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

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

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: Now that we’ve covered some of the basics of making municipal and multifamily utility services more efficient with Lean Six Sigma, can we dive into how digital changes can help?

Absolutely. Before we get into the technical stuff, it's crucial to understand the specific problems these new digital tools can solve. We want to match solutions to problems to avoid confusion and wasting time and money. We can use a straightforward approach called Lean to identify and measure problems. The best practice is to focus on solutions that can significantly impact everyone in the organization and work towards a common goal.


Q: How would organizations use the Lean Six Sigma framework to predict the benefits, like the return on investment (ROI)?

I'll explain a simple method abbreviated as TIMEWODS, which breaks down different types of waste in processes. This helps calculate the potential benefits of investing in digital tools. Let's break it down. TIMEWODS looks at different types of waste. Let me explain each in order:

  • T is for Task Switching – it's like when you're multitasking, but it takes longer because your brain must keep switching between tasks.

  • I is for Inventory – imagine having work halfway done, just hanging around and not helping anyone. That's what we call unfinished work-in-progress.

  • M stands for Motion – think about the effort it takes to move around, copy data, or search for information. We want to cut down on that unnecessary movement.

  • E is for Extra Processing – this happens when doing work that doesn't add value. We want our efforts to count!

  • W stands for Waiting – everything slows down if we're stuck waiting for something to get done. We want things to flow smoothly.

  • O is for Overproduction – making more stuff than we need can be a waste. We should aim to produce just enough, not too much.

  • D is for Defects – if there are mistakes or errors, it costs us time and effort to fix them. Let's try to get it right the first time.

  • S is for Skills – using highly skilled people for tasks that don't need those skills is like having a superhero do a job a sidekick could handle. We want everyone in the proper role.

Overall, TIMEWODS is like our efficiency gauge to figure out where things might be slowing us down, and by understanding it, we can work smarter, not harder.

Q: How does TIMEWODS help identify and solve utility billing service problems?

Let's break it down. TIMEWODS is a tool that helps us see where time is wasted. One aspect is Task Switching, which is when people constantly switch between different tasks. Think of a billing clerk trying to run invoices, but they keep getting interrupted—like someone tapping their shoulder. Studies show that each interruption costs 10 to 20 minutes of lost time. Now, imagine dealing with interruptions all day. It makes it challenging for the billing clerk to do their job efficiently. That's what TIMEWODS helps us understand.

Q: I get how interruptions can be a problem. What about Inventory in this context?

Inventory here means work that still needs to be finished. Detailed tasks, like running a bill or auditing for compliance, often get delayed due to constant interruptions. Imagine trying to do something important, like running an account or checking compliance, but you keep getting interrupted. It's like having a puzzle, but you can't finish it because someone keeps moving the pieces. That's what we mean by Inventory in TIMEWODS.

Q: Motion is another concept. How does it create waste in utility billing?

Let's simplify Motion. It's like an unnecessary movement, such as searching for information. In utility billing, too much work still happens with paper or direct interactions, like looking for help. This means people must search for information or find someone with the required knowledge about a particular customer or how to resolve a specific issue. This can be easily fixed by using online tools that connect everything, making finding information about any customer or common issue easy. Sometimes, even when things are a bit automated, they can use different systems that don't talk to each other. That forces you to go through the motions of searching in multiple places. This, too, can be fixed with a system that is well organized.

Q: Can you expand more on Extra Processing and how it fits in?

Extra Processing results from too much manual work. Organizations can simplify things by implementing digital assets. For example, we can use technology to automate payments and electronic communication instead of manual notifications. In Lean thinking, we should look at the whole process, not just parts of it. Focusing too narrowly on fixing one thing might create more work in other areas. Extra Processing comes from relying too much on manual tasks. Utility providers can make things easier for customers by automating payments and sending bills digitally. Using electronic communication like text or email can also replace the extra work of manually notifying customers. These are just a few ways leveraging digital assets can have a positive impact.

Q: So, these waste classifications help prioritize digital investments. What about Waiting?

Waiting is common in utility services—waiting for forms, payments, or technicians. With digital tools, organizations can communicate in real-time, so they don't have to depend on physical transactions. Using Lean waste classifications helps qualify and quantify the actual value impact, like Return on Investment (ROI), in concrete and measurable ways. Now, when it comes to waste, everyone grumbles about waiting. Utility providers often wait for forms, payments, or technicians to finish tasks. Mobile and web-portal digital assets can create a new way of doing things, where we communicate instantly, removing the need for physical transactions and direct interactions. Waiting impacts the time it takes to complete tasks. Too much waiting can disrupt the flow of work.

Q: How does overproduction apply to utility services?

On the opposite side of waiting is overproduction. The inverse of having nothing to do is doing too much. Let's talk about Overproduction—it's when we make more than we need. For instance, if we print and mail paper invoices when customers prefer electronic ones, that's overproduction. Going digital not only saves costs but also reduces unnecessary waste. Imagine it as the opposite of having nothing to do; it's doing too much. Overproduction is like a hidden waste because people might think whatever extra is made will eventually be used. However, when it comes to things like printing and mailing paper invoices, especially when customers already get electronic ones, it's a costly mistake. With postal service costs increasing and deliveries taking longer, there's a good reason to switch to digital delivery alternatives.

Q: What if a customer prefers electronic and paper forms for their utility bill?

Let's discuss what happens if someone likes getting paper mail. We can use monetary incentives to nudge them toward electronic forms. The idea is to keep getting better, making things smoother and reducing the chances of mistakes. So, here's the deal: the utility providers can figure out how much it costs to handle a paper invoice and use some of that money to encourage people to switch to electronic forms. It's a win-win situation! But, even with these incentives, some customers might still prefer electronic and paper bills. And that's okay! The idea behind always getting better is finding little ways to improve. If some people like both versions, we can respect that choice, and they can pay for the value they want to receive. 

Q: What about the rest of TIMEWODS, Defects, and Skills? How do those apply to utility billing?

When we talk about Defects, that's just a fancy way of saying mistakes. They happen more when there's too much manual stuff, even if some parts are automated. It's like when you're putting together a puzzle, and sometimes the pieces don't quite fit. That's why organizations should aim to use less manual work and avoid mistakes. Lastly, Skills are all about using highly skilled people for jobs that can be automated. With digital assets like Customer Portals, mobile applications, and electronic notifications, organizations can let skilled workers focus on more important tasks, making everything work more smoothly and enabling on-demand 24x7 self-service. So, it's like having the proper superhero for the right job!

Q: Do you want to clarify any more Lean concepts before we get into digital transformations?

That is it for now. These waste classifications aren't just about what digital tools can do; they're a way to measure how well they work. It's like having a ruler to check the height of a plant you're growing. I hope the TIMEWODS benchmark can help utility providers not just focus on what digital tools can do but truly quantify the value they bring. This framework will help municipal and multifamily utility service providers measure the success of their digital transformations and substantiate the ROI of their digital investments. So, when they invest in going digital, they can show everyone the real, tangible benefits. 

Join Us For A Demo Today!


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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