Pull issues in service
For my first direct posting to LeanBlog.org, I thought I would jump right in. I get a lot of responses to my column, Leading Lean, which is in Assembly Magazine each month. I welcome those emails and thought I would respond to some of the questions here. My April column was about pull, and here was one of the responses I received:
How does pull work in a service business? Is a service business on the other end of this? In other words, a service business must meet the demand as it occurs. In a bank, for example, there must be enough tellers to meet the demand at different points during the day. Are there lean tools and concepts that help us to understand better how to provide excellent service without over-staffing?
There are two distinct concepts at work here. The first is pull in service and the other is leveling, or heijunka. Let's deal with pull first. To enable pull in any process, I first need to achieve some level of flow. Without any flow, with forks and loops in my process and waits and delays, it is difficult to have successful pull. So first thing about flow. Pull in the simplest sense is responding to consumption, whether it is a machine or a customer. Since I haven't actually been inside of a bank for years, I'll use another example. If a McDonald's is operating well (which is a big assumption), the process for making hamburgers should have some flow from patties to toppings to wrapping to the customer. Now, consider how McDonald's tries to work. They work towards having pull at the end-unit level. They can't make it just when you arrive, because you are only willing to wait about 2.5 seconds for your food before starting to grunt and groan with impatience. So they have end units, hamburgers, finished. Ideally, if they had a stock of 5 hamburgers, as one would be consumed, or put into a bag, that would indicate to the hamburger maker to make one more. It doesn't always work this way, but that is the goal. The reason is doesn't work is that there isn't a clear, unambiguous signal to replenish. That's all pull is – a clear, unambiguous signal. In service, consider what is consumed, whether it is time, materials, information, and how it is replenished or supplied. Then, is the need and the supply clearly connected?
The second concept this gets into is leveling the work. When you can achieve level work, a whole lot more waste can be eliminated, pull and flow work in a stable environment and capacity can be planned and minimized. However, our customers won't always accept that leveling. In Toyota, this is the case, and Toyota is willing to either have excess finished good inventories or leave orders unfilled on the table in order to achieve level flow on the back end. In service, such as a bank, our capacity is directly linked to the customer order. When you have spot demand, you can not produce to a day's average customer demand rate. Imagine if an emergency room said “we are designed for an average of one patient every 5 minutes, so you 40 people that just came in will have to wait.” Think about the other work that goes on. You might have to rebalance the work, cross-train and do some other things so that you can flex some resources. For example, one hotel used their deep cleans to fill the buffers on their slow daily-clean days, resulting in an level amount of work every single day.
Remember than in service processes, the lean concepts are not less applicable. They may be harder, but that is only because it is harder to see the process.
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