Using Pull Systems to Optimise Work Flows in Call Centres

People working in call center

When call centres emerged towards the end of the 20th century, they deserved their name ‘the sweatshops of the nineties’. A new brand of low-paid workers crammed into tiny cubicles to interact with consumers who were still trying to understand the system. Supervisors followed ‘scientific management’ principles aimed at maximising call-agent activity. When there was sudden surge in incoming calls, systems and customer care fell over.

The flow is nowadays in the opposite direction. Systems borrowed from manufacturing like Kanban, Pull, and Levelling are in place enabling a more customer-oriented approach. In this short article, our focus is on Pull Systems. We discuss what are they, and how they can make modern call centres even better for both sets of stakeholders.

Pull Systems from a Manufacturing Perspective

Manufacturing has traditionally been push-based. Sums are done, demand predicted, raw materials ordered and the machines turned on. Manufacturers send out representatives to obtain orders and push out stock. If the sums turn out wrong inventories rise, and stock holding costs increase. The consumer is on the receiving end again and the accountant is irritable all day long.

Just-in-time thinking has evolved a pull-based approach to manufacturing. This limits inventories to anticipated demand in the time it takes to manufacture more, plus a cushion as a trigger. When the cushion is gone, demand-pull spurs the factory into action. This approach brings us closer to only making what we can sell. The consumer benefits from a lower price and the accountant smiles again.

Are Pull Systems Possible in Dual Call Centres

There are many comments in the public domain regarding the practicality of using lean pull systems to regulate call centre workflow. Critics point to the practical impossibility of limiting the number of incoming callers. They believe a call centre must answer all inbound calls within a target period, or lose its clients to the competition.

In this world-view customers are often the losers. At peak times, operators can seem keen to shrug them off with canned answers. When things are quiet, they languidly explain things to keep their occupancy levels high. But this is not the end of the discussion, because modern call centres do more than just take inbound calls.

Using the Pull System Approach in Dual Call Centres

Most call centre support-desks originally focused are handling technical queries on behalf of a number of clients. When these clients’ customers called in, their staff used operator’s guides to help them answer specific queries. Financial models determined staffing levels and the number of ‘man-hours’ available daily. Using a manufacturing analogy, they used a push-approach to decide the amount of effort they were going to put out, and that is where they planted their standard.

Since these early 1990 days, advanced telephony on the internet has empowered call centres to provide additional remote services in any country with these networks. They have added sales and marketing to their business models, and increased their revenue through commissions. They have control over activity levels in this part of their business. They have the power to decide how many calls they are going to make, and within reason when they are going to make them.

This dichotomy of being passive regarding incoming traffic on the one hand, and having active control over outgoing calls on the other, opens up the possibility of a partly pull-based lean approach to call centre operation. In this model, a switching mechanism moves dual trained operators between call centre duties and marketing activities, as required by the volume of call centre traffic, thus making a pull system viable in dual call centres.

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What Kanban can do for Call Centre Response Times

Contemporary Business Team Planning Work

When a Toyota industrial engineer named Taiichi Ohno was investigating ways to optimise production material stocks in 1953, it struck him that supermarkets already had the key. Their customers purchased food and groceries on a just-in-time basis, because they trusted continuity of supply. This enabled stores to predict demand, and ensure their suppliers kept the shelves full.

The Kanban system that Taiichi Ohno implemented included a labelling system. His Kanban tickets recorded details of the factory order, the delivery destination, and the process intended for the materials. Since then, Ohno’s system has helped in many other applications, especially where customer demand may be unpredictable.

Optimising Workflow in Call Centres
Optimising workflow in call centres involves aiming to have an agent pick up an incoming call within a few rings and deal with it effectively. Were this to be the case we would truly have a just-in-time business, in which operators arrived and left their stations according to customer demand. For this to be possible, we would need to standardise performance across the call centre team. Moving optimistically in that direction we would should do these three things:

  • Make our call centre operation nimble
  • Reduce the average time to handle calls
  • Decide an average time to answer callers

When we have done that, we are in a position to apply these norms to fluctuating call frequencies, and introduce ‘kanbanned’ call centre operators.

Making Call Centre Operations Nimble
The best place to start is to ask the operators and support staff what they think. Back in the 1960’s Robert Townsend of Avis Cars famously said, ‘ask the people – they know where the wheels are squeaking’ and that is as true as ever.

  1. Begin by asking technical support about downtime frequencies, duration, and causes. Given the cost of labour and frustrated callers, we should have the fastest and most reliable telecoms and computer equipment we can find.
  1. Then invest in training and retraining operators, and making sure the pop-up screens are valuable, valid, and useful. They cannot do their job without this information, and it must be at least as tech-savvy as their average callers are.
  1. Finally, spruce up the call centre with more than a lick of paint to awaken a sense of enthusiasm and pride. Find time for occasional team builds and fun during breaks. Tele-operators have a difficult job. Make theirs fun!

Reducing Average Time to Handle Calls
Average length of contact is probably our most important metric. We should beware of shortening this at the cost of quality of interaction. To calculate it, use this formula:

Total Work Time + Total Hold Time + Total Post Call Time

Divided By

Total Calls Handled in that Period

Share recordings of great calls that highlight how your best operators work. Encourage role-play during training sessions so people learn by doing. Publish your average call-handling time statistics. Encourage individual operators to track how they are doing against these numbers. Make sure your customer information is up to date. While they must confirm core data, limit this so your operators can get down to their job sooner.

Decide a Target Time to Answer Calls
You should know what is possible in a matter of a few weeks. Do not attempt to go too tight on this one. It is better to build in say 10% slack that you can always trim in future. Once you have decided this, you can implement your Kanban system.

Introducing Kanban in Your Call Centre Operation
Monitor your rate of incoming calls through your contact centre, and adjust your operator-demand metric on an ongoing basis. Use this to calculate your over / under demand factor. Every operator should know the value on this Kanban ticket. It will tell them whether to speed up a little, or slow down a bit so they deliver the effort the call rate demands. It will also advise the supervisor when to call up reserves.

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What Heijunka is & How it Smooths Call Centre Production

Business team working together at a call centre wearing headsets

The Japanese word Heijunka, pronounced hi-JUNE-kuh means ‘levelling’ in the sense of balancing workflows. It helps lean organizations shift priorities in the face of fluctuating customer demand. The goal is to have the entire operation working at the same pace throughout, by continuously adjusting the balance between predictability, flexibility, and stability to level out demand.

Henry Ford turned the American motor manufacturing industry upside down by mass-producing his iconic black motor cars on two separate production lines. In this photograph, body shells manufactured upstairs come down a ramp and drop onto a procession of cars almost ready to roll in 1913.

Ford 'Model A' Line in 1913

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Smoothing Production in the Call Centre Industry

Call Centres work best in small teams, each with a supervisor to take over complex conversations. In the past, these tended to operate in silos with each group in semi-isolation representing a different set of clients. Calls came through to operators the instant the previous ones concluded. By the law of averages, inevitably one had more workload than the rest at a particular point in time as per this example.

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Modern telecoms technology makes it possible to switch incoming lines to different call centre teams, provided these are multi-skilled. A central operator controls this manually by observing imbalanced workflows on a visual system called a Heijunka Box. The following example comes from a different industry, and highlights how eight teams share uneven demand for six products.

This departure from building handmade automobiles allowed Henry to move his workforce around to eliminate bottlenecks. For example, if rolls of seat leather arrived late he could send extra hands upstairs to speed up the work there, while simultaneously slowing chassis production. Ford had the further advantage of a virtual monopoly in the affordable car market. He made his cars at the rate that suited him best, with waiting lists extending for months.

A Modern, More Flexible Approach

Forces of open competition and the Six Sigma drive for as-close-to-zero defects dictates a more flexible approach, as embodied in this image published by the Six Sigma organisation. This represents an ideal state. In reality, one force usually has greater influence, for example decreasing stability enforces a more flexible approach.

Balancing Predictability, Flexibility, and Stability to Level out Demand

Years ago, Japanese car manufacturer Toyota moved away from batching in favour of a more customer-centric approach, whereby buyers could customise orders from options held in stock for different variations of the same basic model. The most effective approach lies somewhere between Henry Ford’s inflexibility and Toyota’s openness, subject to the circumstances at the moment.

A Worked Factory Example

The following diagram suggests a practical Heijunka application in a factory producing three colours of identical hats. There are two machines for each option, one or both of which may be running. In the event of a large order for say blue hats, the company has the option of shifting some blue raw material to the red and green lines so to have the entire operation working at a similar rate.

Diagram of a Heijunka

Predictability, Flexibility, and Stability at Call Centre Service

The rate of incoming calls is a moving average characterised by spikes in demand. Since the caller has no knowledge whether high activity advisories are genuine, it is important to service them as quickly as possible. Lean process engineering provides technology to facilitate flexibility. Depending on individual circumstances, each call centre may have its own definition of what constitutes an acceptably stable situation.

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A Business Case for Sharing

Group of business people.Business people sharing their new ideas.

We blogged about sharing services in a decentralised business context recently, and explained why we think why these should be IT-Based for speedy delivery. This is not to say that all shared services projects worldwide have been resounding successes. This is often down to the lack of a solid business case up front. We decided to lay out the logic behind this process.

Management Overview – The overview includes a clear definition of why the current situation is unacceptable, the anticipated benefits of sharing, and an implementation plan were it to go ahead. The project should not proceed until the stakeholders have considered and agreed on this.

Alternatives Considered – The next stage is to get closer to the other options in order to determine whether an alternative might perhaps be preferable. Substitutes for shared services are often doing nothing, improving the current method, and outsourcing the service to a third party.

The Bottom Line in Business – Sharing services comes at an initial cost of infrastructure changes, and the impact on human capital (the latter deserves its own blog). The following need careful consideration from the financial angle:

Numbers to Work Through

  • Manpower to design and roll the project out in parallel with the existing organisation.
  • Capital for creating facilities at the central point including civil works, furniture and equipment and IT infrastructure.
  • The costs of travel, feeding and accommodation. These can be significant depending on the time that implementation takes.
  • The opportunity loss of diverting key staff – and the cost of temporary replacements – if appointing line staff to the project team.
  • Crystal-clear project metrics including (a) the direct, realisable savings (b) the medium and long-term effects on profit and (c) where to deploy the savings

Risk Management

Shared services projects don’t go equally smoothly, although planning should reduce the risk to manageable levels. Nonetheless it is important to imagine potential snags, decide how to mitigate them and what the cost might be.

We believe in implementing shared services on a pilot basis in the business unit that eventually provides them. We recommend building these out to other branches only when new processes are working smoothly.

Moving On From a Decision

We recommend you revisit your management overview, the logic behind it, the assumptions you made, and the costs and benefits you envisage before deciding to go ahead

The final step in proving a business case is doable should be fleshing out your roadmap into a detailed operations plan with dependencies on a spreadsheet.

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