CIG conference report: Japanese management techniques and workflow analysis

At the CIG conference in September, there were a couple of talks about Japanese management techniques and their application to workflow analysis in cataloguing/tech services. I found this very interesting – I live with someone who does Six Sigma/LEAN workflow analysis as a job and who has often commented on how he’d love to apply the methods to the library! It’s almost too interesting a topic – I have too much to say and so have struggled to write up my report for the last 2 months. I’ve finally done a version for my institution’s intranet blog and am reposting it here, with a few extra examples, as I think it’s of wide interest.  Last year, we started a review of workflows and processes within my own department (which is why I have been talking about library workflows at home!), so I have spent a lot of time thinking about this issue.

Stuart Hunt spoke about “Improving performance in cataloguing and technical services workflows”, based on the experience of the University of Warwick. They contracted an external company (Processfix) to analyse and improve workflows throughout all University departments. The wider economic context of current and anticipated future cuts led to a need on an institutional level to consider all activities and see how they could achieve that holy grail of “doing more with less”.

Examples of  Rapid Improvement Workshops that took place in the Library were looking at how long it took to shelve a book (from being returned to being on the shelf ready to borrow again) or examining the entire acquisition process, from recommendation to availability of a book to the reader. At Warwick, the process used various different tools that Stuart Hunt described together as “Japanese management techniques” but included Six Sigma, LEAN workflow and BPR (business process engineering). This is a field full of acronyms (so very familiar ground for cataloguers) but contains some very intriguing ideas and techniques.

 Stuart’s presentation should have been followed by a talk from Robin Armstrong-Viner talking about the use of LEAN Kaizen (one of these Japanese management techniques) at the University of Aberdeen. However, he was unable to make it due to a family emergency, so instead his slides were used as the backdrop for a more general discussion, led by Alan Danskin who gave some examples of how these workflow analysis techniques have been applied at the British Library.

The start was to “brown-paper” a wall (yes, apparently “to brown-paper” is a verb) to create a process map. Everyone involved in the process from beginning to end takes part and, using post-it notes, writes down each step in the process (one step per post-it). These are then arranged on the brown paper to give a sequence of activities in the process, which can be divided into “swim lanes” (areas within the responsibility of a particular team or department). The process map is then used to identify areas of “waste”, defined as “anything that doesn’t add value to the process”. Waste can be  many things, for example waiting time is a waste, so it’s often crucial to look at the point of handover from one “swim lane” to another. Another waste is over-production, doing redundant tasks – the example given here was adding coloured slips of paper with tick boxes to each item received which essentially repeated all the information already contained in the purchase order on the Acquisitions system (and I wasn’t the only person in the room nodding and groaning in recognition there). Sometimes it’s worth asking “why?” of a certain step/process, and repeating the why until you get a sensible answer – saying “because we’ve always done it that way” isn’t satisfactory. I call this the “irritating toddler” method of workflow analysis.

Transport is another example of waste, so another technique was to take a scale plan/drawing of the library layout and use string to map the journey taken by an item from the minute it arrives in the building to the point it reaches its final home on the shelves. The length of the string would show how far the item has to travel and could reveal waste. This can be very illuminating, though obviously there are physical limitations placed by the building which can be difficult to overcome.

There was a huge amount of detail and interesting examples in the talks – Warwick were able to reduce the time taken to reshelve a book from 48 hours to 4 hours by changing the workflow. Alan told a great anecdote from the BL’s experience, where a huge amount disruption to staff working time could be cut out simply by deciding to stop locking the door of the stamping room while the staff were inside (I loved this and have repeated it to people since I got back, but it maybe losing something in the re-telling…). It is worth looking at the full presentations if you are interested in the ideas or want to see some photos of “brown-papered” walls with process maps on them:

Stuart Hunt’s presentation (PDF) and Robin Armstrong-Viner’s presentation (Powerpoint)

Stuart mentioned that he plans to publish about this (indeed, he made quite a strong argument about there not being a culture of publishing in the UK but that there should be, as the library qualification is a research qualification too), so I look forward to reading more about it.

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