The Crazy Cycle

The crushing effects of backlog, and how the Golden Arches can help you avoid them.
by | September 1, 2008 AT 3:00 AM

I wrote in a previous column about the incredible opportunities available to speed up the operations of government. I stressed that it's not a people issue. Rather, it's the systems of government that are dysfunctional.

Research and my own personal experience have shown that in most processes the labor or work time is less than 5 percent of the total elapsed time. For example, it may take 60 days to get a health permit, but the actual labor required to produce one is likely measured in hours. It may take three months to fill a vacancy, but the sum of all the labor adds up to less than a week.

Where does all the time go? Again, it's not a people problem. Individuals are deluged with tasks, and most of them are doing those tasks the best they can. The lost time happens between the tasks.

One of the biggest time culprits is backlog -- the piles of work in front of each person, waiting to be done. Quite often the problem in government is not that we are slow, just that we're behind. If you are overwhelmed with backlog (and with the rash of hiring freezes sweeping the nation, you may soon be), I'm going to give you a piece of advice that I know may severely underwhelm you. The secret to dealing with backlog is to never get behind in the first place. (Send all thank-you emails to

Underwhelmed? Well, let's look at this pearl of wisdom a little more closely. This diagram depicts a typical backlog situation:

We have our process and we have our customers. Our process spits out certain "widgets" -- payroll checks, environmental permits, legal opinions, vehicle registrations or whatever. Our customers get used to a certain turnaround time.

Suddenly we get a little behind. It's no big deal; we are just a little behind. What do our customers do? They call: "Hey, just curious, where's my stuff?"

We then have to take time to answer the call, find out where theis stuff is, and let them know. This is time we can't spend making the widgets. And now, because we had to take the time to answer calls and track stuff down, we have gotten further behind making the widgets. This of course leads to more phone calls from more customers asking, "Where's my stuff?" We then spend more time answering their calls and tracking down their status. This pattern continues, and before you know it you are spending more time answering phone calls and tracking stuff down then you ever did actually doing the work.

This is what I call the crazy cycle: the seemingly endless loop of "Where's my stuff?" and "I don't know, I'll go find out." The result of the crazy cycle is a backlog pile that looks more like the diagram below. We get from diagram 1 to diagram 2 in no time flat.

The crazy cycle has led to the great emergence of phone centers in government. Wherever you look, there are new phone centers popping up. These facilities become a self-fulfilling prophecy: As soon as the phone center is created, it gets behind. As governments start measuring wait times and abandoned calls (people giving up), the data clearly shows that they need more resources. So more and more precious resources -- which could be used to do the work -- get diverted to the phone center to answer "Where's my stuff" questions, which would go away if those resources were instead used to do the actual work. Sound familiar?

Getting Off the Crazy Cycle

How do we stop the madness? The typical approach to dealing with the crazy cycle is of course a technological one. If everybody is calling asking where their stuff it, why don't we find out a way to get that answer quickly? So we build an electronic tracking system to tell us where the customer is in the process. That's right, we divert even more precious resources that could be used to do the work to tracking the work. (I have seen no less than ten of these in the last month, each with a price tag over $20 million). Insane. Here's a dose of sanity: If your process is so messed up that you have to spend $20 million to tell you how far behind you are, then perhaps you are working on the wrong thing. You don't need the tracking system -- you need to fix the process! Speed up the process, and the phone calls go down. The more the phone calls go down, the fewer resources you need to divert to the phone center. The fewer resources you use in the phone center, the more resources you have to do the actual work, which means the less you get behind, which means fewer phone calls, which means fewer resources diverted to the phone center, which means more resources to do the work. That's a cycle you want to be on.

Again, the secret to dealing with backlog is to never get behind in the first place. Once you fall a little behind, you will quickly be on the crazy cycle. You'll wake up one day with a phone center staff of 100 people and a half-finished automated tracking system that is six years behind schedule. But how do you design work so you never get behind? Is that possible?

My time managing DMV offices almost led me to believe that avoiding backlogs was impossible. DMV offices are a great case study for the impacts of backlog. With DMV offices, you can literally watch the effects of getting a little behind manifest themselves every day. An office can open at 8:00 a.m., get a little behind by 9:15, and by noon there are 50 angry people standing in line.

The reason this happens with DMV offices actually has nothing to do with the productivity of employees at DMV offices. It's a function of random variation. At DMV offices (and food-stamp or public-assistance offices), the number of customers who show up at any one time is completely random. With the exception of lunchtime, there is no rhyme or reason to how many people arrive at any given time. If four people arrive at the same time, the office is OK. But if 40 people show up at once, the office is wrecked for the rest of the day.

Learning from the Golden Arches

Trying to come up with a way to deal with this intractable problem, I was clued into a solution by, of all places, McDonald's. McDonald's also has the problem of unpredictable customer patterns, with the obvious exceptions of lunch and dinner. That is, there is as much chance of two customers walking in at the same time as 20 walking in. If you've ever been at a McDonald's when a bus full of customers shows up, then you have seen the restaurant's very sophisticated process to deal with this. It's called "BUS!" That is, when a bus is spotted rolling in, the employee screams "BUS!" and the whole restaurant is transformed. Managers and supervisors stop what they are doing and double-man the counters. Cooks start making popular items as fast as they can. All hands are on deck to get the line of customers served as quickly as possible. Because if they don't, the lines will be with them all day long. The whole day will be wrecked.

Armed with this knowledge, we created a "Bus!" process for the DMVs. Whenever a large group of customers all showed up at once, the employees rallied. The managers came out of their offices and double-manned the counters. Back-office paperwork specialists came out and worked the lines. Everybody pitched in until the line was gone, and then they went back to their regular jobs. It was an amazing thing to watch as everybody cooperated with each other. It was hard work, but the benefit was astounding. By not getting a little bit behind, they never got a lot behind. And life in the office got a lot better.

So how do you design processes so you never get behind? It takes a whole new way of thinking. In government, we tend to practice the ancient art of annual management. That is, we have our annual budget and our annual FTE count, and that's about all the thought we put into staffing. Unfortunately our customers don't cooperate by spacing themselves out evenly throughout the day, month or year. We have fluid customers and static staffing. To never get behind, you actually have to manage more actively. For DMV or public-assistance offices, this can be a minute-by-minute battle. For licensing and permitting offices, it might be a week-by-week battle. It also means that you have to do some cross-training so that you have a reserve corps of workers who can step in during the crazy times.

Sound like a lot of management? It is. But not near as much as managing a call center, a tracking system and an ever-growing pile of complaints and inquiries.