Sometimes external circumstances force process improvement upon you.
Businesses across the world are changing rapidly to deal with the enormity of the changes that the plague has thrust upon us. Customer interactions and supply chains have transformed overnight.
Meanwhile, in the domestic sphere, I have achieved a reduction in a routine task from approx 3 hours a week to just half an hour. The task?
It had never occurred to me to try to reduce the time we spent shopping for food before lockdown. We don’t have a car, and we like to support small businesses. We like eating fresh fruit and vegetables, and we also try to minimise packaging and food waste. All of these factors means we do a lot of shopping in small specialist shops, not supermarkets. We didn’t do “the weekly shop”. We used to pop out for 3-4 separate shopping trips a week, picking up whatever we needed.
And I didn’t hate shopping. I didn’t derive particular joy from it but I accepted that my lifestyle choices meant that this was how it would be.
Then coronavirus hit, and with it the guidelines to shop only “for basic necessities… as infrequently as possible”. With a little effort, I reduced my shop to twice a week, but I wondered if I could go further without compromising my ideals. After all, the more concentrated my shopping, the less likelihood of picking up or spreading the virus.
How did I get down to once a week?
Standard process improvement steps: new technology, and examining and rethinking processes and outputs. NB: I’d probably reverse the order of those steps in a standard process improvement programme in an organisation!
As with many business related changes, new technology was a driver. Not exactly new technology – online ordering has been around for decades now. But new applications of existing technology. In our area, lots of my favourite local shops suddenly started offering online services and subscriptions (eg fish boxes, vegetable baskets). This also inspired us to search for other products online, the sort we would usually get from supermarkets, such as tins of tuna or bags of nuts. We made a number of orders directly from wholesalers or producers as a result.
I also looked at the process I was following for physical shopping. Typically, we might have a few ideas about what we wanted to eat, but we weren’t doing detailed meal planning for a week. That had to change. Also, I used to hit all the same shops every week, even if I was getting storecupboard stuff. With better use of shared electronic shopping lists, I’m now more disciplined about only visiting certain shops once a month.
Finally (but probably firstly in an actual process improvement programme), I thought carefully about my outputs. I concluded that my previous method gave me a huge amount of flexibility about what I could eat. My new target was to eat a healthy, tasty and balanced diet. Within that, I accepted that I could no longer just eat whatever I wanted when I fancied it.
But here’s the thing; do I feel physically or mentally worse as a result of downgrading my expectations? Absolutely not. The planning has ensured a much more balanced diet on most days. And I don’t feel like I’ve lost anything. If anything, I get more pleasure at the end of each week, knowing that I’ve fed my household as efficiently as possible.
Process improvement: lessons learned
The driving force for making these changes was having the target. So it’s tempting to conclude that having a target is key for successful change. Certainly in this case it as a strong motivational factor. It provided a clear focus and a constant spur to keep improving.
However, targets should be used with caution in a wider organisational setting. I have seen examples where one part of an organisation successfully pursuing a target creates bottlenecks and inefficiencies elsewhere.
Perhaps a bigger lesson was that it had never occurred to me to reduce the time I spent shopping. I didn’t hate it enough to redesign it. (Unlike, say, cleaning, which I hate so much that I’ve drawn up a schedule for what gets cleaned when which follows a pretty strict order).
Another lesson is that the technology you need probably already exists. You just need the motivation to implement it.
Ultimately, I think that my lessons from this are more for me than for organisational development. That is; I should constantly be challenging myself about what I’m doing and whether I’m doing it in the best possible way.