Variety of Demand: What an Electricity Meter Taught Me About Process Analysis

Electricity Meter
Image Credit: © iryna_l – Fotolia.com

Process analysis and process modelling are two commonly used and interrelated business analysis techniques. There can be significant benefit in understanding how a particular business process works, improving it to ensure that it is aligned with the needs of the customer and other stakeholders, whilst ensuring that resources are being used efficiently and effectively.  Good processes contribute towards a consistent customer experience—they ensure that the organisation can deliver a reliable and predictable service every time.  An effective process will typically minimise the number of subjective decisions that need to be made ‘on the fly’ by staff, and ensures that staff are empowered with the tools that they need to do the job.

 

Yet, it doesn’t automatically follow that changing a process will improve it.  I am sure we have all seen process improvement initiatives that didn’t achieve their desired outcomes.  We may have even seen initiatives that made things worse!  As businesses analysts, we have a significant part to play in helping to avoid these failures.

 

Understand Variety in Demand

There are many angles which should be considered when aiming to improve a process, but one that is often overlooked is variety of demand.  A process, at its essence, will need to respond to a trigger (a business event), then perform a series of actions to create an outcome.  One of strengths of formalising processes is the ability to standardise—yet this can (ironically) become an organisation’s Achilles’ heel.  Standardisation that accommodates the types of customer demand that you want or need to serve is great; anything else risks being perceived as rigid and bureaucratic.

 

This probably sounds rather abstract, so let’s take an example.  I recently received an e-mail from the company that supplies the electricity and gas to my house, asking me to take meter readings and input them online. Nothing unusual there, except when I input the electricity meter reading, it wouldn’t accept it.  After a bit of digging I realised that the reading was exactly the same as the reading I input six months ago.  The meter’s dials had not moved at all in that period. Some further investigation led me to conclude the meter is completely dead, and had been for some time.

 

I called the energy company, and spoke to a very friendly operator who explained the “faulty meter” process to me.

 

  • They will send me two letters confirming I’ve reported a potentially faulty meter (one for electricity and one for gas: since my account covers both utilities they always send both even though the problem is only with one)
  • I should take a meter reading every day for the next seven days for both electricity and gas
  • I should take a photo of both meters each day
  • After a week, I should send the readings to them and they will decide whether a replacement meter is needed

 

Now, I have no objections to taking a week’s worth of meter readings… but if the meter hasn’t moved for six months, what are the odds it will suddenly move in the next seven days? Even if it did, surely it would still need inspection or repair?  And why the need to take readings from the (completely separate) gas meter?

 

My suspicion is that the underlying process (“Log & investigate faulty meter”) has been standardised, without considering the variety of demand that the process has to cater for.  The process will work well for people who have a “gut feel” that their meter is inaccurate, but for someone who is sure the device is as dead as a dodo, it will just create unnecessary paperwork.   Perhaps the process really needs a triage step up front, expediting the replacement process where the meter hasn’t moved in months.

 

Variety: Events are a Great Place to Start

Of course this is just one example, but the point is one that has a general application in processes. It’s crucial that we understand the types of variety that the environment will throw at our processes, and then architect them in such a way that they either deliberately respond to that variety or they deliberately don’t.  (An important subtlety here: I am not saying every process should cater for all variety in demand: there will always be deliberate parameters set. The key is to make sure they are deliberate and to understand the impact of setting them).

 

A great way to start this conversation is to encourage our stakeholders to think about the events that trigger a process. Drill into each one and ask what types, what variety, exists.  What if it was a different type of customer, a complaint case, would that matter? What types of demand do we want to cater for, and which do we want to discourage or reject? This can cultivate some very enlightening conversations!

 

By understanding our customers and other process stakeholders well, we will design processes that deliver to their needs. Understanding variety of demand is a crucial part of this.

 


What are your views on the topics in this post? Do you have any tips, perspectives or anything to add?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.   Please add a comment below, and let’s keep the conversation flowing! 

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About the author:

Adrian ReedAdrian Reed is Principal Consultant at Blackmetric Business Solutions, an organisation that offers Business Analysis consulting and training solutions. Adrian is a keen advocate of the analysis profession, and is constantly looking for ways of promoting the value that good analysis can bring.

To find out more about the training and consulting services offered at Blackmetric, please visit www.blackmetric.com

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Rich

Interesting experience. One would have thought allowing the user to manually enter a meter reading could automatically trigger the “Log & Investigate Faulty Meter” process if two consecutive readings match, rather than relying on a manual trigger from the customer (it is in the companies’ best interest). It would seem much more convenient and effective than the process currently in place. Perhaps you could offer the company your professional services in order to remedy the situation?

Adrian Reed

You make a very good point, Rich! The other thing I found strange is that they specified that, if I did have to have a meter replaced, they would replace it ‘like for like’. Given most energy companies are rolling out smart meters, I was surprised they didn’t offer me one. After all, *presumably* a smart-meter would be able to monitor itself (and if it didn’t provide a reading to the energy company, they would know before I do that the meter is faulty).

As with so many other examples, this is a case that illustrates the value of business analysis 🙂

Thanks for the comment, hope you’re well — Adrian.

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