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I Think My Team and Service are Efficient, But How Do I Know?

I get asked this question a lot by clients who are squeezed by funds. They have an inkling that maybe something is wrong with a specific service, service delivery model or maybe a unit but aren’t sure enough to actually figure out whether and how to fix the issue.

Particularly when you are a broader public sector or community organization, and your funds are tight, non-existent or shrinking and you don’t have enough funds for a big Lean Six Sigma project: you don’t want to invest in a project you don’t need.

So here are 5 ways that you can figure out whether you are efficient enough or not.

Option #1: Ask Your Staff

This is going to sound crazy, but many times the staff can tell you not only how you are doing compared to the past, but also how you compare to others. Ask your staff to be truthful, and don’t beat around the bush.

Be specific: where are we doing poorly, and why? Is this the way it has always been, or did something change?

Its one of the first places I check when I am hired. Sometimes staff will tell an external consultant or expert as long as it is anonymous, but often I am told by those same staff they have said the same things multiple times at meetings but haven’t always been listened to.

Option #2: Measure Yourself

The goal here is to measure the activities and time it takes to complete the service from end-to-end and track it over time to see when and where problems occur. There are lots of tools and techniques you can use once you have some of this data; but first you need to track over time. And the more data you have to work with the better (as it is easier to see a long-term trend).

You may have an IT system that tracks some of this already. You can task an employee to go in and pull together the data.

But what if you don’t?

The high-end way to do this is to have someone do a time motion study: you stand there with pen and paper and stopwatch and time every single step in the end-to-end process. But public sector/community organizations seldom have a spare body or the time to do this.

So, the option I often use is a throwback: use a paper log. Start at the beginning of the end-to-end process and write down the main activities and time slots. Log time in between hand-offs between staff, etc.

Over time you will see on paper where delays occur, and with a little sleuthing you can figure out why.

Option #3: Compare against benchmarks

Once you have some time stamps and data to work with, you can compare yourself against available benchmarks. This is easiest for back-office services such as finance, HR, and administration.

There are loads of organizations out there that publicize average benchmarks for various industries. Often it can be a stretch to find it for community or public sector organizations, so I have learned over time to use the next best thing: municipalities track their back-office functions quite publicly and publish benchmarks each year.

Option #4: Ask Your Peers

But what if you are looking at a front-end service where there are no publicly available benchmarks?

This is where your fellow community or public sector organizations can help out. Reach out to 3 to 5 similar organizations in similar settings and see how they are doing it. What challenges have they faced in becoming more efficient? How have they handled it?

Option #5: Do a Mini Efficiency Audit

Finally, if none of those approaches will work for you my advice is to try a mini audit. In this kind of exercise, you task a/some staff to review the service model and provide an idea on where the challenges are and why they might be happening.

There are typically 4 areas where efficiency challenges happen: people, process, technology or policies. You can dive down into each of these and ask the following questions:

  • Do we have the best resources working on this area (i.e., do we have the best people? The best process?)

  • Are they optimized?

  • What are the challenges they face?

  • Why do those challenges, gaps or barriers exist? (I would use the “Five Whys” in this step)

  • What have we done about this before?

  • Given all of the above, are there some obvious steps we can take to try to improve?

Sometimes You Do Need an Outside View

I can tell you from 22+ years that all of the above steps work, but sometimes you just don’t have the time or staff know-how to do this. Or maybe you do them, and you still can’t figure it out. At that point in time, I would talk to someone who does this kind of thing for a living, and they should be able to ask a few questions and pretty quickly tell you whether it is worth an efficiency project or not.

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