overwhelm and maintaining productivity.
• Simplify the process.
steps (and work) in the process that do
not add value. In the renewals example
extra printing, copying, cover sheets for
files didn’t add value and were designed
out of the process, making it easier for
staff to manage.
• Eliminate preventable work
Eight Lean Wastes, covered in the next
Team Spends its
Capacity on Preventable
Preventable work, such as correcting er-
rors or clarifying information, causes an
unnecessary interruption to the process
exacerbating the problem of backlogs.
John Seddon calls this “Failure Demand”,
demand on resources caused by a failure
to do something, or do something correct-
ly. By examining the profile of incoming
calls, the renewals team in our example
discovered that the permit application
forms were difficult to understand. Once
they re-designed the form to be more
user-friendly, and to reduce errors and
clarification, a major proportion of the
preventable work disappeared and pres-
to, their capacity to reduce the backlog
/ Canadian Government Executive
// January 2016
Variation in demands creates a backlog
which leads in turn to Overwhelm (or un-
reasonableness), another cardinal Lean
waste. When an unaddressed increase in
volume (or unaddressed decrease in staff
availability) hits, it hits staff hard. The
natural physiological response is “fight or
flight”. This response served us well long
ago when the sight of a tiger in our cave
triggered our brains to release cortisol
and epinephrine boosting us to outrun
the tiger, or at least outrun another hu-
man. Sadly for modern knowledge work-
ers, these same hormones short circuit the
deep thinking parts of our brain required
to do the highest value added work. The
only remaining brain functions unaffected
are the taxonomic functions – making to-
do lists – but not actually starting the tasks
in the list. The effect of this is to reduce
productivity, just at the moment when
individuals and teams need to be at their
How can you reduce overwhelm?
• Reduce incoming demand
(see Step 1.)
• Cross-train to balance work assign-
– when high season hits, certain
jobs are hit hardest. In the example of the
commercial vehicle permit renewals pro-
cess, the unit cross-trained staff to shift
into the high-overwhelm roles, reducing
What can you do about increases in de-
• Move demand to a “quieter” time of
In our case study, the Depart-
ment was able to use its existing legis-
lation to require permit renewals at the
same time as the vehicle registration,
thus distributing demand more evenly
across the year, outside of high season.
Other units that we have worked with
have strategically lengthened 12 month
permits to shift renewals to quieter
times (e.g. issuing 15 month instead of
12 month permits to place renewals a
few months later, to quieter times of the
• “Nudge” demand to a “quieter” time.
With the note captured above, a staff
member in a provincial service centre
tried their own “nudge” to do this. I ad-
mire the heroics of the staffer who posted
this information on a bulletin board in
the service centre. Senior Management:
why not post this information publically
so that clients can decide to move the tim-
ing of their request to a quieter time and
benefit from a shorter wait?
• Eliminate demand.
Some work finds
its way into a process that shouldn’t be
there. It may be that certain types of de-
mand are lower-risk and can be handled
by a simpler process, or eliminated alto-
There are eight Lean “Wastes” that can cause preventable work:
The following are the busiest
times every month
The first and last week of each
The busiest days of each week are
Monday, Friday and Saturday
Tuesday and Thursday are not quite
Wednesday is the least busy day
Weekdays the busiest times are -
11:30 to 1:30 and
3:30 to 5 p.m.
When a piece of work must be corrected, or if it is
missing information, or requires a clarification
When the work is passed on to the next step in
large volumes, then sits and waits, its data
becoming out of date and has to be updated
When the file stops and waits to be addressed,
resulting in progress chasing calls.
When people have the capability to add more
value, but are not enabled to do so.
When the file has to be transported too far,
increasing waiting and follow up .
Piles of work accumulating, while the information
in the files ages, needs to be updated, and client
complaints must be answered.
When people have to move too much to do the work.
When the process is too complex, too many steps,
requires too much effort to complete the work