Without Metrics, Process Improvement Can Be Hazardous to Your Business Health

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Senior Principal, MITRE Corporation
Ken Mullins is a Senior Principal in the Center for Veterans Enterprise Transformation within MITRE’s Center for Connected Government; he also serves as a MITRE Portfolio Manager at the Department of Veterans Affairs. During his career, which spans more than 30 years, Ken has enjoyed the privilege of serving as trusted advisor to executives and senior leaders in the Defense, State, Justice, Interior, Veterans-Affairs, Health-and-Human-Services, Commerce, Homeland-Security, and other departments of the federal government. Prior to joining MITRE more than ten years ago, Ken was a Technical Director with Oracle, a consultant to Booz Allen Hamilton, and a Program Manager with ITT. He holds a Master of Science degree in Systems Management from the University of Southern California and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Administration and Government from the University of Maryland. From 1978-to-1980, he also studied International Law under Dean Rusk, the former Secretary of State, at the University of Georgia’s School of Law. Ken has written extensively on technology, management, and government. As the Editorial Director for the Government Bulletin, published by the BPMInstitute.org, he not only edits articles, but also remains a frequent contributor to that organization’s multiple online fora. Samples of his published articles include these: Enterprise Architecture Works Best as a Roadmap – not a Blueprint; Relating Enterprise Strategy to Business Outcomes; Three Fundamental Prerequisites for Transforming Your Government Enterprise; Without Metrics, Process Improvement Can Be Hazardous to Your Business Health; BPM – A Cure for Institutional Memory Loss; Government Missions Should Drive the Lifecycle Management of Agency SOA-Services; Improving Government Service, by ‘Building Sidewalks Where People Like To Walk;’ The Importance of Being Earnest – about Enterprise Governance; For Most Government Agencies, An IT Strategy Can Be One Too Many; Government Transformation Depends On Dynamic Portfolio Management; Enhancing the Value of Your Government Transformation Roadmap; To Deliver Business Value, Avoid Paving over Cow Paths, and NIEM – A Model for Sharing Government Information.

Imagine yourself as the owner of a business domain within a government agency. Let’s say you’re the Deputy Administrator of entitlement programs in an organization that processes claims for benefits. No matter the type of benefit(s) or entitlement(s) your agency administers, whether loan guarantees, educational benefits, disaster-recovery relief, or reimbursement for medical expenses, just to name a few, your business model – at some level of abstraction – is as simple as receiving applications (or claims) for benefits, qualifying them, and dispensing an appropriate response to each and every one of your applicants (or claimants).

Figure 1

Many a government entity, whether at the federal, state, or local level in the United States – or, even in the governing jurisdictions of other countries – does little more, or less, than that.

Yet, despite the similar nature of the government services they provide, many of those agencies – perhaps even yours – would not score very well on a customer satisfaction survey. Some are plagued by a huge backlog of unprocessed claim applications. Others take an inordinate amount of time to make eligibility determinations, due to convoluted, confusing, and/or constantly changing business rules. Other agencies take a long time to deliver on entitlement payments, especially initial ones, or to otherwise provide benefits that have been approved. Some agencies experience extended delays at virtually every step in the claims-processing chain of business activities, which can add up to agonizing months, sometimes even years, of frustration for their neediest customers.

When confronted with such challenges at your agency, you may have had more than one opportunity to ask yourself, or someone who works there, “Why is the processing of claims for government-benefits so hard?” Or, alternatively: “Why isn’t this as simple as ordering books from an online bookstore?”

Those are exactly the right questions to ask in the 21st century. People have come to expect a higher level of responsiveness when it comes to government services, in part because they have grown accustomed to receiving quick responses from companies they deal with in the private sector. Virtually all major book suppliers – even those previously known as “brick-and-mortar” ones –, now provide online access for their customers, plus real-time order processing, and rapid delivery to boot. You can also be sure that online book suppliers are measuring every step involved in providing their customer services, more or less continuously, while striving not just to improve but to optimize their business processes.

For customers to be comparing the services provided by your agency with that sort of standard leaves you with a wide gap to be bridged – unless your agency is exceptionally progressive. Indeed, most government organizations are still operating at a “competitive disadvantage” today, when compared with the private sector, because they are: (a) not measuring their business processes at all, (b) not using the right sort of metrics, (c) not measuring frequently enough, (d) not measuring for the right reason, or (e) not making good use of whatever metrics they do manage to collect.

Providing Online Customer Access May Not Be the Best “Right Answer”

Perhaps you’ve heard about the government agency that decided to improve its customer service levels a few years ago, by providing a web site with automated forms enabling customers to submit applications online, using any available web browser. Service level expectations rose immediately, as they seem to always do when online filing is offered to customers by any government organization for the first time.

Yet customer satisfaction levels didn’t improve at all, because the agency immediately converted all the online applications it received to a paper format, for further processing via business-as-usual procedures.

That’s right. It turns out that the work required during qualification activities, once applications are received and registered by this agency, is very labor intensive, involving many steps that have been performed manually for many years by unionized employees. They had no means of coping with anything other than paper-based applications, attached to lots of supporting information, also captured on paper.

By receiving more and more applications online, however, the time required by the agency to acknowledge the receipt of a customer’s application was reduced from 10-to-15 business days, to a matter of minutes or seconds. Meanwhile, a longstanding backlog of unprocessed applications began to increase because nothing was being done to reduce the time required to qualify information that accompanied the customer applications.

As a consequence of automating the receipt of new applications, the average (total) time required by this agency to dispense an ultimate response to each of its applicants – which had previously averaged nearly nine months – wound up being extended by two-to-four weeks. Incredible as it may seem, this is a true story.

Absent a Connection to Business Outcomes, Metrics Can Be Counterproductive

In the example cited above, the introduction of online customer access also led to a surge in online inquiries about pending applications, regardless of how they were originally filed. This newfound means of registering “complaints” with the agency appears to have had an unintended side effect of compounding a growing sense of public dissatisfaction with its services.

Another unanticipated effect of introducing online customer access is that a perception was apparently created in this instance, to the effect that previously-filed applications could be more easily amended than before – and that supplemental information could be more readily appended to the originally-filed application, no matter how long the case had been pending. This too, had a detrimental impact on the amount of work required to complete qualification activities, which may have also depressed customer satisfaction levels to some extent.

Performance Based Metrics Need to Be Mission-Driven, from the Top-Down

With the above example in mind, which is but one of many to be found in government entities today, you should be better equipped to deal with a similar challenge at your agency, going forward. What you will want to do, before buying into a proposal to reengineer or otherwise “improve” your own business processes, is to clearly establish your current performance benchmarks.

You will want to do this, not just from an activity-based perspective, nor even from a purely process-based standpoint. Instead, you will want to clarify your performance history-to-date, from a value-chain perspective – i.e., using a top-down, mission-driven approach. This will allow you to avoid the mistake of focusing too much on perfecting Activity “A” while (inadvertently) wrecking havoc with Activity “B,” and/or postponing Activity “C,” etc.

Once your business outcome measures are clearly established, both for today and where you need to be tomorrow, you should then proceed to determine the extent to which today’s mission-supporting business activities (and processes) are either contributing to, or detracting from, the success of your agency’s mission. Only then will you be best positioned to make informed decisions about proposals for improving the effectiveness of your business operations.

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