Finding Pain Relief from Workforce Shortages
Hurting for employees? Of course you are! According to the Department of Labor, as of July 2021 there were roughly 1.7 million more job openings than there are people looking for work. Bleak news indeed, with little hope for improvement in the near future. So, how do you keep up with customer demand when you can't find staff? To my knowledge, there's only one other option – you have to do more with less. (Easily said, right?)
Don’t worry, I am not proposing longer hours or that you work harder. In fact, just the opposite. I'm suggesting you get more done with fewer work hours. Ha!, you think to yourself, and that snake oil will cure all my ills! But I'm not suggesting a miracle cure either. This solution will require both effort and continued focus, but it will take less time, energy, and money than other solutions. It will also help you meet customer needs with the staff you have.
So, what am I suggesting? Business Process Improvement (BPI). BPI has gone by many names (Total Quality Management, Lean, Six Sigma, etc.), but at its core, it's about improving the results of your business by mindfully designing the processes you and your employees follow. Most business processes evolve in a reactionary fashion. Remember when you first put processes into place? They were well thought out, simple, streamlined…you might even say, BEAUTIFUL. As the business grew or changed, however, the process was twisted to fit each new need or modified according to employee preference – new parts stitched onto old, holes patched with duct tape, steps skipped to meet tight deadlines – and now the Frankenstein monster limps through each day. These processes work (kind of), until the fire drills and breakdowns become nearly catastrophically overwhelming.
Here’s the good news: these inefficiencies mean there is likely so much potential to improve your business hiding just underneath the hood. It is common for a process improvement project to realize a 20 or 30% efficiency gain, and I've seen several that have doubled productivity. This is how organizations like GE, Motorola, and the US Army have saved billions of dollars using BPI. And the concepts work just as well for the small and mid-sized business owner!
So, how do you get started?
Look at your process holistically. Pick a core process and examine it from beginning to end. Talk to the people actually performing the work each day and ask them to walk you through it. Encourage open communication (now isn’t the time to correct issues) and don't just focus on the happy path. People will tell you they make sure X is right, then they do Y. Be sure to ask what happens when X is wrong, and how often that happens. You'll be surprised to learn how what's actually being done differs from that beautiful process you so carefully designed. This step alone will reveal inefficiencies that can be improved upon, or it may unearth ways your employees have already upgraded your original process. But don’t stop here, you're only getting started!
Talk to your team about the 8 types of waste (see infographic below). Waste is any step or action in a process that is not required to complete a process successfully. Identify where there is waste in your current process, and brainstorm ways you can eliminate it. Fun fact: Taiichi Ohno, "father" of the Toyota Production System (TPS), originally identified seven forms of waste. The 8th waste of non-utilized talent was added when TPS was adopted in the Western World.
Prioritize and select the process improvements and implement. You don't have to change everything at once. Focus on the low-hanging fruit first, then move on to efforts that require a little more planning. A “quick win” also helps build trust and win over those employees who are less than supportive of change.
Implement and monitor your results. DO NOT skip the monitoring step, as this is where some of the greatest observations come from. Be sure to ask employees affected by the process change for their vital feedback. You and your team will have implemented a fantastic new process, but it's unlikely that you thought of every eventuality upfront. Identify what's working and what’s not in your new process and adjust accordingly.
Written by Michelle Duncan, SSBB, CSM