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The Process Mind

By Philip Kirby

(CRC Press, 289 pages, $50)

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Imagine two teams of four people, each group sitting in a row, with four blank cards in front of the first person on each team. On Team A, the first person writes his name on each of the four cards, then passes the batch to the second person who similarly completes each card before making the pass, and so on. But on the second team, the first person passes each card back as he completes it, as does everyone else, until they're all done. Which team will finish first?

The second team will be quicker. Phil Kirby, the Guelph, Ont., consultant known as "The Process Guy" says the first group is working in batches while the second group is working in a sequential approach. The batch group loses not just here but in any process for serving customers, because it's a slow and wasteful approach. It's also what most of us tend to do because it seems logical and consistent.

Big mistake. "Batch thinking is the root of all evil," he writes in The Process Mind, perhaps exaggerating the sin a touch, but then processes are his focus.

While the first person was filling out his four cards in the batch approach, the other three people were waiting. And waiting is endemic in organizations – even if we all claim we're busy. It's not visible because we don't have a department called waiting, and thus the wasted time goes uncatalogued. He suggests that 95 per cent to 99.5 per cent of the time, a product or service is actually waiting for the next step, rather than anything of value occurring.

With bank credit cards, a key profitability factor is how quickly an application can be processed so that the customer can start spending money. In one bank, he tracked a credit card application that took 40 days to be approved, despite the fact that there were only 10 minutes of value-producing work over that whole period. Ironically – and this type of perverse situation occurs in examples throughout the book – the bank had bought in an optical scanner at great expense to save money on staff, but the errors it made in reading the application that a human would have caught automatically spawned application rejections and rework.

We all are familiar with waiting – notably the piece of paper on another person's desk that we need to finish our work. Waiting is more likely with handoffs between departments, he warns. But he also alerts us to the dangers of high inventory, which is an expensive form of waiting. Apple's chief executive officer Tim Cook was initially brought into the firm to deal with overstocking and chopped inventory down to four days. By comparison, BlackBerry (then known as Research In Motion) at one point had to write down two years of inventory, at a cost of almost $1-billion. And all those goods coming to us on slow boats from China are just waiting and waste, he suggests, noting the savings in labour costs by producing offshore are often eaten up by the inefficiency cost.

He warns we have had a lengthy obsession with piecework, tracing back to Adam Smith's example of the efficiency of a pin factory, with everyone doing discrete tasks. That was extended in the early 1900s by Frederick Taylor's scientific management approach, figuring out how much work a specific labourer could do. But we live in a world of variety – Henry Ford's dictum that every car must be black would be ludicrous today – and to get ahead we need a more advanced, process-driven approach with better linkages between people.

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Those better processes won't come through the Six Sigma model of eliminating waste and defects through continuous improvement, which he feels spends too much time on training its so-called black belts and is seeking too high a standard of quality. "At the risk of being charged with heresy, I personally have seen no real impact from Six Sigma," he writes. "It is interesting that Toyota continues to make the No. 1 quality car in the United States … and yet, unlike Ford and General Motors, strong followers of Six Sigma, Toyota does not use Six Sigma."

But Toyota teaches its managers to be on the floor, observing the processes – standing quietly and understanding the flow. It also respects its people, to the point that any employee can stop the production line. He believes that respect for people – "the belief that employees have the right to be successful every time they do their job" – is vital for productivity and too often absent in workplaces.

So let them help you attack the deadly sins of waste: overproduction, defects, inefficient transportation, overprocessing, excess inventory, waiting, superfluous motion, and policies that work at cross-purposes. Focus on serving the customer, not your bureaucracy or colleagues, or how things were done in the past.

Study how the customer is served, and root out waste so it doesn't take 40 days for 10 minutes of actual work to be carried out. His book won't guide you specifically – each organization will be different – but it's a solid, informed, eye-opening look at an aspect of our organizations that we generally overlook.


In The Process Mind, Philip Kirby suggests virtual treasure hunts to discover areas where productivity can be boosted in your organization. Here are some time wasters to watch for:

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Complex solutions that produce waste and are hard for people to manage.

Unnecessary steps. Enter data once and use common formats.

Producing more than the exact transaction the customer wants, when the customer wants it.

People working at cross-purposes, and the subsequent efforts to correct the outcome.

Unnecessary or inappropriate assignments.

Resources lost as people wait for information, meetings, signatures, returned phone calls, or because a copier or computer is down.

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Movement that doesn't add value, such as walking and waiting.

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail

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