Productivity improvement is one of the most important outcomes that a leader can deliver.
Increasing productivity allows organisations to adapt to new circumstances more easily. It allows businesses to grow faster by increasing their capacity to defend existing business. It allows businesses to accept a higher failure rate in seeking out new business. It allows governments to do more with each tax dollar collected. It allows charities to spend more of their collected dollars on delivering against their stated aim rather than administration. It allows both government and charities to collect more money.
Increasing productivity also breeds confidence and a sense of well-being in the people who work in organisations, along with a sense that they are doing things right. When people are confident and relaxed that they are doing things right, it gives leaders the time to ensure the organisation is doing the right things.
Increasing productivity does not take a multi-million dollar research and development budget or a three year investment in changing processes and introducing new information technology information systems. Productivity can be increased quickly by ridding yourself and your organisation of the productivity killers that most organisations practise as part of their usual routine.
In this article, I will explore a big productivity killer: signature collection processes.
Processes to authorise expenditure, create a new project or perhaps to change a process require that departmental heads sign off on a signature sheet before an activity can go ahead. In collecting all the signatures the activity is delayed as the document traverses the internal mail. The signature sheet is used to verify that the activity is supported by the departments whose head has attached their signature.
For example, a government department controlled the lease of government buildings. Letters to the relevant section of the government department would at first go to a central government mail room, be signed by the mailroom clerk as being received, sent to the head of the relevant department for them to sign that they had seen and read the correspondence, and then passed down three levels of the chain of command collecting signatures on the way until it reached the division that had the requisite knowledge to respond to the correspondence. The official correspondence went back the same way. On average, it took two months to correspond with the division that controlled the lease of the building space. It is not difficult to imagine the problems that ensued when tenants wanted to leave on a month’s notice, or even when the department wanted to evict tenants or when tenants were in arrears with payments.
Why it is wrong
Signature collecting processes usually collect one or more signatures that serve no purpose whatsoever, or collect a signature more to inform department heads than to get their formal authority to proceed. Processes which are three or more years old are particularly likely to include this characteristic.
If the department heads of organisations actually read everything they got across their desk requiring their signature then they would do nothing else. So what do they do? They scan and skip read, at best. How good are they at scan and skip reading and retaining high comprehension? In most cases the answer is, “not very.” As a result, they authorise important things they actually disagree with and spend valuable time scan reading material which is not important to them.
In the example of the government department, a review of three months’ correspondence demonstrated that there was never an annotation to the correspondence to or from the department by any person who signed that they had seen the document. The divisional people responsible carried out the required work to the best of their ability either always two months behind what would be an appropriate response or within an appropriate time using other communication means whilst the official correspondence caught up.
What to do about it
Firstly, complete an audit. Ask department heads and others to keep track of the amount and nature of correspondence that requires their signature or initials. This can be done by the simple means of a tick-sheet. Include in the tick sheet columns for the manager to indicate what the document was about and whether they needed to see the document and if so, whether they were the responsible or accountable* party or whether the needed to be consulted or informed.
*Note: Responsible, Accountable, Informed and Consulted comprise the parts of a RACI analysis. Accountable = I have authority to change this process, Informed = I need to be informed about this process to effectively carry out my work; Consulted = This process cannot be completed without my input.
Analysis of the audit reveals what documents managers are receiving that they do not need to receive. From my experience, of the documents signed or initialled by a manager, at least thirty percent are unnecessary. The processes associated with those documents should be changed to eliminate the step that requires a manager’s oversight and signature.
Alternative processes can be developed to eliminate, on average, another twenty percent of signature collecting activities. For example, if a manager is concerned about expenditure, rather than approving every purchase, as often happens when costs become the focus, create a weekly report on expenditure and maintain direct oversight only on high cost items.
How change improves productivity
Typically, eliminating processes which usually have a signature collecting component has several positive results:
- Managers get time back.
- Managers read what they need to read properly.
- Subordinates are empowered more to get on with the job rather than collecting a signature.
- Decentralised decision making improves employee morale.
- Suppliers get paid more quickly.
- New employees get employed more quickly as the post-selection administrative processes are streamlined.
- Minor capital works and maintenance are completed earlier.
- Projects are approved or denied more quickly, for the right reasons, and by the right people.