Using Pull Systems to Optimise Work Flows in Call Centres

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

The Connection Between Six Sigma and CRM

Six Sigma is an industrial business strategy directed at improving the quality of process outputs by eliminating errors and system variables. The end objective is to achieve a state where 99.99966% of events are likely to be defect free. This would yield a statistical rating of Sigma 6 hence the name.

The process itself is thankfully more user-friendly. It presents a model for evaluating and improving customer relationships based on data provided by an automated customer relations management (CRM) system. However in the nature of human interaction we doubt the 99.99966% is practically achievable.

Six Sigma Fundamentals

The basic tenets of the business doctrine and the features that set off are generally accepted to be the following:

  1. Continuous improvement is essential for success
  1. Business processes can be measured and improved
  1. Top down commitment is fundamental to sustained improvement
  1. Claims of progress must be quantifiable and yield financial benefits
  1. Management must lead with enthusiasm and passion
  1. Verifiable data is a non-negotiable (no guessing)

Steps Towards the Goal

The five basic steps in Six Sigma are define the system, measure key aspects, analyse the relevant data, improve the method, and control the process to sustain improvements. There are a number of variations to this DMAIC model, however it serves the purpose of this article. To create a bridge across to customer relationships management let us assume our CRM data has thrown out a report that average service times in our fast food chicken outlets are as follows.

<2 Minutes3 to 8 Minutes9 to 10 Minutes>10 Minutes
45%30%20%5%
Table: Servicing Tickets in Chippy’s Chicken Cafés

Using DMAIC to unravel the reasons behind this might proceed as follows

  • Define the system in order to understand the process. How are customers prioritized up front, and does the back of store follow suit?
  • Break the system up into manageable process chunks. How long should each take on average? Where are bottlenecks most likely to occur?
  • Analyse the ticket servicing data by store, by time of day, by time of week and by season. Does the type of food ordered have a bearing?
  • Examine all these variables carefully. Should there for example be separate queues for fast and slower orders, are there some recipes needing rejigging
  • Set a goal of 90% of tickets serviced within 8 minutes. Monitor progress carefully. Relate this to individual store profitability. Provide recognition.

Conclusion

A symbiotic relation between CRM and a process improvement system can provide a powerful vehicle for evidencing customer care and providing feedback through measurable results. Denizon has contributed to many strategically important systems. Our consultants are highly trained and waiting for your call.

What Kanban Can Do for Call Centre Response Times

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]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.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Could Kanban Be Best for Knowledge Workers?

Knowledge Workers include academics, accountants, architects, doctors, engineers, lawyers, software engineers, scientists and anybody else whose job it is to think for a living. They are usually independent-minded people who do not appreciate project managers dishing out detailed orders. Kanban project management resolves this by letting them choose the next task themselves.

The word ‘Kanban’ comes from a Japanese word meaning ‘billboard’ or ‘signboard’. Before going into more detail how this works let’s first examine how Japanese beliefs of collaboration, communication, courage, focus on value, respect for people and a holistic approach to change fit into the picture.

The Four Spokes Leading to the Kanban Hub

  1. Visualise the Workflow –You cannot improve what you cannot see. The first step involves team members reducing a project to individual stages and posting these on a noticeboard.
  1. Create Batches – These stages are further reduced to individual tasks or batches that are achievable within a working day or shift. More is achievable when we do not have to pick up where we left off the previous day.
  1. Choose a Leader the Team Respects – Without leadership, a group of people produces chaotic results. To replace this with significant value they need a leader, and especially a leader they can willingly follow.
  1. Learn and Improve Constantly – Kaizen or continuous improvement underpins the Japanese business model, and respects that achievement is a step along the road, and not fulfilment.

The Kanban Method in Practice

Every Kanban project begins with an existing process the participants accept will benefit from continuous change. These adjustments should be incremental, not radical step-changes to avoid disrupting the stakeholders and the process. The focus is on where the greatest benefits are possible.

Anybody in the team is free to pull any batch from the queue and work on it in the spirit of collaboration and cooperation. That they do so, should not make any waves in a culture of respect for people and a holistic approach to working together. All it needs is the courage to step out of line and dream what is possible.

The Kanban Project Method – Conclusions and Thoughts

Every engine needs some sort of fuel to make it go. The Kanban project management method needs collaboration, communication, courage, focus on value, respect for people and a holistic approach to work. This runs counter to traditional western hierarchies and probably limits its usefulness in the West.

What Heijunka Is & How it Smooths Call Centre Production

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.

Is Your Project Agile, a Scrum or a Kanban?

Few projects pan out the way we expect when starting out. This is normal in any creative planning phase. We half suspect the ones that follow a straight line are the exceptions to the rule. Urban legend has it; Edison made a thousand prototypes before his first bulb lit up, and then went on to comment, “genius is 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration”. Later, he added that many of life’s failures are people who did not realize just how close they were to success when they gave up.

So be it to this day, and so be it with project planning too. There is no one size fits all approach when it comes to it. Agile, Scrum and Kanban each have their supporters and places where they do well. Project planning often works best when we use a sequential combination of them, appropriate to what is currently happening on the ground.

Of the three, Agile is by far the most comprehensive. It provides a structure that begins with project vision / conceptualisation, and goes as far as celebration when the job is over, and retrospective discussion afterwards. However, the emphasis on daily planning meetings may dent freethinking, and even smother it.

Scrum on the other hand says ‘forget all that bureaucracy’. There is a job to do and today is the day we are going to do it. Although the core Agile teamwork is still there it ignores macro project planning, and could not be bothered with staying in touch with customers. If using Scrum, it is best to give those jobs to someone else.

The joker in the pack is Kanban, It believes that rules are there to substitute for thought, and that true progress only comes from responsible freedom. It belongs in mature organizations that have passed through Scrum and Agile phases and have embarked on a voyage towards perfection.

That said, there can be no substitute for human leadership, especially when defined as the social influence that binds the efforts of others towards a single task.