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Larry Foster: Practical Insights for Optimizing Operational Transformation in the Utility Industry [Part Two]

Headshot of Larry Foster
Larry Foster: Practical Insights for Optimizing Operational Transformation in the Utility Industry [Part Two]

Larry Foster, President of MuniBilling, has been working with technology for over 25 years. He's experienced in different sectors of technology, from starting new projects to helping companies grow and overcome challenges.

With a focus on the software and utility industries, Larry is a leading expert specializing in the complete lifecycle management of advanced solutions. Under his leadership, MuniBilling ensures dedicated client success teams and an unwavering commitment to ongoing support and efficiency improvements in the dynamic utility and software landscapes.


In part one of our Ask the Experts series, focusing on leveraging Lean management practices to help optimize Utility Billing operations, we were introduced to a few Lean methods and qualifying how to determine if a process creates value for stakeholders. Now, in part two, we will talk about something called "value stream mapping." Value Stream Mapping is a map of an entire process that helps classify which activities add value versus which actions add no value. A Value Stream Map lets an organization choose the best route from start to finish while minimizing aspects that bring little or no value. When using value mapping alongside operational analysis, municipal and multi-family billing leaders can better visualize and optimize value streams and understand how value for stakeholders is created. Implementing and managing simple value streams helps municipal and multi-family utility service providers deliver quality service to exceed customer expectations.

Q: Can you explain what a value stream is and how it’s different from regular business process workflows?

A value stream is not just about recording how a process works; it's more like looking at the big picture of all the elements of each workflow activity in the process from start to finish. Instead of focusing on each step individually, a value stream takes an overall view of everything. In municipal and multifamily utility services, a value stream encompasses all activities, from a new customer's service activation request to service provision and billing. It documents the customer's journey, often referred to as the Customer’s Experience (CX).

Value stream mapping documents the tasks requiring teamwork between various departments and resources aligned to create value for the customer. This collaboration, across all parts of the organization, is critical for optimizing the overall process of bringing value to your customers.


Q: Wouldn’t value stream mapping involve considerable effort and possibly an extended period before anyone sees any meaningful improvements?

For organizations using value stream mapping, it’s essential to stick to the idea behind continuous improvement. If a company follows the Lean philosophy, it commits to regularly reviewing, analyzing, and making ongoing minor improvements to its value stream. Instead of trying to fix everything in one extensive overhaul, the focus is on more minor, gradual and continuous enhancements. This involves identifying and prioritizing the elimination of waste, improving efficiency, and enhancing customer satisfaction. In Lean, waste refers to anything that does not add value to the service from the customer’s point of view. A common outcome of value stream mapping is gaining insight into all the waste encumbering a workflow process. It sets the stage for organizations to evolve from what is commonly referred to as the most lethal justification in the English language – “Because we’ve always done it this way.


Q: How does an organization establish its definition of its value stream?

Value streams are often shown visually. Visual mapping tools like Visio and Lucidchart have excellent templates to support value stream mapping. 

By publishing these visualizations, teams can better understand the flow of value, identify bottlenecks, and determine areas that need improvement. Continuous improvement is finding the most critical problems and using resources to fix them. As the organization keeps changing, it becomes a habit to keep seeing, fixing, and making minor changes to get better results for everyone involved. The organization’s value stream map evolves from dogmatic to pragmatic through incremental continuous improvements.

Getting rid of waste is vital for making value streams better. This requires removing activities that do not add value, reducing excess inventory, making waiting times shorter, and using resources in the best way possible. Focusing on making things better naturally brings down costs.


Q: Is zero waste achievable through value stream mapping and continuous improvement?

The short answer is no. Municipal and multifamily utility service providers can't ignore government and safety rules—they're necessary even though they don't always directly add value for the customers. Plus, technologies and how things work are constantly changing. The idea behind the continuous improvement is better serving, getting better at what we do – making things work smoother, improving quality, and better serving customers. It is a step-by-step way of persistently and progressively making things better. It involves gradually improving things consistently.


Q: How do utility customers, employees, shareholders, and taxpayers profit from continual improvement initiatives and streamlined processes in utility services?

Different improvement initiatives will create value for different stakeholders. Value stream mapping measures the time it takes for further steps in the process. This includes Lead Time, Flow Time, and Cycle Time.

Lead Time is how long it takes from when a customer asks for a utility service until everything is done and billed. The Flow Time is the total time after the service provider receives the request to complete the request. The Cycle Time is the accumulative time and resources used for a single request to move through the entire process.

Minimizing all three key performance indicators or KPIs is essential because they add value differently for different stakeholders. Reducing Lead Time adds value for customers. Removing manual steps, decreasing Flow Time and Cycle time, and lowering the chances of mistakes helps everyone (customers, employees, shareholders, and taxpayers) save money and make everyone happier.


Q: Is there anything we should have had time to cover that is important for others to know about value stream mapping and continuous improvement for municipal and multifamily utility service providers?

Value streams must be flexible and adaptable to changes in what customers want, market conditions, regulatory requirements, and how things work inside the organization. This adaptability helps in responding effectively to ever-changing business environments. 

Lean is all about trying to be better by understanding that reaching an ultimate state of perfection is an ongoing and evolving process. Instead of thinking of perfection as a fixed goal, it's recognized as something that happens for a short moment in time. This perspective comes from the belief that what’s needed constantly changes as business conditions evolve. The fundamental philosophy of Lean isn't about achieving an unreachable endpoint; instead, it embraces continuous adaptation and improvement in response to the ever-changing landscape of business needs.



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Larry Foster, dedicated President of MuniBilling, is committed to delivering cutting-edge Electronic Bill Payment and Presentment services tailored for utility billing. If you're interested in learning more about our product and services, sign up for a personalized demo of the MuniBilling system. 

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