In 2014, a federal agency approached NT Concepts with a request to help them transition from a paper to a digital environment. In particular, the Agency was seeking to digitize its vast paper files and modernize its processes for handling the ever-growing workload.
In this case study, we’ll discuss the process that the client and NT Concepts took to begin a digital transformation that would effectively move the Agency from a human-driven, paper-based, technology-reactive state to Phase Two, still labor-intensive but more technology-enhanced and with less reliance on paper.
The Agency was firmly entrenched in a costly, cumbersome, paper-intensive legacy system. They faced an ever-growing backlog of work comprised of thousands of existing files and more than 4,000 new requests daily, and each of those requests would create more tasks that needed completing. They would place each case in its own folder. Every new folder required at least two pieces of paper just begin working. Volume snowballed as cases progressed, resulting in a host of low-value, high-cost challenges.
The tedious nature of manual, paper-driven processes that relied on physical files and lengthy approvals made it difficult to serve the critical needs of the public. These same processes made oversight difficult, limiting the ability to prioritize and manage workloads. As the Agency struggled to meet their more immediate requirements, implementing solutions to adapt to demands and expectations such as digital file delivery and collaboration, fell further down on the priority list.
NT Concepts carefully assessed the Agency’s processes, workload, budget, and resources. The initial problem assessment revealed a host of issues caused by human-driven processes that could be improved by instituting digital resources and moving the Agency to Phase Two of its digital transformation.
A sample list of issues:
- A manual review process that required people to physically move hard copy files from one step to the next
- Complex approvals processes that demanded lengthy review time from employees
- High risk for human error as a result of misplaced and lost files, inconsistent review notes, and missing accountability measures
- Under-utilization of existing technologies, including:
- Printing digital images for quality review, rather than relying on easily viewed electronic formats
- Absence of or refusal to use an upload application in place of scanners
- Building electronic lists that required people to manually lookup information
- Extensive space requirements to store files and accommodate the necessary employees
The fundamental problem didn’t lie exclusively with technology, request volume, space, or any other single part of the process. The problem was cultural. The Agency, like so many others, was slowed by a resistance to change, even as processing times grew as it struggled to meet demands. When solutions were attempted, they typically were patchworked to meet immediate needs, often complicating a process already strained for resources.
Using our automation philosophy, NT Concepts collaborated with Agency leaders to develop a considerate and deliberate approach that would make small but impactful changes to minimize change anxiety and instill confidence in the process. We helped the Agency identify and understand solutions within their existing solutions. These micro-applications would complement and streamline existing processes without demanding significant cost or complex implementations.
As an example, optimizing the case management process was (and continues to be) a major focus of our work with the Agency. To that end, solutions like the Case Management Tool have had significant positive impacts on process improvements and better employee skill utilization. The original case management process involved 120 employees, completing approximately 600 cases per hour, for outputs of 4,200 per day and 84,000 in a month. Each team member would retrieve a stack of folders from a shelf. As they finished files, they would mark them as completed and return the file to a shelf. All files were then checked to confirm that the files were completed before moving to the next step in the process. This process was time-consuming and offered little monitoring ability to improve workload.
We used a set of existing technologies readily available within government systems to develop an accessible Case Management Tool that would create a centralized space for data. With basic automation functionality added, each of the original 120 employees was able to complete one additional case per hour. The impact of one additional case completion per hour led to a 20% increase in file completion each month.
The automation solution within the Case Management Tool also allowed the Agency to reallocate talent to higher-value tasks. Initially, 12 employees were reassigned from their original task of ensuring files were complete by physically adding paper to folders to higher value knowledge-based roles. Monthly productivity improved dramatically, with a 32% increase in the number of cases completed each day, compared to the original process.
The data-based oversight ultimately reduced the time spent on tracking individual workloads and improved workload assignments. Agency leadership gained a better view of work needs and progress, such as locating missing folders and managing workload shelves. As a consequence, they were better able to flag and prioritize cases for follow-up, escalation, or special processing. And because the NT Concepts approach leveraged existing technology, the Agency was able to optimize the workflow and support employee efforts without adding staff or time.
Since the project started, the Agency and NT Concepts have collaborated to customize numerous other micro-applications to solve existing processes. In a carefully managed, step-by-step manner, we have helped the Agency transition to Phase Two, enabling them to access and manage information with greater efficiency and outputs. In addition to the improvements achieved with the Case Management Tool and other similar applications, the Agency has seen other overarching results related to human labor, hard costs, and space.
When the project first started, the Agency average for overtime was 15 hours per employee per week, with all hourly employees on mandatory overtime. Working six days a week, plus day and evening shifts, and holiday work, employees commonly worked up to 60 hours each week to keep pace with public demand. This grueling schedule left employees drained and overworked.
The introduction of simple bots to help streamline processes led to an 89% decrease in overtime hours, dropping from 15 to 1.6 per employee per week. Evening shifts were eliminated, and holiday hours now are reserved only for emergencies. Today, the majority of employees are able to take advantage of a five-day workweek. Overtime is only necessary to handle surges and for very specific workloads.
The costs associated with printing a single document were staggering at the start of the program. A single document typically started with about three pages of paper. However, once it was reviewed, prepared, and ready to file, the document had grown exponentially. Along with associated printing expenditures like ink and toner, each three-page document ultimately required 155,000 sheets of paper (31 boxes of 5,000 sheets each). The combined associated costs reached approximately $2,385 a month ($28,620 per year) to produce. While the paper copies were used for quality review, more than 85% of the time, the documents were eventually destroyed because electronic copies were sent to the external customer.
With the new digital processes, instead of printing an entire document (multiple times in bulk), only a limited number of documents are printed on-demand. Most information is reviewed digitally. Besides the hard cost savings, the Agency also has eliminated the efforts required to make and place the papers in the folder, transitioning five full-time employees’ worth of effort to higher-value work.
Not surprisingly, the Agency’s digital transformation also freed up a significant amount of space that had been necessary for a large manual employee base. With the move towards greater digital access to documents, telework became a more accessible option. The Agency was able to remove 378 workstations as well as 132 shelving units. This efficiency allowed the Agency to provide a better working experience for the individuals in support roles like mail service and janitorial. Ultimately, the process improvements allowed the Agency to eliminate and repurpose 20,000 square feet.
Today, the Agency has largely worked through Phase One and is firmly within Phase Two, with only a few lingering legacy processes largely be attributed to outside entities still requiring paper. Now, single processes are starting to take on an even larger transformation, which begins with the move away from forms to viewing and managing data flows digitally. The Agency has set the stage for the beginning of Phase Three, in which they will be able to leverage the cloud and other secure platforms, as well as begin to process data sets rather than relying on forms and individual tasks.
These examples illustrate the significance of the shift from Phase One to Phase Two. The changes implemented with the Agency client didn’t require major costs and didn’t result in a workforce reduction. What they did was work within existing, familiar processes to improve them for efficiency, cost-savings, and future growth.
If you’re interested in learning more about the impact information referenced in this article, or have questions about how NT Concepts helps agencies to realize these high-value efficiencies, please reach out to us!