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overwhelm and maintaining productivity.

• Simplify the process.

Eliminate the

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

and the

Eight Lean Wastes, covered in the next


Step 3.

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

Step 2.


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

most productive.

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

the year.

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

as busy

Wednesday is the least busy day

Weekdays the busiest times are -

11:30 to 1:30 and

3:30 to 5 p.m.




Not Using

Human Talent






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