The Law of Unintended Benefits

When I work with businesses to help them with shop floor or office productivity, there is often a barrier to overcome. It is the initial scepticism of workers when they are challenged to improve their productivity. There is a natural tendency to resist because it seems to be such a huge ask. Most workers these days only seem to have enough time just to get the job done never mind take time out to improve their processes.

I sometimes get round this by asking them to take me through a routine task that is stable and mature, something like raising a sales order on the system or picking a kit for despatch.

After watching with them as they talk me through the process I tell them the time it took. Let’s say it took Janet 2mins 30 seconds.

“Does it always take that time?”

“No it depends on how big the order is and who the customer is.”

“What makes it take longer?

“There are more lines to enter on big orders and sometimes I need to investigate who exactly the customer is, so you have to figure it out a bit.”

This is the important part of the questioning. The fact that larger orders take longer than small ones is clearly not a surprise, but why is it some customers are easier to identify than others?

There is clearly waste in this process but rather than say “can we do this in half the time” and cause panic in the worker why not ask :

Can we reduce the time it takes to do this task by 1%?

Not so hard to find a small change that will achieve that. In our example above of 2mins 30 seconds that is about 1.5 seconds to find.

This immediately reduces the threat level that comes from “do it in half the time” and makes the challenge readily accessible.

“What could you change to remove 1.5 seconds from the task?

“Well if everyone in internal sales filled in the customer number on the order sheet I would spend less time looking for them in the system.”

“How would we do that?”

“If we got the internal sales team together we could ask them to change I suppose.”

“Can you think of a couple of other changes that would help you and we will ask the team on Monday?

“Yes there a few more”

Monday morning Internal Sales Team meeting

“Janet has asked for a few changes in the way we all complete the order forms.”

“Thanks, can you please make sure that you fill in the customer number here so that I don’t have to search in the system for it – it will speed up my job a bit.”

“I have some customers that don’t have numbers so I can’t.”

“That will be the Jones brothers account which has multiple branches.”

“I get a lot of complaints from Jones Brothers that we keep sending stuff to the wrong branch – maybe that’s why. I don’t know why we don’t create separate accounts for each that would make it easier.”

“Good idea, I will do it today and publish the new list in the intranet. Thanks for spotting the problem Janet.”

This is the Law of Unintended Benefits. A small change can lead to a wider improvement discussion.

Oh, and the bit about steamed food and the submarine? Heston Blumenthal the celebrity chef was asked by the Royal Navy to look at improving the nutritional quality of the food on board her Majesty’s submarines. On board a submarine food is often the only way you know what the time of the day or week it is, as nothing else changes. It is very important for morale. After a few false starts he came up with a pre steaming and vacuum packing system which improved the quality and consistency of the food enormously and was a great success with the crew.

It also meant that boat could pack more food in the same space and so stay at sea for longer – because the amount of food on board determines the maximum time at sea.

All because of a completely different problem- the “Law of Unintended Benefits”