Eliminating your growing backlog

Backlog illustration by Ad Esse Consulting

Banish your backlog!

Backlogs can occur whatever sector you work in and you may already be well aware of the impact it has on your customer and colleagues. These backlogs may leave you feeling frustrated and as though you are ‘fire-fighting’, or, you may have come to a point where managing and reshuffling work has become as much a part of your day as the actual pieces of work you were supposed to do in the first place!

In terms of improvement, a backlog is considered to be ANY outstanding work and is classed as ‘Inventory.’ This is one of the wastes that commonly exists within organisations and any improvement project would attempt to reduce and eliminate. However you choose to describe it, a backlog, work in progress, inventory – the issues caused and the approach to improvement are the same and explored in this article.

Why do backlogs occur?

There are many reasons why backlogs exist; there are the ‘legitimate’ (small and manageable) backlogs usually called queues and then there are the undesirable backlogs, the ones that organisations work hard to eliminate. Backlogs arise for one of three reasons, either an increase in demand, a reduction in the productivity of the team providing the service or a reduction in resource available to meet the demand. A reduction in resources can sometimes be predicted and managed, such as maternity leave, but often cannot, for example, staff sickness or staff that leave with short notice. A reduction in the productivity of the team is harder to spot, and may be due to poor definition of roles, poor process design, new staff coming in who are less productive or poor performance management. The more common cause of undesirable backlogs is an increase in demand which is sometimes outside the control of the team. Examples include:

  • Demand in response to Policy or Political Changes– The introduction of GDPR in May 2018 led to increased demand in many customer service teams, either in response to customers making direct calls or customers reacting to postal consent requests.
  • One-Off Demand– In the world of social media, viral charity challenges, although positive in overall impact, can also create unexpected, rapid rises in demand for fundraising teams.
  • Seasonal Demand – Natural disasters or storms, whilst expected, can rarely be predicted in terms of ultimate impact and timing. Storms such as the “Beast from the East” have a two-fold impact especially in housing repair teams – they both create new demand, and reduce the productivity of the teams completing those repairs.
  • Self-Generated Demand – A confusing letter can result in a tidal wave of customer queries that need a response, or, a new product offering that outstripped expected demand e.g. a new fundraising event

“Backlogs are inevitable – why try and reduce it?”

Quite simply a backlog will create a snowball effect. The more work waiting to be completed, whether the customer is internal or external, the greater the risk those pieces of work will generate other activity e.g. chaser calls, requests being submitted twice or a change of requirements after work has begun. Handling the additional demand takes up resource, which is likely to be the same resource already working their way through the backlog, this, in turn, reduces the capacity to deal with new work being received, the backlog increases and so it continues until the backlog is no longer manageable. In the example below a backlog of six pieces of work, has become nine due to delay in response to the customer’s initial enquiry.

Ad Esse backlog illustration

How to deal with you backlog

It is much easier to deal with a backlog of 10 pieces of work than it is to deal with a backlog of 100, and the main reason large backlogs are allowed to build up is simply that they go unnoticed for long periods of time. By robustly measuring the work coming into your service, ideally on a daily basis, you can quickly spot backlogs forming and take action whilst they are still manageable. Typical measures that will help any organisation monitor its workload are:

  • Work in
  • Work completed
  • Work in progress (WIP)

Even where you or your team may not feel there is a problem, measuring daily will allow you to quickly spot a backlog forming and take action whilst it is still manageable. The two figures below show different types of backlogs. In Figure 1, the ongoing demand cannot be delivered by the current resource available and the backlog is building over time, in Figure 2, demand was being managed until there was a one-off peak in demand. The team continues to keep on top of work, but have been unable to reduce the backlog.

Ad Esse graph - increasing resource unable to keep up with demand
Ad Esse graph - Resource unable to deal with peak in demand

When dealing with any backlog remember the principle of merciless measurement and continuous improvement; your customers are unlikely to complain if you exceed their expectations. So, once you bring your workload within ‘acceptable’ limits why stop there? Continue to improve your response times and reduce your queue sizes and be known as an organisation that delivers truly excellent service. The ideal size of backlog for any process is 1, or as near to one as you can make it!

Backlogs are not always simple to deal with, and for staff immersed in them, they may feel impossible. At Ad Esse we have many years experience of helping clients throughout the public, not-for-profit and charity sectors eliminate their backlogs. This includes waiting lists for treatment in healthcare, repairs and voids in housing, and donation processing in charities.

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