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Rethinking the Queue

·3 mins

Inventory #

Many organizations have “inventory” or queued up work in which tasks sit pending until an employee is able to perform the task required. Inventory is sometimes viewed as an asset which ensures that work is readily available to employees as they need it and as a result of this many companies do not see the inefficiencies that can be hidden behind the numbers.

Traditionally in manufacturing, inventory is often considered an asset because it represents work completed or work in progress which will result in a product. Simply put, this viewpoint doesn’t fully consider the fact that inventory is a liability and a risk to the business. Work in progress could have poor quality and result in re-work and inventory represents an investment of resources that hasn’t yet been converted to a sale. Depending on the business, there are varying degrees of risk that languishing inventory could become outdated or obsolete and therefore never be converted to a sale.

Toyota is famous for recognizing this problem within their manufacturing and they implemented a revolutionary Just-In-Time (JIT) approach to manufacturing vehicles. While I cannot do full justice to the Toyota Production System, it is the pinnacle of JIT manufacturing in which inventory is kept to an absolute minimum in order to maximize throughput and deliver the best value to the business. Customers don’t realize that when a Toyota dealership needs to order a part, the part often is being made and shipped to the dealership to be installed.

When the JIT concepts were introduced to industry, some people thought that it was bad because they couldn’t steadily work on the same tasks throughout the day. It requires frequent and small batches of work which is counter-intuitive since it appears to be disruptive and inefficient. However, industry experts have proven repeatedly that JIT works and it allows companies to achieve faster throughput and a more steady state so that customer expectations can be satisfied.

Applying Just In Time to Knowledge Workers #

In many office environments, employees have a queue of work and choose which task to complete next. This is often viewed as a best practice in order to allow knowledge workers to prioritize the correct items and maximize their productivity by working on harder or more complex tasks when they are fresh in the morning and then working on easier tasks when they have limited time or towards the end of the day.

While the objective of utilizing employees’ knowledge to manage their work is laudable, it often requires time and energy spent on managing cases instead of the outcome which is the organizational goal. Shifting to a “pull” mentality in which employees pull only one task at a time, centralizes the task of managing workload and relieves employees at all levels from non-value activities. Furthermore, crediting systems can be developed around the complexity of tasks to ensure that more complicated work is credited fairly, once data is gathered regarding time spent on tasks of varying complexity.

Shifting to a “pull” mentality allows organizations to embrace lean principals and lower their inventories in order to deliver greater customer satisfaction (For further reading: As government agencies strive to deliver better service to taxpayers, it is important to leverage industry knowledge and best practices in order to increase throughput and efficiency, while keeping the focus on the organizational goals.