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Lessons from the Conveyor Belt

Monday, 23 June 2008 00:00 Written by
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Adam Smith irrevocably changed our approach to work with his principle of Division of Labour. His principle of work specialization is still largely the premise of our modern organization structure design. Henry Ford incorporated this in his model of automobile assembly line manufacture and introduced on his shop-floor the conveyor belt that ensured that work went to specialists rather than the other way around. The humble conveyor belt has survived a century and still ensures that products are churned-out of production floors with pre-programmed precision.



And yet our other business processes, that don't run on shop floors, rarely have the same level of predictability. Customer and Employee requests/issues rarely get serviced in the "SLA" specified times. This is in-spite of the generally better intellectual abilities and motivations of "knowledge-workers" involved in these processes.

There are some valuable lessons to be learned from the conveyor belt.


"Task Owner" vs."Process Owner"

At the beginning of the line a chassis (or whatever is the beginning of the final product) is loaded on to the conveyor belt. Till the end the product remains with the belt and if you ever need to look for it you know where to find it. There are many who work on the product but it is the conveyor belt that always holds the job.

Can we say the same about a request that an Employee submits or a sales opportunity that a customer provides, do they know who has it the next day or for that matter do we know where to look for it.


Turnaround Time (TAT)


Once the chassis is loaded the final product can be taken-off from the belt at a pre-defined time. Rarely does the belt miss its timing, forcing all along the line to keep to its pace.


Can we say the same about that leave application or service request that an employee or customer "loads" on the system? Can you look at your watch (or even your calendar!) and say that the request would be approved and returned to the requester at a given time/date?




When the plant manager wants to know where a particular chassis is, all she needs to do is to look up at the markings of the belt and know where the chassis is and what stage of production is being performed on it.


Do we have a dashboard where we can track what's happening across all business processes that customers, business partners, employees and their supervisors are involved in.


Pushing the job along or "Workflow"

Those who work on this assembly line never need to look for work nor do the need to find someone to hand-over the job to. The belt brings their work to them and after they have done their job takes it away for the next job.

What happens when we need to hire or need data or a part to service a customer and the request needs to be approved by 3-4 people in the system? Does it move along or does it have to be pulled by each stage owner and chased by the requester or job owner?


Timely Escalation

In a line if you try to "hang on" to the job on hand, you can't cause the warning lights and bells would go off triggering corrective action by the line supervisor.

When someone does not act on a request in the time that they should what happens? Do we come to know of it before the irate Employee or customer calls us up?



Decision Support

A chassis usually come with its build instructions, and at some stages the equipment required to be integrated comes along too. The worker does not need to search around for the instructions or the part to be integrated.


When a training request lands on a manager's desk or a service request from a customer reaches a service agent, does she get the support information required to take the decision, can she see the past history or all the other decision support information that would enable her to make an informed decision while acting on the request,



In effect if we need to provide the same level of case ownership, cycle time control, tracking, escalation, work-flow and decision support in our key business processes we need to install a virtual conveyor belt. We need to "install" high availability, self-service and "push" based Business Process Automation systems that leverage knowledge.



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