If you are in local authority planning, grants distribution, information technology, pharmaceutical, roads resurfacing or any other project environment, stop what you are doing and put the kettle on because the information contained in this blog could be the most important you will ever get your hands on.
At the latter part of last year I was asked to speak to the great and the good in Scottish local authority planning. The purpose was to give my thoughts on how to change planning for the better. The advice was simple and unequivocal ‘get knowledge about how the system works before you make a change.’
I guess I must have been having an off-day because for whatever reason many went off and ignored this advice and missed a big trick in planning. I’ve studied planning departments at the tail end of the lean gurus as well; they also failed to see the answer.
So stay tuned as I’m about to reveal all. And if you are one of the few that will actually go away and do something as a result of reading this blog you will see results very fast.
Here’s what happened in planning. The boffins decided that the problem was a lack of clean information coming into planning departments. This resulted in plans being sent back to the client or agent for rework. Fair enough, if you studied planning as a system you would indeed find that around 20% of applications have missing information.
The result of this revelation was two actions, the first was to create a detailed specification of how the plans should be drawn up with a list of required information and the second was for all proposals to be subject to a pre-application meeting between the client and/or agent and the planner. Both of these rules have now been embedded in the system.
But nothing much seems to have changed. The authorities I’ve seen are still struggling to meet their performance indicators and the planners are drowning in a sea of work, even more so now that they have to have pre-application meetings. So why didn’t the solution work?
The answer was simply incomplete, in-fact it only dealt with one small aspect of the overall problem, akin to trying to lose a ton of weight by replacing your mid morning bacon butties with an apple, sure it will help a little, but you’re not going to see a significant change.
Let me lay out the real problem (actually there are two). The first is that in the planning departments I’ve seen there are simply too many open cases; the planners are flooded with work. This happens as a result of wanting to tell a client that their case has been seen. But it causes a big problem, multi-tasking.
What happens is that in an effort to get more done everything takes longer and the lack of focus causes errors. Think of it like this, imagine you have 10 tasks to do and you try to do a little of everything. The result is that you are constantly picking up and putting down the tasks. Every time you pick something up you have to take a moment just to remember where you were before you can start again. Consequently everything takes longer and is more likely to include mistakes.
The second issue exacerbates the first. Misguided ministers and managers believe that we need service standards to improve our performance. But if they knew how to look they would see that it’s making us worse not better.
In planning there is a 56 day service standard to give a decision on an application. And the clock doesn’t start ticking until the application is error free. Some planners have told me that, because they have so much work to do and there is pressure to hit the arbitrary 56 day standard, applications ping-pong back and forth until they are fit to enter the process.
And when the application is in the process the 56 day service standard causes student syndrome. Cases get opened and then put down again until nearer the deadline, just like a difficult essay. Planners flip-flop between handling easy cases to hit that standard and trying to break the backlog of the more complex ones. Sometimes an application goes over the 56 days and it gets left, the rationale being that service standard is breached anyway so it doesn’t matter if the case takes 56 days or 256 days, either way it’s late.
So what can be done to fix the problems?
- Create a list of all planning applications in date order, oldest to earliest.
- Create two schedules, the first for pre-applications and the second for determinations.
- Schedule the work for the technical clerks and the planners.
- Limit the release of work into the flow. Only allow planners and tech clerks to work on only a few cases at a time.
- Keep the service standard away from the planner; better still remove it all together.
- Create a new rule, work on the case until it’s finished, do it as fast as you can but do it right.
- Have a system so that the manager’s job is to help the planner if they get blocked.
- If a case is not in the flow then it’s not open. This will give you visibility over the exact size of your backlog (which will soon disappear).
But before I’ve even posted this blog, I can hear the objections.
- ‘Our customers will be furious that we haven’t looked at their case’- not as angry as when you tell them that you’ve looked at it umpteen times and it’s still not complete.
- ‘I can handle lots of cases at one time’- not if you’re a human you can’t.
- ‘Our planners need the service standard to motivate them’- get real!
The problems I’ve discussed here are not restricted to planning. They happen in the distribution of grants, information technology, pharmaceutical, roads resurfacing or any other project environment.
To gauge if you are in a project environment have a look at the touch time of the work, if it is high in relation to the throughput time then it’s likely the above rules will apply to you.
For more information on this subject, check out our free videocast made by Daniel Rodgers and Dougal Mather of Vanguard Scotland.
And finally I think there is a bigger lesson here than just planning, it’s the one I urged the government to take. “Before you make a change get knowledge”. If you do you will see the whole problem and create a complete solution.
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