Non-IT WTFs: Time and Motion (long one, sorry)


  • sockdevs

    No, not the cheesy pick up line (if you've got the time, I've got the motion) though that is also a WTF.

    So, at some point during my time with WTF Mortgages, management had clearly heard of time and motion studies as a way to improvify performance and motivationate the employees. Or something. Or at least be more of a hand tightly gripping the pipe of workflow. And you all know what happens when you hold things too tightly.

    Now, for our department - the new mortgage application processing thingamajigga (or, as they preferred, the Loan Development Centre, surely a TRWTF contender), there's really not a lot of time and motion to be analysed or fixed.

    The application comes in, someone inputs it onto the system and then an underwriter reviews it. Almost without exception, something is missing from the application, be it proofs of identity/address, proofs of payment history (rent/mortgage), you get the idea. Or the underwriter has other concerns and needs to push it back to the mortgage broker that supplied it. Whatever... it's a short sprint of work followed by a ton of waiting before the drones receive the paperwork and review it (escalating back to the underwriter if appropriate). Then if it's going ahead, the underwriter makes the formal offer and the case migrates to the completion people to wait for more documentation until they're happy. Then it ends up with the auditors who press magic buttons and money comes out.

    So whatever happens, you're doing occasional work with lots of waiting. No amount of revitalising procedures or voodoo or whatever rituals the management consultants preach in such meetings will ever fix this. Sane people at this point should declare WONTFIX and get on with their day but by then the PHBs are already jazzed up with the idea of performance.

    Now, to be fair, dealing with this type of stuff is difficult in terms of workflow. You have no idea how much 'stuff' you're dealing with because while you can get a handle on how many pieces of mail came in that morning, you have no idea how complex those pieces of mail will be. Maybe it's just a letter from a solicitor saying "Thank you for your fax. We will revert to you with further information shortly." to justify wringing another £20 out of their client. Maybe it's reviewing a 25 page lease that has questionable clauses. One of these things is not the same as the other.

    But all the quantitative tracking in the world can only ever tell you 'you got x mail'. And management desperately wanted better figures than that about the amount of splurge coming through the pipe, whether it was a trickle or a spurt. And so they actually created a new position in the department, called a Workflow Analyst, whose job it was to improve the workflow and gather tracking information for management.

    The end result of this grand experiment was to adopt a workflow management/tracking system. Theoretically this meant work would be added to the queue by the mail monkeys, then whoever took the work would be booking it out to them. This would, theoretically, allow for tracking the amount of time things were taking to get from A to B, and also supposedly a better method of tracking both where files were and whether people were under or over performing better than simply 'you did x bits of mail today'.

    There were only two problems. Firstly, it required the mail monkeys suddenly to try and distinguish the relative complexity of something. Short of giving all the mail monkeys training in what everything means, that wasn't going to work too well.

    Secondly, and more ridiculously, this entire system wasn't set up properly. The completions team - of which I was part of at the time (so, waiting for legal documents before completion of mortgage, waiting for things like buildings insurance details), we had 5 choices of what items could be when they ended up in our queue. Post 1, Post 2, Post 3, Certificate and Certificate with Post. Certificates were special, they were the solicitor saying 'you know what, everything's cool, show me the money' which required all kinds of separate checks, so they took a bit more time.

    It's still quantitative tracking, of course. One letter = Post 1. Two letters together = Post 2. And so on. Worse, they'd now set up average times for these things. I think a Post 1 meant if you booked it out and completed it on the tracking system, you'd accrue 7 minutes of 'work completed', and the time worked throughout the day would add up towards how much you'd done.

    Theoretically, this meant the team leaders could say 'we have x hours of work to do, and x hours of capacity therefore all is good'. But this relies on the first WTF: the mail monkeys putting it in correctly the first time.

    I frequently saw "Post 1" come up in my queue for 7 minutes of work as opposed to 'Certificate with Post' which would have been 25 minutes.

    If that wasn't bad enough, they realised this problem, only to decide to give out 'you can change the type of work you're given'. 'Post 1' in your queue? Change it to a Post 2 and save it. Employees suddenly completing 10-11 hours of work in 7 1/2 hours.

    As much as it sounds like a WTF, provided you didn't take the piss with it, it was usually OK because we all cared enough to keep on top of the hassle cases, because we knew full well if we didn't get cases out on time, we'd be the ones listening to solicitors shouting down the phone at us. It's a simple but quite effective motivation to get things done and didn't even require the team leaders to enforce it.

    But when I later moved up the ranks to become one of the funding people/auditors, that motivation to be thorough and avoid shouting phone calls went away. But still we had this tracking business.

    One of the jobs in the auditing team was to do a 'final sign off' of a case prior to funding. This required completing a checklist of in excess of 100 items, as Yes / No / Not Applicable (sadly the in-house tracking app, yes, they built an app to track this rather than do it on paper, anyway, no FILE_NOT_FOUND, oh well). Now, I took this seriously. I reviewed the entire case end to end to check before I authorised funding. I should note, I could - on my own - authorise up to £250,000 for a single mortgage. When it's that much money I think about taking care with what's going on. A final sign off, for me, would frequently take 25-30 minutes to complete.

    Unfortunately for me, the benchmark for how long a final sign off should take did not involve me because I would definitely have skewed the time. The team leader (who didn't like me, thinking I was a threat) got her best mates in the team to do their idea of a sign off and timed them. Going through 100+ questions with a Y, N, N/A checklist doesn't take you much more than 10 minutes if you're used to doing this, which we were. The benchmark was summarily deemed to be 12 minutes for a final sign off.

    Which screwed me over quite badly because it meant I was completing "3 to 4 hours of work per day" even if I worked through my lunch because $deity forbid anything other than the tracking system should be trusted, and I refused to compromise on quality.

    Did I mention this was a sub prime mortgage lender already?

    There is a happy(ish) ending, though. Firstly, I was at this point enough of a technical resource that other departments would frequently ask for my insight into things, and I realised I could book this time as "out of the team" meaning that my 'available hours' were less of a problem for me. Suddenly I only had to balance 2-3 hours of "worked work" per day, and since emails counted towards that... boom.

    Secondly, I used that access to schmooze a position in another department that got away from that nasty little clique and away from nasty little tracking systems, and to a much nicer group of people that I still miss working with even several years later.



  • Not sure if I should sympathise or hide my head in shame, 'coz building and maintaining a tracking system is part of my duties at work.

    Reading through your case I can see WTF upon WTF upon WTF. As I understand it, the premise was flawed from the start, because any kind of workflow studies can at best tell you whether a process can be improved if x - not offer automatic improvement by dint of their existence.

    So, assuming that a relatively sane system was set up, you could - after some time - get an idea of whether there were any bottlenecks or other inefficiencies in the system and maybe clear up those. After that, any other efficiency gains would be had from better routing (for example, by pushing more complex cases to more experienced workers, whilst the more experienced workers would shift easier cases to the newbies), but - for some reason - management seems to frown at workers avoiding work (and the people who actually do the work are the only ones in a position to judge how complex a case is).

    Finally, the part about auditing benchmarks highlights an important issue of "good" v. "fast" - which is an issue with my company as well, given that we operate in the murky waters of Polish tax law (yep, it's an accounting firm). I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of having to break the bad news to my boss that assuming benchmarks is foolish when getting it wrong may cost you more than taking more time with it.

    In short, evidence-based efficiency improvements are possible, sure. Except that first you need the evidence (study), then you must interpret it correctly and lastly you must draw the right conclusions. Unfortunately, the Peter Principle pretty much forecloses the last bit.


  • sockdevs

    There's no shame in admitting building such a tracking system. Because there's no inherent problem with such a tracking system. It's only a WTF when you apply it to a situation that is totally wrong and that tracking such things won't magically fix things.

    Yes, routing of cases was something we actually did but it was largely the workers themselves organising it rather than the management. Most of the immediate line managers had understood the importance of letting the troops figure it out because they understood that they weren't specialists in the specific field in question.

    You're complete right: evidence based efficiency improvement can be done, provided your criteria and an understanding that sometimes the largest factors are nothing you can do anything about ;)



  • @GOG said:

    I find myself in the somewhat uncomfortable position of having to break the bad news to my boss that…

    I've actually told my boss1, when showing him a cash-flow forecast:

    'If some of those numbers look crappy, it's because I had to pull them out of my ass.' (Boss lowers and shakes head saying 'Oh, Mike…')

    I then told him I had to make WAGs on purchasing, advertising, etc, since they're historically and unreliably volatile (±3σ) over the time period he needed (30 days), doing a forecast for 60+ days would have lowered the volatility to ±≈1.5σ.

    Sometimes life is hard.

    1 The Accounting Mgr. (read CFO — except all the C-levels: COps, CSales, CMktng, CCustRelations are actually owners).



  • There's a lending company for businesses that's running commercials on TV here. "Rejected by other lending companies? We'll get you approved!"

    Giant red flag when I hear those words, and I have no doubt that that company probably works in a very similar fashion.


  • sockdevs

    Not any more it doesn't. WTF Mortgages is no longer in business and hasn't been since the recession kicked in. But some of the cases I saw being approved were WTFs in themselves.



  • @chubertdev said:

    works in a very similar fashion

    @Arantor said:
    WTF Mortgages is no longer in business and hasn't been since the recession kicked in.

    Those that survived usually know what they are doing. Most likely borderline loan sharks. The interest rate can't be too high or police would close them for usury, but they compensate it on huge penalties for overdue payments and hidden traps in the contract.



  • @Bulb said:

    usury

    Don't know where you live, but around here those laws have some really big loopholes. There are limits on things like credit cards, but "payday loan" businesses can legally charge 100% - 500% APR, or more, for short-term loans. ($100 for two weeks costs $20; that works out to 521.43% APR.)


  • sockdevs

    There are payday loan companies in this country that can legally get away with in excess of 4000% APR... precisely because it's absolutely not designed for repayment beyond 30 days. APR is a totally unsuitable measurement for such things.


  • Discourse touched me in a no-no place

    Vaguely relevant:

    Over a short term APRs are often irrelevant, after all if you borrowed
    £20 and paid someone back and bought them a pint (£3) the next week,
    that sounds pretty reasonable. Yet if you were to take it as a loan,
    and compound it, it’d signify a 143,000% APR – far more than Wonga’s
    APR.



  • @PJH said:

    bought them a pint (£3) the next week

    I thought a pint was a pound the whole world round? WTF?


  • sockdevs

    £3 is cheap for a pint. I paid £4.80 for a pint a few weeks back in London.


  • Discourse touched me in a no-no place

    @Arantor said:

    £3 is cheap for a pint. I paid £4.80 for a pint a few weeks back in London.

    The quoted article was written 3 years ago.

    One pub I go to sells Fosters/Carling for £2.50.


  • sockdevs

    Yeah but if you will drink fizzy piss that even the Australians won't drink, £2.50 is about right...


  • Discourse touched me in a no-no place

    @Arantor said:

    Yeah but if you will drink fizzy piss

    Ah; I didn't mean to give the impression that I actually drunk it - merely that it's available...


  • sockdevs

    That was the 'Royal We' (which should clearly be Wee, of course) where it's a cautionary warning for anyone.



  • @HardwareGeek said:

    Don't know where you live, but around here those laws have some really big loopholes.

    Where I live the holes sometimes have a bit of law between them.

    @HardwareGeek said:

    There are limits on things like credit cards, but "payday loan" businesses can legally charge 100% - 500%

    The law here does not name exact rates. It's up to some office or state attorney to tell what is over the top. And yes, short term loans can get away with higher rates.

    @Arantor said:

    APR

    There's currently a big affair where some loan companies were calculating APR wrong by not including some rather significant charges. The commercial inspection said nothing for a few years. Now they fined one company for this, but then they have a problem that the company might1 claim damages from state due to inconsistent rulings. So far they fired director of the commercial inspection division that found this.

    1 Of course they have to persuade the court, but nobody has the slightest idea what a court might rule in such case. Non-trivial business cases take horribly long, get appealed and cancelled by appellate court, often repeatedly, and the rulings are inconsistent anyway.



  • @Bulb said:

    The law here does not name exact rates. It's up to some office or state attorney to tell what is over the top. And yes, short term loans can get away with higher rates.

    It's been a while since I read the actual law, but IIRC a maximum rate is specified for some forms of credit (e.g., credit cards), but the payday loan places basically just don't fit into any category regulated by that law, so they can charge whatever the market will bear. Since the people who patronize those places (BTDT) have few, if any, other options, the only real limit is competition from other loan sharkspayday loan businesses, and since they don't advertise their rates, comparison shopping is not easy.



  • @HardwareGeek said:

    It's been a while since I read the actual law, but IIRC a maximum rate is specified for some forms of credit...

    Laws are obviously different in different countries. Here the law itself (I am not sure whether the accompanying government policy does) does not have any limits and on the other hand it requires advertising of any kind of loan to always include APR. Which must be calculated from the total money you pay including all charges. The WTF is that the inspectorate that should oversee it said nothing until recently when many loan companies were cheating by omitting some charges since the requirement was introduced some 3 years ago.



  • @Arantor said:

    Yeah but if you will drink fizzy piss that even the Australians won't drink, £2.50 is about right...

    I would defend the country, but really, just about anything fermented is good enough for most people here. Still better than American beer.


  • Discourse touched me in a no-no place

    @trithne said:

    Still better than American beer.

    To be fair, not all of it is like having sex in a canoe. (At least not the last time I was over in both DC and MD.)



  • @trithne said:

    just about anything fermented is good enough for most people here.


    Filed under: still sounds tastier than a lot of beers I've tried


  • Discourse touched me in a no-no place

    I'd “like” this except that Surströmming is not something that I could ever bring myself to like. Apparently the smell is something… “special”… especially after a few hot days.



  • @trithne said:

    just about anything fermented is good enough for most people here.

    1. Get an empty plastic water bottle of 5 litre variety
    2. Put there all your residue from tea and coffee you're drinking until it's full, all the while keeping it in room temperature.

    This was an actual WTF on my first job: people being too lazy to carry their dirty cups to the water tap a corridor away, so they just rinced the cups with a bit of boiling water from an electric kettle then poured that rinsing water into a big bottle.

    I once smelled that, hm, water. It had a smell very reminiscent of gasoline.



  • @wft said:

    Put there all your residue from tea and coffee you're drinking until it's full, all the while keeping it in room temperature.

    This was an actual WTF on my first job: people being too lazy to carry their dirty cups to the water tap a corridor away, so they just rinced the cups with a bit of boiling water from an electric kettle then poured that rinsing water into a big bottle.

    When you said "all the residue" and 5 liter, I wasn't thinking dirty cups. But a really horrible bottle. I'm sure it would smell worse, too.


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