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Don’t Ignore the Small Projects

Jim Strebler
Insurance Experts' Forum, October 28, 2009

I’m amazed by the number of requests for small system fixes that companies must deal with at any given time. I’m talking about things like requests to make something work the way it is supposed to, and installations of processing capabilities that were meant to be included in Phase I of a major project but were postponed to Phase II … and Phase II was never completed. The reality is that these small-project requests seldom get appropriate attention.

The reason they don’t get much attention or priority is simple: they are perceived as “nit” problems. An example is a system that doesn’t produce output in an ideal format, necessitating a workaround with Excel or Access. Another example is printing out hardcopies so that they can be faxed out (yes, it still goes on). These types of problems are varied, but have two things in common: they are small in scope, and workers have found ways to handle them with workarounds.

Why should you care about these projects when there are bigger, “more important” IT projects linked to corporate strategic initiatives? The answer is that when all those small projects are added up, the cumulative costs and inefficiency of not doing them can be significant. What are the costs? Among them are unnecessary work hours related to extra processing or accommodating workarounds; preventable processing errors that translate into rework and potentially dissatisfied or lost customers; convoluted business processes that complicate other automation initiatives; complex training and job design requirements; the time value of information delivery; and, last but not least, workers’ frustration at having to perform extra processing steps or to redo transactions.

Every company has these small projects, and it’s perplexing that they aren’t fixed quickly, based on the very real payback they often provide. If such problems were in a home, they’d be fixed quickly—even if a major remodel of another part of the home was underway. Few homeowners would tolerate a broken TV remote, a faulty light switch or a lukewarm water heater. But in a company setting, workarounds and related cost leakage are somehow more acceptable.

There are easy steps you can take to determine if this issue is pervasive in your operations:

1. Find out if you actually have a problem. Assign someone to compile a list of the small projects that have been requested. Review the log and then ask staff members to add any requests for projects that are not on the list. If it’s a short list, you’re among the few companies that don’t suffer from workaround syndrome. But if you have a long list …

2. Evaluate the costs for each workaround by getting two pieces of information: the time required to conduct the workaround (you might ask, “How long would it take if you didn’t have to do that?”) and the total number of transactions or occurrences of the problem. Next, calculate the cost by multiplying the transactions (per month, week, etc.) by the time consumed per occurrence. Multiply that by the fully loaded cost of an affected worker and you have an approximate cost for that workaround in a given timeframe.

After these two steps, you will see how much those workarounds are costing you. If the costs are significant, fixes are likely justifiable. Select the workarounds that carry the highest cost and prepare a quick estimate of the systems modifications required to fix each. Compare the ongoing cost of the workarounds to the IT hours and decide if it’s worth it. The higher the payback, the more priority should be given to eliminating that workaround. Work the list until the high-impact fixes are in place.

By paying attention to these smaller projects and problem fixes, you can achieve valuable benefits in worker productivity, process efficiency, service levels and customer satisfaction. It is well worth the time to take a fresh look at these ‘little projects’ and get them done.

Jim Strebler is a senior consultant for The Robert E. Nolan Co., a management consulting firm specializing in the insurance industry.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

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