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How backlogs occur:


ver feel like that ever-growing

backlog of un-started or un-fin-

ished files has a life of its own?

It can be hard to make progress

on it, especially while clients keep call-

ing, new requests come in and staff are

busy creating backlog reports. You bring

in temporary help to fix the problem but it

doesn’t help and you’re left with low staff

morale and an even larger backlog. If only

you could blow up that backlog.

Others have and you can too – here’s how.

January 2016 //

Canadian Government Executive /





Lean Dynamite for Backlogs

1. Increase in

volume of work

3. Team spends its reduced

capacity on non-value

added, preventable, work


worse by

4. Team spends capacity on:

Client progress-chasing


backlog reporting

• Fixing errors

• Clarifications

• Re-drafting

• False starts

• Looking for information

• Unnecessary approvals

• Excessive processing

2. Overwhelmed team,

thus reduced



worse by


5. Fewer files finished,

a growing backlog


Steps 2-5,

fall further


Lean thinking provides dynamite to

clear away the spiral of steps leading to

backlogs and prevent them from coming

back once and for all.

Step 1.

Increase in Incoming


In Lean, variation in demand is one of the

key “wastes”. I coached a public servant

from a provincial Ministry of Transpor-

tation who had taken a Lean Facilitation

course that I co-instruct. He was working

with a program area process that grant-

ed renewals of permits for businesses to

operate commercial vehicles. They had

a backlog of over 4,000 files and a 90+

day waiting period to process renewals.

Staff were stressed and clients, anxious

to keep their businesses running, were

unhappy with long delays. One of the

causes of the backlog was a variation in

demand for permits during high seasons:

April, when landscaping companies pre-

pare their trucks for the new season and

September, when snow-clearing compa-

nies do the same. Try as they might, staff

in the Renewals process could not deal

with this sudden increase in demand,

and built up backlogs that they tried

in vain to reduce before the next peak

month hit.

Note that the seeds of backlogs are not

only planted by unaddressed “high sea-

sons”. An unanticipated reduction (or

variation) in the number of staff avail-

able to perform even a steady amount of

work can also lead to a backlog. Either

way, the unaddressed variation in incom-

ing client demand, or supply of staff to do

the work, is where the spiral begins.