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The Hidden Costs of Batching

It’s very unlikely your customers approve of batching but it’s quite possible you’re exposing them to it on a repeated basis.

To strive for continuous flow or not? While certain processes achieve immediate gains from the pursuit of continuous flow, many experience the burdens of the pursuit outweighing the gains, if there even are any. Now the burdens, from a lean lens, are simply barriers or problems to be solved which makes the overall process more efficient and usually more effective. But that often requires a long view (depending on your definition of long), and the pursuit is abandoned.

One of the common missed opportunities is a failure to see the impact of batching on your customer (internal or external) downstream in the process. Do you truly understand how your batching affects others? The impact of batching our work is most likely greater in downstream processes, or for your immediate customer.

One of my favorite examples is the hospital discharge process. You've had a stay in the hospital, for whatever reason, and you are ready to go home. It doesn't happen first thing, because the nurses have shift change and they have to wait for the doctors OK. But the nurses also don't want to wait until the afternoon, because they have to deal with food service, trays, and other issues for every patient that is there through lunch. The result is that the vast majority of discharges happen right before lunch.

That might be fine for the patient and nurses, but what about the transportation department. They have to be called because they bring the wheelchair to pick up the patient and transport them out of the hospital. This is not a resource so critical that you build surge capacity, and therefore when the majority of their demand happens in a 90-minute span, they are unable to keep up. The result - they can't keep up. And the discharged patient that you didn't order lunch for waits until 2 PM and is both frustrated and hungry because you batched the discharges.

I witnessed one hospital measure batching, looking at how many discharges were scheduled by hour, looking for surges in demand, and then reacting to problems where batching occurred. The result was improved patient satisfaction, in particular because the discharge process is often the patient's last experience with the hospital.

Performance evaluation, in all its many flavors, is also often a batched process, usually in an annual batch. Consider the internal customer of this process ­ the employee receiving the feedback. Of course, you have to start by getting that right. Some people think their boss is the customer in asking for rating and ranking of employees. Others think HR is the customer. But the core purpose is to provide actionable performance and behavior feedback for the purpose of improvement.

How does that feedback often come? In one end of the year batch. You worked well over 200 days. You had thousands of chances to perform well or make mistakes. And all of that is summarized in a batch and is immediately converted to compensation, without any chance to improve your performance. Imagine if you were a baseball pitcher, and you make 150 pitches but you only find out how you did at the end of the game. It is critical for feedback to come as you act. Your mind and body is actually able to process and utilize feedback without you having to think your way through it.

Meetings and decisions are another item that tends to be batched, without an understanding of the impact on others. One of my favorite examples is from a company that was trying to do the right thing by having a suggestion program along with a continuous improvement committee. Employees would submit suggestions, but the CI committee had to review them and approve them. The CI committee met every two weeks (their batch), although the meeting was cancelled 50% of the time, resulting in a monthly batch. Most of the time they had questions, which sent the suggestions back to the source for clarification, and then to wait for the next batch. It was not unusual, by the time the suggestion was approved, for the person to have moved, or forgotten about their suggestion, or other process changes making the idea obsolete. This is how batching decisions leads to waste.

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