When leaders don’t understand the work process, they may ask for (or demand!) improved results without realizing that what they are asking of employees is all-but impossible.
When leaders fully understand the processes that produce results, they can support improvements that substantively bolster the work being done instead of making impossible demands.
A good process walk can make the crucial difference between the two.
When Ken Guy saw the full employment verification process on a process walk, he knew something had to be done. Guy, director of the Finance and Business Operations Division (FBOD), had known that employment verification took a long time, that the volume was high, and that the requests could go back 60 years in the past. But he hadn’t really known why responding to requests took so long.
But once he saw the process, he was able to understand why employment verification requests could take months and why the team needed his support and understanding as a leader to help them improve how the work could be done.
King County’s Benefits and Retirement team receives, on average, more than one past employment verification request per day. Verification requests (usually for questions about past earnings) require detailing employee dates of service, type of service, pay scale, and other information. King County sends this verification to the State’s Department of Retirement Systems so that an employee who has applied for retirement can be fully credited for their years of service with the County.
One and one-half requests per day may not sound like much, perhaps. However, responding to each request took hours or even several days of scrolling through piles of difficult-to-read microfiche films, handwriting all the all the necessary details, and entering all that data into a spreadsheet. And it was a painful process for employees.
Additionally, employment verification is just one small piece of the work the team does. It is often the least urgent (though nonetheless important) piece of work. Because it was taking so much time and pulling employees away from responding to more time-sensitive work requests, the team has had difficulty devoting concentrated attention to it.
This caused frustration for customers (King County employees current and former) and it also caused headaches for the State Department of Retirement Systems which sends the requests. Both depend on accurate employment verification.
So when the team heard that FBOD Director Guy was coming on a process walk, they chose to show him that most hated process.
The Process Walk
The first step was manually looking up employees in giant books that list every King County or Metro employee from 1972. Sometimes one book just redirected to another:
So before team member Carmen Johnson, with whom Guy was process walking, even got to the microfiche itself (the hard part), Guy had said, “That’s lot of work.”
When the employee’s microfiche code is found, that information leads to an entire room stuffed with microfiche. There are hundreds of thousands of these in each cabinet drawer:
When Johnson finally made it to the microfiche machine, then-FBOD Deputy Director Carol Basile exclaimed: “Oh my gosh! Carmen, your whole demeanor changed! You don’t like this, I can tell!”
The process was long, tedious, unnecessarily complicated—that is to say, it was chock full of waste—and it was painful for employees to boot. Guy thought he could and should do something about it—something to improve the process for the people doing it and support their efforts to improve the results.
So he asked how the process could be improved. Fleming answered, “Digitizing the ‘fiche.”
That was in July of 2014. Within a month of the process walk, FBOD had started taking steps to digitize the microfiche and improve a process that had pained Fleming’s team for years. (“Don’t tease me!” was her first response when she heard about the possibility.)
“Can You Look Me Up?”
In August of 2015, Guy was doing another process walk (observing a different work process) with the Kimberly Fleming of the Retirement team. He wanted to know how the new digitized employment records were working. “Can you look me up?” he asked Fleming.
In just a few moments—without big books or microfiche—Fleming was able to look up Guy’s employment on the newly digitized employment records. In the past, it might have taken her minutes just to find the correct microfiche and another half-hour to look up one pay period. Needless to say, it would have taken hours to research half a year of past employment (much less Guy’s entire distinguished record).
For each employment verification, that’s time savings that the team can now devote to other work, such as transmitting ongoing employee contribution data to the state pension system or meeting with employees who have questions regarding the retirement process.
Open to Seeing and Willing to Make Changes
Johnson says that she was most impressed that Guy and others who joined him on the process walk were “open to seeing. And when they saw, they were willing to make changes.”
The process walk led directly to real changes that improved the results and benefited the people doing the work. Leaders who had been asking for impossible results were able to see what they could do to support improvement.