The Seductive Backlogs

When I finished the rewrite of the QI Macros software into VBA, I filed a copyright application with the U.S. Copyright office. My copyright lawyer informed me that it would take up to eight weeks to get the registration.

Eight weeks? No wonder everyone thinks the government is a slow, stodgy bureaucracy. The registration is good from the time they receive it, but it still takes two months to get the official registration.

I can't imagine that they have one person working on my application for eight weeks. Probably no more than 10 minutes, maybe 20. This is the essence of Lean:

The people are busy, but the thing going through the process (in this case a copyright application) is idle over 95% of the time.

To shave a couple of days off this process, I sent the application via FedEx. Turns out this isn't the correct way to file an application. After 9/11 and the anthrax problem, many federal agencies outsourced the opening of their mail. FedEx goes into a different facility than USPS mail and subsequently takes longer than USPS. Only the government can turn FedEx's hare into a turtle or a snail.

Upon investigation, the application seems to have been lost. I had to resubmit it via USPS mail. Here's the good part. A regular application costs $45, but you can submit an expedited registration for $730. The delays have created a new profit center for the Copyright office.

Since the registration was already a month delayed due to the lost paperwork, I paid the $730 because I had to get the new version of the software registered so that I could offer it to our customers who were starting to upgrade to Excel 2007.

But it doesn't have to be this way.

Backlogs Are The Devil 

From a Lean perspective, backlogs are the devil incarnate. They are clear evidence that a process is too slow, error-prone and customer infuriating. I don't care if it's a two month wait at the Copyright office or a ten minute wait at Panera for a sandwich.

Backlogs are a problem!

How Backlogs Form

Backlogs start in a number of ways:

  • They are designed into the process from the start.
  • A tsunami of demand creates a backlog.
  • A rising tide of work creates a little backlog that grows into a huge backlog.

When I worked in the phone company, almost every new release of the ordering system software would create a flood of errors that could only be corrected by hiring temp workers, training them to fix errors, and putting them to work.

I recently scheduled my annual physical with my doctor. The first opening was six weeks away. Why? Backlog.

Wait times in a call center are a form of backlog.

When we focus on keeping people busy instead of keeping the "thing" going through the process busy, we're creating an opportunity for a backlog to form. And we're creating an opportunity for competitors to take our business by being better, faster and cheaper. And once you fall behind in the escalating arms race of business, it's almost impossible to catch up.

Why Backlogs Stick Around

Once a backlog forms at the flood stage of work, it becomes part of the process. We make excuses for it. We pretend we'll get around to clearing it. And like a river pushed beyond its banks that creates new channels for the flow, the backlog becomes a part of "the way we do business."

Or we rationalize: "We've got to keep our employees busy!" The best way to do that is to always have work for them to do. Backlogs are great for keeping people busy, but are lousy for keeping the product or service busy and customers happy.

And, like the Copyright office, once we've created the backlog, some enterprising product manager recognizes the opportunity to create a "new class" of service (expedited) to solve the customer's problems with backlog by charging more money for the faster service.

Eliminate the Backlogs 

So admit it. Your business has backlogs. Maybe purchasing is behind in purchase orders. Sales is behind in sales calls. Invoicing is behind in billing.

And you tolerate it because "it's just the way the system works."


Use the 5Ss 

Go through the process and use the 5Ss to sort, straighten, shine, standardize, and sustain a clean workflow.

Redesign the Process 

Draw a spaghetti diagram and a value stream map to identify ways to eliminate the delays between steps.

Remember: 95% of the delays are between steps, not within them. Focus on the "thing" going through the process, not the people.

Once you've redesigned the process, start running some of your new work through it. Your first cut at the redesign isn't perfect, so iterate to simplify and streamline the process before you turn it on permanently.

Set a goal: What is the maximum amount of time a customer request can be in the queue before you take action to get it done? I recommend that anything over 24 hours is an invitation to backlogs.

Drain the Swamp

Once you start part of the staff on following the new process, you'll then need to drain the backlog of work. You may need temp workers or overtime or some extra resource to make this happen.

Here's My Point

You've gotten used to your backlogs. You may have whole fiefdoms dedicated to the backlogs. They've become an excuse for poor performance and service. They've become an excuse for managers to grow their staff. They've become an excuse to sell higher priced "expedited" service.

You are doing your customers a disservice and you're setting your business up for failure.

And admit it, your backlog of email probably kept you from reading this email until right now.

We're all susceptible to the siren's call of the backlog. So recognize your backlogs and eliminate them one by one in order of priority. Your people will be twice as productive and make half as many mistakes. And your people will still be busy, because customers will notice you're faster and give you more business. Faster businesses grow three times faster than slow businesses.

Let the power of speed seduce you, not the siren's call of the backlog. It's up to you. Would you rather be comfortable, slow and eventually extinct? Or would you rather constantly find new ways to eliminate delay and delight customers?

Rights to reprint this article in company periodicals is freely given with the inclusion of the following tag line: "© 2008 Jay Arthur, the KnowWare® Man, (888) 468-1537,"

Free Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt TrainingTake our FREE Lean Six Sigma Yellow Belt training online.