110 – Improving service operations. Start with a service action plan.

Posted by Colin Weatherby                                                                         1250 words

service brainstorming

I was recently discussing service improvement with a colleague. He described to me a two-stage process he has been using with operational staff in his team to determine how their work can be improved generally, and then how to re-design services if required.

It is an intensely practical two-stage approach to working with teams collaboratively to understand work and improve operations to get better customer outcomes.

The first stage involves bounded brainstorming by the whole work group, their Team Leader and the Manager to respond to the question – how can we do our work better? It is not intended to question whether or not services should be delivered, just how they can be improved. The process is intended to be inclusive and to quickly lead to action. The output is a service action plan.

The second stage involves redesigning services if this has been identified the way to make improvement. The redesign process is led by the Team Leaders and Manager using some simple reengineering and operations management tools. The output is a new service design.

Stage 1 – The service action plan

A series of meetings are held to collect ideas from all team members in relation to how work could be improved with consideration for six dimensions of service:

  1. Working safely and keeping the public safe.
  2. Avoiding waste and being efficient.
  3. Getting the quality right – first time, every time.
  4. Providing customer service that meets expectations and Council standards.
  5. Measuring performance and compliance.
  6. Continuing to improve work and innovate.

Three or four team meetings of one hour duration are scheduled over a six week period.  All team members and supervisors participate, with a Team Leader facilitating and the Manager recording ideas on butcher’s paper or the whiteboard.

The first meeting is to gather ideas.  A simple list is brainstormed with consideration for each of the 6 dimensions of service. Each team member is asked to contribute an idea in turn and this continues around the room until all ideas have been gathered. This ‘bottom up’ generation of ideas provides for input from everyone.

The Coordinator and Team Leaders then analyse those ideas and reflect on them in relation to service demands, service levels and available resources.  They sort the ideas raised into groups and put them into a ‘stop, start, continue, what else?’ matrix before bringing them back to the second meeting.

At the second meeting the Team Leaders report back and leads a discussion on possible actions in response to the ideas identified at the first meeting.  They will provide a ‘top down’ management viewpoint on potential actions in the work they have done in preparing the ‘stop, start, continue, what else?’ matrix.

service dimensions matrix

All team members are now asked to contribute to refining these actions into a set of actions that the team can do.  Again, the Team Leaders will take away the ideas from the meeting and use them to formulate a draft action plan for review at the next meeting.

At the third meeting, Team Leaders present the draft Service Action Plan. It will have SMART actions allocated to each team member to be done over the coming 6 months. Each team member has a chance to discuss the proposed actions, timeframes and expected outcomes.

Read on for further information.

Some tips

At the first meeting it is helpful to structure the brainstorming by asking each person to contribute an idea in turn and using the list of criteria as a prompt. For example, “Mary, do you have any ideas about how we can do our work better? No one has contributed anything on safety yet, do you have an idea?” All Team Leaders present can contribute ideas and the Manager can seek clarification of ideas when writing them on the whiteboard. It is difficult to stop people talking about solutions at this stage and inevitably there is time spent discussing and recording some responses to the ideas generated. This needs to be managed but can be helpful to inform the Team Leader response.

At the second meeting when the Team Leaders present their response to the ideas, it has been helpful for the ideas to be written in a spreadsheet and sorted into themes relating to the six criteria with columns for continue, stop, start and ‘what else’. The response is presented to team members in the order of continue, stop, start and then stop to move from the known to the unknown in the meeting, beginning with the easiest issues to address. ‘What else’ is intended to catch ideas that don’t neatly fit into any of the other categories.

At the third meeting a proposed action plan is presented by supervisors. No more the 6 actions should be selected for the next 6 months to prevent overload. Any big issues can be broken down into 6 month instalments. In the meeting, everyone gets a chance to discuss the actions, and responsibility is assigned to team members by agreement. Implementation of actions is then to be monitored at tool box meetings.

Another service action plan is scheduled for 6 months time, at which time the ‘parked’ actions can be reviewed for inclusion in the next action plan. The third meeting often isn’t able to deal with all actions in the detail work group members would like and a fourth meeting might need to be scheduled.

It has been helpful to start the third meeting by listing the strengths of the work group that have been identified through the process. The service action plan is likely to focus on gaps and opportunities for improvement and it could miss some of the real positives that have been identified.

The Manager has a key role in the process. As the scribe, the Manager has the ‘power of the pen’ and can ask questions to clarify ideas before recording them. From time to time, the Manager can step into ‘manager mode’ and provide their view on an idea. This can start to influence work group culture and manage expectations about the service action plan.

The Manager also needs to meet with Team Leaders at their meetings to respond to ideas and develop the proposed action plan. It is a good idea to schedule all work group and supervisor meetings at once. Allow 3 weeks between the first and second work group meeting and then 2 weeks between further meetings. In the intervening period supervisor meetings need to be scheduled so that they are prepared for each meeting.

In the service action plan, all actions should be SMART. Make sure you start at the right place – many attempts to write SMART objectives gets stuck by starting with whether or not a proposed action is specific and measurable before thinking about whether it is relevant. So, actions must be Relevant to doing work better, Achievable in the next 6 months, and then Specific, Measurable and Time-bounded to assist in implementation.

service action planNote:

  • Do it means plan to complete the action within the next 3-6 months (i.e. something that will make a difference if we do it now).
  • Park it means set it aside for action at a later date (i.e. something worth doing, or at least looking at doing, but not now).
  • Share it means let another part of Council know that the action is required by them (i.e. actions where another part of Council has to help us or do something that enables us to do our work better).
  • Store it means there is no current requirement or opportunity for action but it is a good idea and there could be an opportunity to act on it if circumstances change in the future (i.e. don’t forget it and don’t keep coming up with it