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

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

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.

Q: What is Flow and Pull

In simple terms, Flow and Pull are concepts that help us create a more efficient and customer-focused process. We want to deliver value to our customers as quickly and smoothly as possible while still being adaptable and continuously improving. The idea behind Flow is to create a streamlined process where work moves through the system at a steady, consistent pace. That would mean minimizing wait times, reducing bottlenecks, and ensuring each step in the process flows seamlessly into the next. With Pull, we're focusing on responding directly to customer demand. We're not overproducing or stockpiling resources - instead, we're producing only what the customer needs when they need it. This helps us minimize waste, reduce lead times, and ultimately provide better service to our customers.

Q: How does Flow apply to municipalities and multifamily utility service providers?

Flow is particularly important for municipalities and multifamily utility service providers because they often have complex processes involving multiple departments and stakeholders. By implementing Flow principles, organizations like these can streamline their workflows and minimize interruptions or delays. Flow helps deliver value to customers more efficiently, which could mean faster billing cycles, quicker response times, or reduced wait times. Additionally, by aligning processes with customer needs and expectations, municipalities and multifamily utility service providers can better meet the unique demands of their communities and residents. For example, a provider might implement Flow principles to optimize their billing cycle, minimize delays, and provide faster, accurate bills to residents. Ultimately, by implementing Flow principles, municipalities, and multifamily utility service providers can deliver better and more efficient services to their communities while minimizing waste and reducing costs.

Q: What steps does an organization need to take to achieve a state of Flow?

Reducing delays and interruptions empowers the organization to deliver value to its customers swiftly and with less effort. Overall, achieving Flow requires a commitment to continuous improvement and a focus on eliminating waste at every step of the process. By adopting a Gemba-based approach, organizations can identify areas for improvement and make the necessary changes to transform into a state of Flow. Embracing the concept of Flow changes the organization for the better. When an organization adopts Flow, it starts focusing on meeting the needs of its customers instead of just producing or working as much as possible. That process often involves using a pull system where work is only started when a customer orders something, preventing overproduction and mitigating excess inventory. It also shifts the mindset of the people involved from "I'm doing my job" to "I own the outcome." The entire value stream becomes aligned around the customer. To achieve Flow, an organization must focus on identifying and eliminating waste from its processes. One effective method is called Gemba, which is a Japanese term for "Actual Place." Gemba refers to the practice of observing processes literally in the workplace rather than relying solely on reports or data to understand the work. By practicing Gemba walks, where leaders and team members go to the workplace to observe, it is much easier to identify non-value-added activities that hinder Flow. By removing these wasteful steps from the process, organizations can streamline their workflows and make them more efficient.

Q: Does an organization need someone to lead the implementation of Flow to make a big difference in its success?

Leaders must qualify and quantify the problems they seek to solve before acquiring and implementing solutions. Leaders should make sure they fully understand the issues they want to improve. When organizations improve processes by minimizing disruptions, unnecessary steps, and waiting times, they reduce overall waste. However, efficient flow requires balancing workloads across processes to avoid uneven production. It's not just about one person or department. To achieve successful flow, you need to balance the workload across all processes involved to ensure smooth production, bottlenecks, and under or overutilization of resources. This results in a more efficient and synchronized workflow for everyone involved.

Q: What happens if something major changes after we’ve established Flow like if someone leaves, a system needs to be replaced, or a new law comes into effect?

Flow is meant to be adaptable to changes in demand or requirements. Lean organizations prioritize being flexible in processes so they can quickly respond to changes in the business environment. While allowing for flexibility, standardization helps maintain consistency by providing a baseline for improvement efforts. This means that when something unexpected happens, like a staffing change, system replacement, or new regulation, the organization can still operate efficiently because everyone knows what's expected of them and how the process should work. The creation of standardized work processes also makes it easier to identify and address any issues that arise during these times of change.

Q: How can having standardized processes benefit the customers or employees?

Flow is all about minimizing lead times, which means shortening the time it takes for a product or service to move through the entire process from start to finish. By doing this,  utility service providers can respond more quickly to customer needs because there are fewer delays and waiting periods. This enhances the overall customer experience by providing faster turnaround times and improving satisfaction. Additionally, standardization of processes helps ensure consistency in the delivery of services. This benefits the utility customers by reducing costs and improving service and the work experience for employees. By streamlining tasks and eliminating unnecessary steps, organizations can reduce the time and effort required to complete them, which frees up more time for other important work or allows organizations to take on more projects to achieve greater levels of efficiency. When processes are standardized, employees know what is expected of them, reducing confusion and stress. That work environment is predictable and consistent, making it easier for team members to plan and prioritize their workload. Integrating Lean principles into operations creates a professional atmosphere that cultivates staff morale. Ultimately, the overall outcome is an environment where employees enjoy coming to work.

Q: Once everything is standardized and running smoothly, will that be the end of our Lean initiatives?

Standardizing processes and achieving efficient flow are significant milestones in a Lean continuous improvement journey, but they're not the end. Continuous improvement is essential for maintaining and enhancing the efficiency of the flow over time. Organizations that embrace continuous improvement understand there is always room for improvement, and strive to find new and better ways to operate consistently. By embracing a culture of continuous improvement, an organization can stay ahead of the curve and continue delivering high-quality service to customers while providing fulfilling work experiences for the employees. So, the short answer is no, Lean initiatives are not complete once efficient flow is achieved  - they're just beginning!

Q: What does it look like to have all these different concepts at work in your organization?

I think a simple analogy can help. Consider a well-functioning river system as a representation of an optimized and efficient process. Imagine a river as a model for a well-designed workflow process. Just like the river flows smoothly from start to finish, a Lean process moves work quickly and continuously without interruptions, unnecessary feedback loops, or bureaucratic approvals. The river adapts to its environment and customer needs just like a Lean process should. It doesn't waste water by releasing too much at once or creating extreme bends and pools that result in wasteful eddy currents. And, just like how someone can visually see the flow of a river, a Lean workflow process can be visualized using tools like workflow diagrams and Kanban boards so you can see what's happening in realtime. By applying Lean principles, a utility service provider can create an efficient process that flows smoothly like a healthy river system.


Moving forward in our "Ask The Expert" series, we will delve into applying fundamental Lean principles to digital transformations previously discussed in Part 1. Specifically, we will explore the impact of digital assets such as Customer Portals, Mobile Apps, and Broadcast notifications on the utility billing value stream while also considering their effects on each stakeholder involved. By doing so, we can ensure that our digital transformations are optimized for efficiency and effectively meet the needs of all parties involved in the value stream.

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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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