Too Many TouchPoints
by Howard Freedman
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Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Most organizations are driven by a transaction-driven process, highly dependent on documentation and communication. The medium for both has traditionally been paper and, while pulp has served us well over the years, we've discovered other, more efficient means of providing, collecting, inspecting, and retaining necessary data, most often electronic — e-mail, voice mail, intranet, magnetic media. Nevertheless, a lot of what we do all day still involves touching paper, the "paperless" office being, if not a fantasy, at least a much harder goal to achieve than was originally thought.
During one of my consulting assignments, I was charged with the evaluation of several processes operating at low efficiencies and producing a product of low quality. I began by creating process-flow diagrams to identify what I call "touch points" — that is, the number of times a single document is touched by the same or another person. Exemplary of the inefficiencies I uncovered, my findings identified that from the time it was initiated, reviewed, approved, mailed, entered into the system, and filed, a new-hire form was touched more than 70 times! With these cold facts in hand, I was able to work with my client to improve process flows by eliminating the non- value-added "touch points" that impeded efficiency.
Your company should develop its own process flows to identify the number of touch points that are incurred to get an employee paid, implement a garnishment, hire or terminate an employee, and fulfill all your other responsibilities. The most important and often overlooked requirement in this analysis is to involve those who do the hands-on work. They are the ones with the detailed job knowledge who can provide realistic examples of the problems and of the opportunities for change.
Form an "improvements team" for identifying your touch points. A team of three or four employees from other areas can identify processes with the most touch points. For example, forms relating to new hires, rate changes, and terminations are the ones that are likely to be the most touched, but process flows will vary dramatically company-to-company and even department-to-department, so no process should be automatically exempted from the investigation.
Select three of each type of form to be tracked. Attach a sheet to each form so that the people who touch it can note their names, the reasons the form came to them, and the amount of time they spent doing whatever it was they did to it. These statistics are the essence of quantifying the time spent on the process as the basis for your analysis.
Your tally for each form should include:
a number of times it was touched; a number of times it was retouched by the same person; a number of bottlenecks; time lost because of each bottleneck; things that each person did to the form (review, update, mail, etc.); and total time it took to process the form.
There are two types of the process flows. The first charts the process as it currently (and inadequately) works. The second chart a modified process designed to minimize the number of touch points and redundant steps identified in the current process.
Here are some questions to ask at your team meetings as you consider how to modify the existing process flow:
(1) Ask people why their touch point is necessary. Then ask how it could be eliminated. (2) Identify any steps that create downtime. Then ask how that downtime could be eliminated. (For example, if the approver is out of town, couldn't one of his/her subordinates sign off on the form?) (3) Evaluate all the approvals currently required. Are they all really necessary? (4) Ask if the paper form can be replaced by an e-mail or other electronic alternatives. (5) Identify any potential system enhancements that might facilitate the various process flows — e.g., employee self-service systems or remote network access.
The easiest way to reduce touch points and eliminate paper is to use a combination of process improvements and technology. Companies that support such technological initiatives as employee self-service, remote network access, electronic forms, and automated process-flow software are already well along in the process of reducing touch points. Process improvements in addition and complementary to system enhancements could include forms redesign, improved training, and prioritization of data collection (i.e., if we don't really need this information, why are we collecting it?). Again, this will vary depending on the unique characteristics of the organization under examination.
Recommendations for change can be more easily justified when supported by statistical data, which is why we began this exercise in the first place. Begin by quantifying savings, assessing risks, and defining how the changes will improve quality. If your proposed solution includes greater use of electronic alternatives to paper, make clear that the new system will include comprehensive edits, timely reporting, and strong internal controls. This will help to reassure people that paper does not have to be touched to ensure quality data.