Recently, I read in the newspaper 22,700 legal cases have been postponed because of capacity issues with judges and their staff. It reminded me of a discussion I had a few years ago. During a summer party, I had a chat with a judge who explained to me some of his challenges. At the time being involved with family-related conflicts, he mentioned a problem I was familiar with as an engineer: lead time. He told me that it took fourteen months on average to close a case in which one partner wanted to adjust the alimony.
Being trained in project management, Lean and QRM (Quick Response Manufacturing), I asked him two simple questions. Do you have one person in the organization responsible for the progress of the case? The answer was a resounding “no”. Then, I asked how much time it actually takes to resolve a case. His answer: about 32 hours. The rest of the time the case was sitting on the desk of some expert, waiting for his or her input.
I recognized the enormous opportunity to improve efficiency and suggested he should contact an expert in Lean and QRM I know. A few months later, I inquired whether any progress had been made. He replied there had been some consultations, but in the end, management decided there was no money available for a process consultant. You can imagine how I feel these days when I read about capacity problems at the Dutch courts.
Improving efficiency requires more than just a focus on cycle time, though. There are many examples where such a focus led to huge performance wins without raising customer satisfaction. One example I often encounter is when people diligently finish a task as fast as possible – even before they start a new one, but forget that real customer value is only created when the customer can use the feature and when all underlying tasks have been finished. Teams report impressive velocity figures, measured per task, but customers are unhappy, as they’re still waiting to use the full feature.
This way of working also leads to a higher risk of having to redo things, as the ultimate validation of a task is when the customer signs off on the entire feature. Studies show a positive correlation between cycle time and defect density. Reworking defects is avoidable waste. And late customer feedback results in even more waste.
A customer often doesn’t know in advance what he needs. This uncertainty is addressed by introducing buffers. Everybody knows time buffers, but few are aware that these buffers always fill up and don’t help. They create an illusion of certainty. The same holds for specifications: if there’s uncertainty about what’s required, customers will overspecify, suppliers will undercommit. The best way to overcome this is to implement short cycle times allowing for fast feedback and adaption.
I remember when I worked for an organization that had a huge annual meeting to plan next year’s activities. It was a terribly difficult, 3-day event. The CEO asked me how to improve and my answer shocked him: let’s do this every month! But it worked; we became far more efficient but also far more predictable: planning horizons became smaller and we needed fewer buffers to address uncertainty.
So, whenever you struggle to make a build or even product release once every quarter, try to do it every week. But also with the smaller increments, make sure to deliver full features that represent customer value and allow you to verify the quality. As I learned from an experienced manufacturing manager: it’s all about cycle time and yield! It’s far more effective than adding resources.
Back to our courts and their capacity problems. It’s easy to say that it’s all about cycle time and productivity, and that adding resources doesn’t help. But, of course, this is irrelevant when productivity is not the highest priority. No doubt, people in courts work very hard, but sometimes it takes something special to create a breakthrough. And that’s where leadership comes in.