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Doing more with less, part 3

05152015-lean-part03-440In the first part of this blog series, I attempted to highlight the fact that we generally are experiencing growth in the amount of work that needs to be performed in the utilities industry, but are also seeing a reduction in the available workforce.

In the second part, I explained that one possible solution is to use lean techniques to increase efficiencies and eliminate process waste.

Now, in this post, I want to take it in a different direction. Most of us intuitively understand that staffing costs make up a large portion of most organization’s budgets. A recent Gallup poll found the average full-time employee works 47 hours a week. We might conclude that the existing workforce is already walking along the edge of the work-life balance cliff.

It seems that firing staff to reduce costs is not feasible. It is also unlikely that asking people to work more hours would be a successful long-term strategy. There may be a way, however, to better manage the workforce in a way that still provides customer satisfaction while better managing headcount and working hours: doing more with less.

I will describe an innovative approach to leaning out the workforce. In Lean terminology, this approach can be called a ”staffing Kaizen.”

The scenario is that your work group has experienced a voluntary or involuntary loss; someone is no longer with the team. The typical reaction is to immediately post that position and try to hire a replacement. This would seem to solve the need to get the work done and not overload the remaining staff. But consider another approach to this common situation.

To set the stage, we first need to define the three types of work. Every task done by every employee falls into one of these categories.

  • Value Add
    Any activity or task that transforms the deliverables of a process such that the customer is aware of it and also will to pay for it (e.g. a complete set of substation design drawings)
  • Type I Waste
    Non-value add activity that is currently necessary (e.g. timesheets)
  • Type II Waste
    Non-value add activity that is not necessary (e.g. generating a report nobody reads)

Now, before you decide to replace the employee or fill the role, take a few days to get the work group together and do the following:

  • The group as a whole defines who their customer is and how they provide the quality, delivery, and costs for which their customer is willing to pay.
  • Each employee then fills out a spreadsheet describing the various tasks they do in a typical week, along with how many hours it takes for each.
  • The next step is a reality check – how do the individual task lists match up with actual timesheet records? It is not unusual to see weekly work that adds up to 55 hours a week, yet the timesheets are 40. Adjust the task lists until they are “real.”
  • Take every task on every list and classify it as Value Add, Type I waste or Type II waste. This step can be brutally painful, but is absolutely necessary. None of us enjoys considering what things we do that may not be something a client is willing to pay for. Work hard to move Value Add to Type I, and Type I to Type II. The reality for most jobs is that very little ends up actually being Value Add.

Take these steps and wrestle through the lists. My experience has been that nobody dies and that the exercise sets up a successful outcome for the work group.

Next, the team determines what Type II tasks can simply be eliminated. Hours of “work” simply can disappear.

Then the team looks at who is doing each task. Take a hard look at which job classification is doing the tasks and ask if it is appropriate. Aggressively re-allocate the remaining tasks into the appropriate job classifications. This is now the proper work group structure, where the team has balanced the workload and defined the correct staffing level.

What many groups discover is that either the position does not need to be filled, or it can be filled at a lower-cost classification. Either way, this is where the savings are captured. In the many Kaizens in which I participated, very few resulted in a no-hire decision. Yet, most of them did result in hiring a replacement in a different classification.

To summarize, there are valid ways to optimize staffing assignments within work groups and companies. If rigorously applied, this rather straightforward evaluation can yield considerable savings, improve employee morale, clarify roles and balance workloads. All of these outcomes are helpful when considering how to “do more with less.”

So, now I need to figure out if a blog is Value Add, Type I waste or Type II waste…hmmmm.

About the author

Marlon is our account executive in the Power market. He has more than 35 years of experience with all aspects of planning, design and construction of 12.5 kV-345 kV distribution and transmission systems, including right-of-way, design, regulatory coordination, public information meetings, public testimony and project management. With an extensive background in power transmission and distribution, Marlon brings a wide variety of knowledge in discussing the energy industry and the issues it faces. From education of future engineers to critical infrastructure analysis, he offers a unique perspective on the industry and where it's headed.