A Lean approach to reporting

One of the things that occupy a lot of resources in companies is periodical and repetitive reporting. Not by default, but in the way it is done in practice. Most office workers in most companies have it in their monthly schedule to produce a number of reports to different internal stakeholders. Once they have started to produce a report, they keep doing it and the report itself usually doesn’t change much over time, despite new insights and changes in the business environment.

This is perhaps more costly than what people receiving these reports understand. One obvious cost is the time spent on gathering information and putting it all together. But another cost is how it erodes engagement and the feeling of meaning and purpose for those doing this repetitive work. It’s also relevant to look at it in terms of alternative costs (as it always is): What could have been done instead?

I have seen very thick reports being produced every month, just to be handed/sent to one or two persons who just puts them on their bookshelf (or keep them in their inboxes), before they throw them in the trash can. And personally I have updated numerous power points and excels adding the latest figures to the tables and graphs, but adding very little value to the business in doing so.

This is a common scenario: A manager asks for a report of some sort. The instructions are imprecise. You take on the task without asking to many questions. You put something together and distribute it when it feels ok. You don’t get any relevant feedback. You keep distributing the same report every month. The same manager comes back with another report request. The instructions are imprecise. You take on the task…

So the workload is adding up, but the value added from all this work is questionable.

Muri, Mura, Muda and Kaizen:

Toyota is the origin of Lean production and one of their management concept is that of Muri, Muda and Mura.

Muri is an activity creating unreasonable effort or stress for personnel or equipment.

Mura means variations in workflow that creates unbalanced, irregular situations.

Muda is a process that does not add value for the customer.

The goal is to eliminate all of the above, and for doing so successfully we add another of the central concepts from Toyota; Kaizen. Kaizen is the strive for continuous improvement.

Kaizen corner

At first glance it might seem as if repetitive reporting shouldn’t create to much stress (you know what to do, even if you don’t know why you do it), and also that it shouldn’t create to much unbalance, as the work involved can be planned and scheduled. But in practice it does create both stress and unbalance.

The stress comes from a combination of factors: The number of reports increase over time and takes more and more time from your other work; projects, problem solving etc that you are hired to do. The stress also originates from the often legitimate notion that what you are spending your time with is actually quite meaningless.

The unbalance comes from the fact that reports are usually expected to be produced certain dates; the first days in the following month, every monday before the management meeting etc. So they are not evenly distributed over time, and to produce the reports you need data that is only available after a certain date when the data has been generated.

And then finally, it is very likely that after experience this pressure (Muri), and working on a Sunday to get it all done by monday (Mura), you actually deliver something which is expected, but has very little value (Muda).

So you want to get out of this uninspiring, improductive trap of reporting; for your own sake and for the sake of the company you are working for. You want to add some Kaizen to the equation; some continuous improvement. In this case it would mean increasing the relevance of your reports over time by changing the content based on new insights and by removing all unnecessary information (…and stop producing some reports completely).

But this is what puts you, your boss and your organization to the test. Because if the first ordering of a report was unclear, and you didn’t manage to make it clearer, chances are you don’t really know what you are aiming for (that is; the purpose and goals are unclear). And if your goals are unclear, it’s likely that it goes even higher up in the organization: Is there a clear strategy broken down into short term measurable goals, which are well communicated throughout the organization? When addressing Kaizen, or continious improvements, you inevitable widen the scope to include bigger processes and higher levels in your organization. To really improve your reporting, your stakeholders needs to know what they need, and for them to know what they need… well there has to be sharp focus and good communication from the top.

…and as this can’t be managed by someone who isn’t top management, the bulk-report-producers keep number crunching while their commitment fades and they eventually leave the company to find purpose some place else.

I just picked reporting as an example. The principles of Lean production could of course be applied to any process and I am just starting figuring out how powerful it can be when applied not only to manufacturing processes, but to any sort of business processes as well.

Andreas Franson, andreas[@]internetintelligence.se, +46 733 56 41 51

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