In process improvement we often talk about “runners, repeaters and strangers”. Runners are the work that happens all the time, that is already well understood and highly standardised. Repeaters are the work that happens on a regular basis, but is perhaps more specialised or requires special expertise to process. Strangers are those pieces of work which are seen as unique and therefore require unique ways of working every time.
Last week we facilitated an improvement event to look at the process for procuring, installing and commissioning expensive research equipment. Because such equipment is only bought relatively rarely (about 5 items per month), and because the kit purchased is different every time, and because the timescale for purchase varies enormously, it has been difficult to create and follow a ‘standard’ process. Every purchase has been treated as a “stranger”.
So why is this a problem? Surely the uniqueness of the kit, funder requirements and timescales necessitates a unique approach every time?
That might be true if the outcome of each purchase was successful installation and use of the equipment, but on too many occasions it is something of a disaster. For instance:
- the kit needs more power than can be supplied by a 13amp plug, but nobody knew this would be a problem;
- The kit needs space that we don’t have allocated, because it’s too big to go in Professor B’s office like the last one he bought
- We can’t buy the kit for 50 days because it needs to go through EU tender, and the funder wants us to spend the money in 30 days
- The kit needs to operate in a controlled environment (heat, dust, vibration) which we don’t have;
- The kit needs computing support because it produces 10 TB of data every week which needs to be stored somewhere;
- and so on
Some of these problems could be foreseen by the academic leading the bid for funding, but many not. The end result is inevitably a great deal of running around by everyone now involved to make the best of a bad job - and the academic, whose interest is starting research using the kit, often finds herself in the position of a project manager, chasing progress through the procurement office, through estates, the computing service and all of the support services who are needed to get the research equipment installed and working.
So one of the aims of the process improvement activity was to move towards treating purchases as repeaters, rather than as strangers. This in turn would make it easier to make sure that all the key people get involved at the right time every time. But could the team do it?
It turned out to be easier than everyone thought. The academics on the team accepted the need for proper planning, research services understood the need for dissemination of information to all parties, estates and procurement saw the advantage in getting involved early on to provide broad-brush figures and ideas on how to proceed. All that remains now is to implement the new process!