Growing up a child of the 80s, the word “radical” was reserved for Valley Girls and Spicoli. Honestly, the word was ruined for me (and many in my generation). Today, I can’t hear it without thinking, “Tubular! Grab some Vans and Aquanet — we’re headed back to prom!”

These days, we rarely hear “radical” without the word “extremists” tied to it, which is kind of redundant, isn’t it?

Anyway, regardless of my hang-ups about “radical,” Public Great hasn’t found a better word to describe our vision and to set it apart from the rest of the process-improvement folks out there.

We’re not after simple efficiency. And we’re not talking about “streamlining,” which all too often just means budget cuts in disguise.

We need a radical departure from what we are doing, not just a tweak in what we already do. “Radical” implies the ideas have to be something that the common manager is going to look at and say, “I’ve never thought of that!” Or, more to the point, “We’ve never tried that!” Radical improvement is going 80 percent faster at lower costs. If that sounds impossible to you, then we’re on the right track.

To make such an outrageous claim, we’d better be prepared for some pushback. We’d better have some data to back up such a seemingly ridiculous statement. Well, we are, and we do.

Let’s start with the facts. The vast majority of time people spend waiting for work to happen isn’t related to how long the work takes. For example, it does not take 60 days to complete a purchase order. That’s a fact. It takes about 1.5 hours of real work to research, fill out and approve a typical purchase order. But when was the last time you needed something at work and the order was filled less than two hours later? More often, it takes 30 to 60 days. That’s a difference of 99.8 to 99.9 percent.

That gap between the actual work and the time it takes to complete the entire job can be found in almost every pipeline we work with. And it’s radical to claim we can recoup 80 percent? It almost sounds easy, right? Like, totally.

Understanding this gap is crucial to understanding radical improvement.

Too often, we look at the work being done (filling out the order form, approving it and placing the order) and try to figure out how to do those discrete tasks faster, without recognizing that that’s only a tiny fraction of the actual time of the job. Let’s say I get software that eliminates the need to type and print the order form. I simply speak the order and it is filled out and sent to the purchasing officer. Great — I’ve saved 0.1 percent of the time. Not very radical.

The real place we need to concentrate our focus is figuring out how 1.5 hours of work became 30 to 60 days. Where did all that extra time come from? It’s the time an order spends languishing in an inbox, waiting to be approved. It’s the time spent waiting until the third Tuesday of the month, because that’s when your division’s orders are always processed. It’s the time spent waiting for the CIO to review the order.

Last year I worked with a group of employees that processed local building permits. Architects, builders and business owners would bring their permit applications in to a central location, where the forms would be accepted and logged in. Each application would be assigned to a reviewer, who would examine the plans to ensure they were compliant with the rules and guidelines of the organization. If they were, the application headed to another office, where it was reviewed for environmental impact. If any changes were made, they needed approval from the first reviewer. Once both sets of reviewers agreed, the plans went to someone to be reunited with the application and the plans went to the fire marshal for approval, and … well, you get the idea. All in all, up to six people had to review and approve the plans before they could be greenlit. The process took months — in some cases, up to a year.

The radical challenge is to eliminate the time that elapses between these things. Radical thinking isn’t about new software to scan plans and route them from office to office. That might help a little, but it isn’t radical. Radical is teaching one reviewer to handle all the various approvals. How will we create this super human? How will we compensate her? What will we do with the other five people? I promise you those are all easier to deal with than yet another $120 million IT project.

Redefining work this way doesn’t just eliminate the dead time between steps, it actually speeds up the steps themselves. Let’s say the actual time it takes to review and approve a building plan is about eight hours, with each of the six people in the chain requiring about an hour, or a little more, to complete their portion of the job. But when you have one person handling the entire chain of work, it’s much faster, since you’re not constantly bringing a new person up to speed. (Once you see the plans, you don’t have to “re-see” them.) The work goes from eight hours to two hours. One person can now handle four applications in an eight-hour workday. And if we train all six of the reviewers to accomplish the entire review, that’s 24 applications in a day. That’s more than the team was previously handling in a month. Now that’s radical.

So stop thinking that the work is the problem. The work is the work. It’s everything surrounding the critical work that adds to the time. If you attack everything that isn’t the work, you’ll achieve that 80 percent improvement. Which means you’ll have plenty of time to kick back, learn about Cuba and have some food.

*Originally published as Improving Government Management: Time to Get Radical (Public Great @, April 11, 2012)

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