When I was in production, we used the term “waves” to describe the ebb and flow of work to the factory.  Some days there would be very little, and others a big heaping pile.  When the waves came, we worked overtime, bumped queues, and sometimes used less experienced workers to fill in gaps.   So-called work-in-process was piled everywhere, and workers and supervisors flew around the factory, escorting the stodgy production flow.  Sometimes this experience was, dare I say, exciting – so much was happening at once.   Most times, however, problems arose in the wave, and the experience was a nightmare.   In all cases, the waves hurt productivity and quality.  This unevenness created a multitude of potential problems, including mistakes, strain and injury, the need for excess resources (and cost), and ultimately, workers with 10,000-mile stares.

So that was production, circa 1985.   Over time, we discovered that much of the unevenness was self-inflicted, the outcome of crazy sales or operations policies.  For example, sales bonuses paid on quarterly shipments forced orders out the door early (built on over-time).  Then, the first couple weeks of the subsequent quarter were without full work – ebb tide.

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A more recent chance discussion with a friend, Amy, who is an HR manager, yielded a wave example outside the production realm:  Amy complained,

“Once each quarter I get an employee health benefits report.  For each of our one-hundred and thirty employees, I have to check for dependents whose 26th birthdays will occur within the next quarter, and then notify the policy holders that their kids will no longer be covered.”

She went on to explain that the process was arduous and prone to mistakes.  Further, she noted that employees with children whose birthdays were very early in the next quarter received only a few days notice and were annoyed by this.

“I lock myself in my office for most of a week, just to get this out of the way,” Amy said.

“So what about the rest of your work?” I asked.

“It just waits,” she replied.   For four weeks out of each year, work waited while Amy handled her wave, in this case, of information.

“Why do you do this quarterly?”  I inquired.  “Why not more frequently?”

Amy responded, “We’ve always done it this way,” then added, “Four times per year is often enough!”

“But birthdays occur every day of the year,”  I said.  “Couldn’t your IT department flag these?    Rather than a three month batch of records, you’d have to only handle one day’s worth at a time.”

Amy reflected.  “Maybe I’ll check with our IT department.”

Two months later, Amy called to let me know that in fact the IT department was sending her a weekly health benefits report – all sorted and ready for action.  “I can’t believe I just got four weeks of my life back,” she said.

How many unexamined processes are there out there?   Do you have a wave story?  Please share.


BTW:  We’re still accepting nominations for the Silver Toaster Award  for outstanding contributions to continuous improvement.  Do you have employees you can nominate?   Send them along.  Here’s the link: http://www.gbmp.org/images/stories/2012_silver_toaster_application.pdf

3 thoughts on “Waves

  1. Tom Warda


    Interesting thoughts as always. In manufacturing, we seem to be our own worst enemy.

    I’ve been doing some Lean work the past few years in healthcare and they like to think they’re different. In fact most healthcare professionals absolutely abhor any reference to manufacturing when talking about Lean. (Interestingly, the institutions that have done the most with Lean seem to have the least objection to manufacturing references.) But I digress.

    The point I wanted to make is that a common position in healthcare is that they have absolutely no control over when patients need care. That would suggest that “waves” are something normal. On the surface, this is somewhat true. People don’t schedule bus crashes, flu season or natural disasters. But if one peels the onion just a bit further, interesting things appear.

    For instance, the second stop for many patients that enter through the Emergency Department is the Observation Unit. In the process of trying to reduce the time it takes to move patients from ED to Observation, we found a huge wave – just before shift change in ED. What was happening was that before providers left for the day, they tried to close everything out. I think we could call this normal behavior. But in doing this, they created a wave in a downstream operation that seriously strained the system – not to mention the patients. So what we have here is good old fashioned batching causing a wave – just like you mentioned.

    By the way, when we really started looking into the “patients arrive whenever the need arises” theory, we found some other interesting facts. For instance, the hospital does little or nothing to incent patients to stagger their arrival times to smooth the flow. And there are many things that can be smoothed such as elective surgery and out-patient visits. Ah, opportunity to reduce the wave effect exists!


  2. Robert Drescher

    Bruce, you and Tom are right for the most part we tend to create needless waves in all areas of human activity.

    It goes on in every business and industry, we waste huge efforts to meet unneeded and unrealistic deadlines that the end consumer never demanded or created in the first place. Why does just about every industry release their new models in short focussed time frames, instead of spreading them out through the year. A new car model would be just as valueable in January as in September, in fact it may even earn a greater marketshare if realised at a different time. The adavantage would be it ends the constant shutdown work wave that happens twice yearly, and would spread work out more evenly throughout the year. The number of needless hours of overtime would be reduced, and the odds of a poor underdeveloped product making the market to fail would be reduced. But changing that would mean using common sense.

    The entertainment industry pulls the same dumb stunt, by launching all their new shows in a few short weeks instead of looking at where there is an opportunity for a new show to capture a market by fulfilling a need in the market. If every industry slowed down and developed products as they identified specific market needs and opportunities we would launch far fewer failures, because often most failures are the resulkt of failing to actually meet any need or desire of the consumer, or waiting until that need or desire goes away because it is not time to launch something new.

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