Officeworkers: Are you batching unnecessarily?

/Officeworkers: Are you batching unnecessarily?

I’ve been writing a new online course on how to apply Lean concepts to service processes, and in my reading up on the subject I came across this statement:

“Setup and changeover time don’t affect transactional processes, so there is no need to batch work in an office. Therefore flow is easy to achieve.”

At first, I took this statement as a fact, but then I considered it more deeply. Yes, it’s true that setup or changeover times are rarely important in transactional processes. Gone are the days when changing between computer programs required the user to save their work, exit the first program and then launch the second. Workers can now switch from one task to another instantly with no lost time – and many won’t even remember a time when this wasn’t possible!

Batches of work are created to maximise output while compensating for the losses incurred when transitioning from one product or piece of work to a different one. As changeover times reduce, these losses get smaller, and it eventually becomes possible to produce with a batch size of one. In manufacturing, this is called one-piece flow, and is often considered to be the holy grail of continuous improvement.

So, if there is no changeover time, there is no need to work in batches. Despite this, we find examples of batch working in offices every day:

  • Recording all customer complaints received during the week on Friday afternoons because the volume of sales calls is lowest then.
    Result: the start of complaint investigation and the implementation of any corrective actions are delayed, and the quality department have a huge backlog to investigate on Monday morning.
  • Editing an instruction manual as a single text instead of by chapter, because it needs to go to the printer as a single document and it’s easier to keep it like that during editing.
    Result: only one person can work on the text at a time, and each person who receives it has a longer task ahead of them so they delay starting until they have a lot of time available.
  • Instead of submitting their expense claims as they incur them, saving up receipts and submitting one big claim at the end of the month (or sometimes longer).
    Result: some of the expenses fall due on their credit card before they’ve been reimbursed by their employer, and the accounts department has a big surge of expense claims to settle at the end of the month.

Every one of these batching examples delays the output – the investigated complaint, the finished instruction manual, the reimbursed expense claim – and every one of them creates stresses on the people doing the work because they have a large pile to work on instead of a level, steady volume of work throughout the week. Often, having a large pile of work suddenly arrive in their in-box creates an urge to rush through it, and then the quality suffers too.

These batches are not driven by system, technical or machine limitations, they are driven by human behaviour. People do their work in batches because they like to work that way. It’s the way we learn many tasks: do them over and over again until we become competent, then move on to a different one.

In Lean Six Sigma, we learn to use the appropriate tool for each problem. Batching in office processes won’t be solved by reducing changeover times (Single Minute Exchange of Die, Rapid Setup, call it what you will), but by tackling the root cause of office batching: people.

When I’ve spoken to people who are creating unnecessary batches in office work, they’ve been unaware how harmful their actions are to the speed of the process, the quality of the output and the impact on their co-workers.

Introducing fundamental Lean concepts such as value, waste and speed, and then explaining the consequences of batching in these terms, allows people to recognise and then attack their own self-imposed process constraints.

So next time you think about spending an hour just replying to emails, think about how much more efficient you could be by not working in batches.

Liked this article? Why not take a look at our infographic illustrating the Seven Wastes in your office? Or read our five tips for being more productive at work.

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By | 2017-02-22T16:39:50+00:00 April 14th, 2015|Business Improvement|3 Comments

About the Author:

Jules has been a Master Black Belt for over 15 years, specialising in chemicals and plastics. He uses his background to show how Lean Six Sigma can be used to achieve fantastic results for businesses in all industries.

3 Comments

  1. Gavin 27th April 2015 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Interesting article, however it does not take into account the delay, frustration and opportunity for error introduced by context switching. As a developer I fully rely on batches of time to get into “flow” state – a point where your focus and productivity are at a maximum. Any developer will tell you about the benefits of having a 2-3 hour block with headphones on to just get on with it. On days where I am attending to a wide range of tasks and distractions I find I never get into flow.

    I suspect even batching up emails will allow switching of context where the first few are mediocre quality mails, thereafter allowing a flow, allowing a much more productive time in front of the keyboard.

    I agree that doing things as the come up frees you from having to remember to do them, but perhaps a system of marking things for attention and batching them to allow your day to end with everything either completed or marked for attention is the way to go..

    • Philippa McIntosh 28th April 2015 at 8:19 am - Reply

      Excellent point, and I think that is the case for a lot of creative tasks. You reach a stage for work where you know what you are producing is good and it would be detrimental to stop the task and ‘leave’ the zone. By the same token (correct me if I am wrong) there will be periods when you just can’t find your flow and work on other tasks until you feel you might be more productive. These creative type jobs, I think, often conflict with any kind of productivity advice as it is something you feel (the flow, the zone etc).

      As with anything, knowledge is power and having a little extra information could help you make decisions that will make you more productive in the future; it doesn’t mean that every piece of advice will be relevant to all aspects of work. Interesting angle though, thanks for your comment.

    • Jules Attard 28th April 2015 at 10:01 am - Reply

      Thanks Gavin. There is a balance between the personal efficiency from working in batches and the team efficiency from not, and a judgement is needed about where to strike that balance in each case. Just like any other process, there is an optimum batch size for a creative process, and the trick is to find it and then not exceed it: you’ve found 2-3 hours works (after which you’ll probably be ready for a break anyway), so working uninterrupted on one task for 2 or 3 days wouldn’t make sense.

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