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Using Systems Thinking to Improve Service Performance

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Since I've been studying and applying Systems Thinking for some time now, my wife recently asked if I could help her improve the performance of the services provided by her firm. She works as a partner in a law firm, and the bulk of the work relates to Sales and Purchase Agreements, i.e. buying/selling properties. Since this is the main part, any improvement has a huge impact on the bottom line.

Now, if I didn't know about Systems Thinking, and instead applied the usual management non-sense, I would go in and find out what the current performance is, by measuring something, and then start setting targets (let's say "improve this time by 10%") and then go "WORK HARDER!" to the clerks. Somewhat simplified maybe, but that's seems to be the gist of how current management theory works. The "WORK HARDER" part is usually done either by using bonuses and/or punishment (which Dan Pink has recently oh-so-nicely shown doesn't work), or by sending the clerks to "training courses" and "motivational speeches", the in the end usually amounts to no real change. Which is why those kinds of courses and speeches are a great business model, because repeat business is ensured.

With Systems Thinking as background, I looked at it a bit differently. The first thing a Systems Thinker does is to acquire knowledge, so I sat down with the clerks and asked them about how the SPA process works, and what are the time-consuming parts of it. It turns out that a big part of the problem is setting up the initial agreement document, which is what my wife does, as a lawyer. This is done by copying some previous existing document, changing it appropriately, and sending it out. This takes a lot of time, it's very very hard to know if the end-result is correct, and forces the clerks to continuously come back to my wife and ask followup questions.

So what I did in the end was very simple: we found out how many variations of agreements there are (48 in this case), and created a super-template in OpenOffice that used settable variables along with conditionally hidden texts, paragraphs and sections. We then proof-read this document (actually we went from 48 to 2 documents, because it was not possible to get all of it into one single document), found a bunch of "bugs" that had been there since the beginning, and then informed the staff on how to use it.

Now, instead of my wife having to spend up to two days drafting the agreement, the clerks can do it on their own, by filling in the variables which enables/disables sections in the agreement, and that's pretty much all. The entire process time went from two days down to about an hour, and with a much higher quality since the template has been triple-checked for consistency and accuracy.

This improves the quality of the service for the customer, both in terms of response time and document quality, and also minimizes the internal time used, which in turn means that the firm can take on more cases and have happier clients. We also made some other changes, such as proactively informing clients on the status of their files rather than have them call the firm to check, which reduces interruptions.

This is how Systems Thinking (which is not magic, just common sense) can improve the performance of service work, and also improve the motivation of the staff by minimizing confusion and interruption. With traditional management thinking, where a target might be "improve performance by 10%", we managed to improve the performance by several hundred percent instead. This is also anecdotal evidence for the Systems Thinking approach to quality and cost: "improved quality lowers costs. Cutting costs increases costs". Reading about these things is one thing, but when you see it in action, and how effective it can be, it really gives one an "aha"-moment.


Published at DZone with permission of Rickard Oberg, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Thomas Kern replied on Thu, 2012/09/06 - 11:01am

Couldn't have said it better. In lean words : Avoid local optimization and focus on the entire system (the flow). Just focus on finding where's the bottleneck is and on finding a solution to improve it.

Most managers don't like this way of thinking because it requires them to stop seeing their employees as "resource" that can be easily replaced. Taylorism as it best. 

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