‘The pregnant woman’ thinking in BPM

Let me paint a picture for you. You’re working on planning a project. Or to be more precise you’re working on re-planning a project because you’ve over run a deadline, or the scope has changed. The PM sits there with the plan in front of him and works through each individual entry, trying to work out what can be changed. He comes across an entry entitled ‘Transfer historic data’. It has a single resource assigned to it and should take 5 days. With a swift stroke of the pen he adds another 5 resources to it and the job has been shrunk down to a single days work.

Congratulations, you’ve just fallen into  ‘Pregnant Women’ thinking.

This is, essentially, when you have the following mindset ‘If it takes a pregnant women 9 months to have a child then by adding another 8 women into the task we can have that baby in one month’. Of course this is patently absurd, but it does happen. In fact it happens quite a lot. It is a symptom of project managers not understanding the nature of the work they are planning. There are always going to be tasks which cannot be altered through the additional of more resource. It happens in project planing, and it also happens in process design.

When you design a process you have the option of working out what the optimum number of resources needed to make that process work effectively. This can be through individual analysis of the process itself or through a simulation model using variable numbers of resources at various points. Each process step will have a number of data points attached to it. these could include processing time per transaction, waiting time, transfer time and number of resources.

When optimising a process it is always tempting to add more resources to the steps in the hope that this will reduce the cycle time. But often a process cycle is not governed by the actual number of resources working on the task, but by the nature of the task itself.

Take, for instance a simple two step process such as supermarket checkout. One person scans and totals the shopping, one person bags the shopping. Naturally there will be a queue forming at the check-out desk. The issue here is that the time taken to process one individual is fixed by the processing speed of the check-out assistant. This is a finite time. Adding another resource to that check-out queue will not speed up the process because  it isn’t a resource issue that is causing the bottleneck, it is a work-time issue. It physically takes a minimum number of seconds to scan each article and each shopper has a different number of articles to scan. that is your limiting factor. Adding another person to help packing, or putting two people on the same check-out desk will not speed things up and in fact that would slow things down. This is the shopping equivalent of the ‘Pregnant Woman’ thinking.

The easiest think that you can do then is to open another check-out line. But this line, too, will suffer from the same problem - there is a maximum throughput available for any given time period and adding more resource will not help. Ultimately the maximum number of people to be processed through all tills in a given time is limited by the number of tills you have available. If all available tills are working then adding more resource to the tills will not have any effect, just as adding more women to help the pregnancy will not speed things up.

So why am I telling you about this? Well, it’s basically because one of the problems in good process design is trying to identify time dependent issues and removing or eliminating them altogether. This is, by far, the quickest way of reducing process cycle times without adding further resource. I have spoken before of the insurance company who wanted to reduce their cycle time for issuing policies from 33 days to 3 days. They couldn’t work out how to do this until they realised that there was a 30 day delay in there caused by a process step where the policy was sent to a warehouse in Wales ‘to allow the parchment to dry’. Once that 30 day step had been removed the whole process was dramatically speeded up.

So, looking at the process work you are doing at the moment, is there a simple step that can be removed or change which would reduce your process cycle times?

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