Workflow optimization iconWorkflow optimization is an important way to reduce costs and provide better services for patrons. With inefficient workflows, things take longer and cost more to get done.  

There are many methodologies for optimizing workflows such as Lean based on the Toyota Production System, and Six Sigma. Lean methodologies focus on eliminating waste and improving quality. Six Sigma focuses on the "quality of process outputs" and removing defects. And some practicitioners have been trained in a combination of both methodologies called Lean Six Sigma. Lori Ayre of The Galecia Group is a Green Belt in Lean Six Sigma and DFSS (Design for Six Sigma). All of these methodologies can be applied to the library environment with excellent results. 

Areas that often yield the most dramatic benefits from workflow optimization are delivery systems, back office operations (technical services, processing, cataloging, and ILL) as well as materials handling functions (bookdrop check-in, holds pulling, sorting, etc.).

There are eight types of "waste" defined in Lean and applying them to library materials handling workflows would look like this:

Idle time between steps in the workflow. This often comes in the form of material sitting in bookdrops, delivery bins, and on bookcarts.

Unnecessarily adding steps and processing. Checking media more than once (e.g. are all the discs in the case and are they in good condition), adding unnecessary labels, slips, rubberband, jiffy bags, stickers, etc.

Media cases that break in the bookdrop and need to be replaced.

How many times is an item picked up and set back down (from the bookdrop, onto a bookcart or table, from a bookcart to another bookcart or shelf, from a bookcart to a delivery bin, etc.)

Moving items around unnecessarily is a major waste contributor. Unfortunately this is sometimes a result of the ILS. But sometimes it is the result of policies. For example, when patrons place a hold on an item and then don't pick it up within the alloted time, it means that the staff have to undertake a whole "clear holds shelf" procedure that reverses all the steps involved in getting an item. Also, sometimes holds get triggered on items that are at another library location just as the desired item is being returned to the desired pick-up location. The library's delivery service (whether it is internal or outsourced) can also create unnecessary transporting of material.

This isn't generally an issue in libraries although it can come into play with Acquisitions. Are you ordering too many additional copies of that hot new title unnecessarily or could you tweak your holds ratio and your holds targeting mechanism to reduce those additional purchases. Or maybe you just need to reduce the loan period.

Storing too much of anything is a cardinal sin of Lean thinking and the place I see this over and over again is in storage of extra DVD/CD cases (of very type). Many libraries would be well-served if they centrally stored a lot of their supplies and limited storage at each branch to a set (and small) number of DVD cases, pads of colored paper, three ring binders, periodical displays, etc. 

Failing to employ a worker's knowledge and talents is wasteful - employees should be able to reach their full potential. Being employed in the wrong position or receiving a lack of training hinders both the library and the patron. In libraries, this often comes in the form of training. Library staff are trained to do things a certain way and to disengage their brains when doing so. Why not encourage staff to evaluate what they are doing and make suggestions for improving the process?