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Of Constraints & Communication

Sometimes we also address less tangible business and office processes, yet perhaps the most influential-to-performance business processes are rarely addressed.Perhaps we don’t address them because we don’t perceive them as processes per se, but I argue that we should.

While learning, studying, and practicing the science and art of process improvement and business betterment, we commonly focus on observable, measurable manufacturing processes. Sometimes we also address less tangible business and office processes, yet perhaps the most influential-to-performance business processes are rarely addressed.

Perhaps we don’t address them because we don’t perceive them as processes per se, but I argue that we should. I’m referring to our channels of communication, particularly the alignment of decision-making authority and responsibility with the channels of information necessary to make decisions.

Also, we must address how quickly and accurately instructions and directives are channeled through our organizations. The lag between identification of a need or problem, the decision about what to do, and executing the action a decision dictates can be just as wasteful as a broken manufacturing process or stalled production line.

Here is an example. The quality function representative at the receiving dock opens a package of test samples and discovers that the part numbers are not correct. The quality representative calls the engineer and the purchaser to inform them of the problem. When the engineer gets the message she informs the project manager and then goes to the receiving dock to see if the material is correct and the label is wrong, or if the material is incorrect.

The engineer and the quality person decide that the material is correct, but the label incorrectly identifies the part number and further decide that they can correct the labels at the receiving dock and do not need to send the test samples back. The purchaser still has some work to do with the supplier to ensure the mistake is not repeated, but the immediate problem is solved.

It sounds like a relatively simple problem with a simple solution. Hopefully, I also chose an example that seems common enough.

Let’s consider it in terms of time. If we assume that everything happens immediately because everyone involved is available and picks up the phone or answers the page when it happens, then the whole process and resolution probably only takes a few minutes. For the sake of discussion, let’s say that the whole process takes 20 minutes to resolve from identification of the problem to solving it and sending the received samples into process for testing.

Now, let’s examine another likelihood. The quality inspector at receiving sets the samples aside while finishing inspection of other incoming goods and doesn’t make the phone call to the engineer for an hour. The engineer doesn’t answer the phone and the quality inspector leaves a message. The same happens with the purchaser.

The engineer listens to the message at the end of the day and decides to take a quick look before going home, but can’t find the quality inspector or the material in question so decides to try again in the morning. The purchaser decides to wait until the engineer can determine if the material needs to be rejected before taking any action. 

Sometime the next afternoon, the engineer and the quality inspector finally coordinate and take a look at the material. However, in this play-out of our example scenario, the engineer is not so certain about what she observes in the box and feels she needs more information before deciding if the material is correct or incorrect.

By the time the engineer and the purchaser coordinate the supplier is closed for the afternoon, it’s in a different time zone. So, again, resolution will need to wait until the next day. The next morning, under pressure to get test samples into testing, there is very little delay in calling the supplier, but they wait until the afternoon before the supplier provides the answers they need. Unfortunately, the information waits in the engineer’s e-mail inbox while the engineer is in a meeting.

So, finally, the next morning the engineer reads her e-mail, examines the material and corrects the incorrect labels. By lunchtime of the third day, the problem is finally resolved and the samples are sent to the test lab. 

However, the lab no longer has availability to run the tests. Not knowing where the samples were, if they were correct, or if they would be rejected, or when they might or might not be delivered for testing, the lab proceeded to its next line item in the queue to prevent other projects and tests from being delayed. The samples will need to wait two days before the lab can process them.

I don’t think that I have exaggerated the real possibility of the scenario. The difference between one resolution of the problem and the other is based on two things.

  1. The availability of people to coordinate and solve the proble
  2. The availability of information that people have or need to make a decision

The time difference between one resolution and the other is 5 and ½ days.

Reasonably, the problem could be worse if the test lab, receiving dock, and engineer are not collocated in the same facility or even the same region. If such were the case, then, instead of trying to solve the problem, the quality inspector would likely simply reject the samples. In that case the purchaser would need to execute the process to return them, the supplier would need to receive them, correct them, and send them back, or send some correct ones while waiting for the rejected ones to appear.

With all of the shipping involved, the latter could also take 5 days, but how many days might the instructions to reject and re-order the materials sit in the purchaser’s inbox before being processed? Would the supplier have questions or doubts to address? How much time would that process insert into the time line until correct samples were delivered to the test lab?

These kinds of scenarios are common. They plague our businesses every day. I think that there are several reasons why, even in environments deeply steeped in process improvement methods, these delays can be commonplace.

The first reason is that we don’t necessarily see them as “process” problems. They are communication problems, for sure, but not the process problems we were trained to address. Second, it’s not easy to point at a clear owner of the problem, much less the process we might use our tools to fix. Third, it’s not immediately apparent that the problem is repeatable.

Of course we know that the trigger, or the cause of the problem might be repeatable, but how it plays out and gets resolved is certain to be different every time. This is part of why it doesn’t appear to be a process. It also discourages us from thinking that our process improvement tools offer the means to fix them.

Consider two things. While the way a scenario plays out may be different every time, the root cause is repeatable. Therefore, our process improvement methods for addressing root cause are still valid. We can address root cause to reduce or eliminate the occurrences of problems. When we do this, it doesn’t matter so much how they play out, it’s at least less often.

Also, the difference between a 20-minute resolution and a 5-day resolution is the availability of information and people to make a decision and take action. We don’t need elaborate process maps, large teams, scheduled events, and a whole box full of tools and scientific measurements to address the solution. All we need to do is put our process-solving common sense and possibly a few simple diagrams together to figure out how best to ensure that the right people and information are always together when a repeatable problem does occur.

The specific methods and solutions to ensure that instructions, questions, and information don’t wait around for hours or days on end vary greatly between organizations, and they should. By all means, ask your neighbors how they address the same challenges, but be sure to design and institute practices that fit your organization’s culture. If they don’t fit, they won’t be used or followed, and they won’t work.

Keep your process improvement eye perpetually alert for the communication delays and breakdowns that afflict your business execution and decision-making. Don’t get carried away trying to map how specific events unfold. Do use your tools and know-how to diagram the challenges and the mismatches of information, authority, and expertise. Work to re-align those elements and eliminate hand-offs.

Simply being alert to constraints to, and breakdowns of, the flow of information and communication, and eliminating bottlenecks and mismatches can have an enormous impact on business performance. It may have greater leverage than more conventional process improvement. After all, most conventional process waste and delay doesn’t cause things to be 5 days late to their destinations, but a simple breakdown of communication and decision-making will often do so.

Stay wise, friends.

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