Chip and a Chair

We can learn a lot about process improvement from poker. Well, from a poker movie, anyway.
by | November 10, 2010

If you’ve been to one of our workshops, or followed this blog for a few months now, then you have probably broken the code that everything Ken and I know about process improvement in government we stole from a movie, TV show, or eating establishment.

So when it came time to write an article on straightening the pipes of government, I turned to my movie collection for inspiration.

In the immortal words of Mike McDermott in the beginning of the poker movie Rounders, “Listen, here’s the thing. If you can’t spot the sucker in the first half hour at the table, then you are the sucker.”

Just like the first steps in poker can mean the difference between tossing your Oreos and heading to Atlantic City with Worm, the first steps in your process can do more to determine your overall process success than any other step throughout the process. In my 20 years of running process improvement teams, I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why, but if we can make the first three steps better, I know we’re about to flop the nut straight.

The Application

So much of what we do requires some form of application...a form that needs filled out, supporting documents that need to be gathered. Think food stamps, permits, unemployment benefits and so on. They all start with the application.

In the first steps of the process we typically review and enter the data from these applications into whatever system is going to help us make the determination. Unfortunately, upwards of 70 percent can come in missing vital information, or just plain wrong. While we spend time trying to track down income levels and geographic locations, the process slows and slows and slows.

If we could only get those customers to know how important it is that they provide what we ask for, we could dig out of this backlog. If they only would do what they are supposed to, I could do what I am supposed to. But they don’t. And in the very first step -- “Customer fills out application” -- we know before the cards are even turned over that it’s gonna be bad.

The Sort and the Date Stamp

Last week I was with a northern state working with some very dedicated and talented people who run the state’s Heating Assistance Program. As you can imagine, the temperature is dropping and they are getting a little busy this time of year with 16,000 citizens needing help with a basic necessity of life, and an office of 10 eligibility technicians to manage their limited funds.

There is already a backlog of applicants for the year. Between the sheer volume of clients and the complexity of the applications, these public servants just could not stay ahead of the wave. When an application comes in it must be sorted, date stamped, and made into a file. 16,000 applicants – 1 data entry position. When your application hits the mailbox, it will be seven days until it’s a file, and that’s seven very cold days without heat.

Now, because of their behemoth backlog, they couldn’t see that they had a bottleneck in the first steps. When you’re already months behind, what's a week between friends? Whether it sits in the data entry cubicle or in the “to-do” box of an eligibility tech, it really doesn’t matter. But it does matter. Like complimentary meals at a casino, one way or another, you’re paying for those noodles.

The Requirements Meeting

Working in the CIO’s office, there were few meetings I dreaded more than the requirements meeting. Our best attempt at bringing the business and technical sides together is to put them in a room and basically say, “Well what do you want it to do?” It is one of the first big steps in every IT project (if you don’t count the conference where your boss saw “this really cool software").

These meetings remind me of the scene in Coming to America, when the princess-to-be is asked what she likes and can only answer in ways that will please Eddie Murphy. Requirement meetings are the equivalent of IT hopping on one foot barking like a dog and saying, “Whatever you like!”, as new automated systems are discussed.

Unfortunately, the requirements are rarely adequately communicated here. The business side isn’t completely sure what they are being asked, the technical side is assuming the vendor can answer many of the questions, or they become frustrated that the business unit doesn’t understand that document imaging at a remote location requires increased bandwidth that cannot be delivered overnight.

But overall, both sides are walking into KGB’s place with their life savings and a dream, not knowing exactly what to expect, but knowing the daily grind isn’t working.

When the application is wrong, it takes hours, days, weeks and months to get it right -- and that means added costs. When we spend time date-stamping, sorting and basically doing “pre-work” in a process, we create bottlenecks -- mini-backlogs that may not seem like much, but when added together equal lots of costs.

But all those costs hardly measure up to the billions we seem to spending on IT projects that we really didn’t fully understand when we started. When we start down that road, we end up changing direction as we walk, and progress is slow and expensive. Imagine playing poker with a bunch of card sharks while trying to learn the game at the same time. On the other hand, we can take a lesson from the Heating Assistance office that has decided to look at simplifying the application process, eliminating the first sorting and data entry steps, and going direct to processing the client request. When we fix the first steps we speed up the process and save costs. How much? It is anticipated that they will increase capacity by well over 80 percent without spending any funding to get there.

Put another way, enough to pack everything up and make a Vegas run.

When we fix these first steps and find new ways to use our technology to reduce customer requirements, we speed up the process and save costs. Additionally, when we are able to invest our technology dollars after we have done these things, and know exactly where we are going, then we can actually get a far greater return than we have seen in recent years.

If not, then we’re the sucker, and it should be no surprise when we find ourselves broke with 9’s full of Aces.