team of adventurers went to work defining all the possible steps in that process, all the different ways those steps might come together into a product’s creation, the required paths based on product types, and the schedules by which the work needed to be done. They sought guidance from the craftspeople, the managers, and the senior leaders. They worked with technical experts to build the work tracking capabilities, automating the calculations and task assignments, all so that the organization could have the data to improve processes and increase efficiency. Many months after the team began, the system was ready, and it was rolled out among great fanfare.
Within weeks, it was clear that the process tracking capabilities were not being used as expected. When asked why they were not making use of the fantastic new capabilities, users were too busy doing the day-to-day work to take on additional steps (no matter how few) that didn’t make that work easier today.
Too much to do, too little time to do it all, and now one more thing taking time away from doing it? Wasn’t going to happen. Within months, the capabilities were turned off, the data had not been collected, and the promise of process and efficiency improvements felt more like a dream.
Hey, I never said the story had a happy ending!
In that story, we weren’t able to improve workplace efficiency, but maybe we weren’t on the right path. After all, what exactly do we mean by “efficiency?” Most of us think “efficient equals fast,” and efficient people, processes, and tools often are fast. But the formal definition of efficient is “productive of desired effects,” with a follow-up note “capable of producing desired results with little or no waste.”
There is a lot to unpack there, so let’s break it down.
- • “productive of desired effects” – to know whether something is efficient, you first have to know the desired effects you’re working toward
- • “capable of producing” – note that the focus is on whether it CAN produce the desired effects, not whether it DOES produce them
- • “desired results” – there it is again, the focus on what you’re trying to achieve, not necessarily on how you’re doing it
- • “with little or no waste” – sounds great, but how do you know what’s necessary and what’s waste?
Much like the users in my story, I imagine you don’t have room for waste in your work. You have too much work to do and not enough hours in the day or people on the team or money to spend to get it all done. I’m pretty confident that you would love to do more and produce more desired effects. It’s easy to think of efficiency as a focus for “management” or “the board” or (from my story) “the senior leaders,” but it can be a powerful tool for everyone in your organization.
Another (shorter) story for you: a team was responsible for working with physician’s offices and insurance companies to process approvals for care. There were forms to fill out, charts to share, cover sheets to print, and at the center of it all, faxes to send and receive. The process took time, focus, and expertise, and any increase in efficiency meant an increase in the number of patients served per day.
However, the team’s process had to follow the insurance companies’ rules, so their options were limited: they had to print out documents, pick them up off the printer, go to the fax machine, send the fax, and then walk back to their desks. But because the office had been set up years earlier (before the work processes were established), the printer and fax machine were at opposite ends of the long row of desks. It had always been that way, and everybody learned that process when they started. It was only when someone from another office visited and asked, “Why aren’t the printer and fax next to each other, in the middle of the row?” that a simple efficiency improvement was found.
As the printer/fax story shows, there are many ways to create efficiencies. Here are a few examples.
- 1. Do a deep-and-wide review of your current processes. Start by identifying what matters most to your organization, so that you have an explicit, shared understanding of your desired effects and results. Catalog the tools and processes you currently use, including the time and effort it takes to do the work against that work’s contribution to what matters most. Ask the questions that might seem obvious or outlandish (e.g., “what would the result be if we just didn’t do that anymore?”) to identify and question assumptions and tease out waste.
- 2. Look for efficiencies as part of an existing process. A great option is to pay particular attention to what you teach new employees when they join the team. Are there explanations that start with “I know this seems silly, but” or “I wish it didn’t work this way, but” or other similar excuses? Which systems and processes do you receive the most questions about? If someone is struggling in an area, is that because the work is challenging, or because it introduces waste? After a few months in the role, can new team members explain how their tools and workflows directly contribute to your organization’s desired effects and results?
- 3. Make it a regular habit for yourself. Keep a notebook at your desk, and jot down the times when you get frustrated. What sorts of things are you constantly following up on? What interrupts you throughout the day? Where are you spending time and wondering if, how, or when you will see the benefit?
No matter how you produce ideas, the next step is to start a cycle of ongoing execution and evaluation.
- 1. Pick a time to review what you have identified and make sure that the review gets prioritized and completed.
- 2. Dig into the reasons why these things occur, being honest without being judgmental or accusatory.
- 3. Imagine what a better situation would look like, how that vision reduces waste, and how it focuses on your desired results.
- 4. Define what the first step toward “better” might be (not the full plan to get there just yet).
- 5. Figure out how and when you will measure progress and how you will choose the next step, and then the next one.
Repeat this process regularly, including feedback from your “first steps” along with new opportunities to improve and you will discover more productive habits. Keep a continued focus on evaluating your progress against your desired effects and results which may change over time.
At KCare, we have over 25 years of experience helping our customers improve their efficiency and accelerate care for vulnerable populations. Even our Core Values reflect our commitment to Always Learning and being Open & Honest as we Prioritize Our Customers. We are here to put time back into the hands of human services workers, so they can use it where it’s needed the most.
Chief of Staff, KCare