Design to Handle the Exception – Not for the Exception

While going through security at the airport the other day, I was reminded of an important design and innovation concept.

Things were going smoothly until a bag was flagged during the X-ray procedure. The luggage was held on the conveyor until an authority could conduct a manual inspection. At the same time, a similar problem arose on another line. Everything ground to a complete halt. Although it took only 5 minutes to get the lines moving again, during rush hour that was all it took for the queues to grow out of control.

Many years back, a supervisor shared with me a design principle I still use 25 years later: design to handle the exception, not for the exception. That is, don’t design your business model around the most complicated case. Instead, design it so that the exceptions can be addressed, even if their efficiency is impacted.

When designers try to make one process cover every situation, no matter how rare or unusual, the result is usually greatly increased complexity and diminishing returns for everyone.

Using my supervisor’s mantra, this airport dilemma differently would be solved by pulling off the bags that need manual inspections (the exceptions) into a separate area. Even if those bags would have to wait longer to be processed, they wouldn’t impact the bulk of the customers and would significantly speed up average wait times. Those travelers with the exception bags may be more inconvenienced than they are today, but perhaps knowing that you will be significantly slowed may encourage people to be more careful with what they put in their luggage.

How can this be applied elsewhere?

A major life insurance company found that its claims handling was slow and expensive. What they discovered was that every claim was being processed using the same rigorous procedures. But all claims did not need to be treated equally.

To improve efficiency, they scaled down the process and segmented claims according to their level of complexity. A simple version was used for straightforward cases. More robust versions were used for more complicated cases, while the full process was reserved only for the most difficult and time-consuming cases.  The most skilled and expensive specialists would resolve these complex claims while generalists handled the easiest ones.

What they found was that 60 percent of their cases could be handled using the simplest process with the least expensive resources. Thirty percent received the mid-level procedure, while only 10 percent needed the original full treatment. The result? Processing costs were reduced by 40 percent while average processing time was greatly reduced. Service levels also increased.

So how does this apply to your business?

Look at your customers. Which customers account for the bulk of your business? Which customers account for the bulk of your profits? Design your business to meet their needs. If you have other, less frequent needs, find a way of handling them outside of your standard processes, even if the cost is greater (to you or the customer) and the convenience is lower.

If you run a restaurant and 80 percent of your customers order the same five menu items, make sure you can inexpensively and efficiently cook those meals. For patrons who want items less frequently ordered, maybe they can pay a premium or wait a bit longer. Additionally, instead of keeping perishable ingredients in house for those rarely ordered meals, maybe you can find a nearby store where you can buy them just-in-time when needed.

If you run a call center, handle the most frequent calls efficiently without hand-off. Have generalists address the bulk of your calls. For the more complicated and less frequent issues, forward the call to a specialist. Even if the customer has to wait or be called back, it will significantly improve your overall call processing time and costs.

If you run a supermarket and someone purchases alcohol, they need to be approved by someone who is 21. If the clerk is not of age and needs to call for backup, the lines will be slowed for all.  Instead, you could require anyone buying alcohol to use special lines manned with cashiers who are all 21 or over, since they’re the exception.

Figure out what happens most frequently. Design your business for those scenarios. Identify the less frequent occurrences and make sure you can handle them, recognizing that an increase in time and/or cost for these exceptions may be necessary.

Have you inadvertently fallen into a “one-size-fits-all” mentality? Instead, consider applying the “design to handle the exception, not for the exception” philosophy and keep your business running smoothly.

Read more by Stephen here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Stephen Shapiro

Stephen Shapiro

Stephen Shapiro is the author of five books including “Best Practices Are Stupid” and “Personality Poker” (both published by Penguin). He is also a popular innovation speaker and business advisor.

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What happens when u dont have a meeting place any more. And u was forced out because the buliding wasnt available any more.
 
— Debra
 
If someone wants entertainment they're going to the wrong place. Church is not a place for entertainment...or in my opinion a barrage of coffee and donuts. Why are churches today bringing the world INTO them? Then there's the thing with children...age appropriate??? These little guys can pick stuff up in service. Besides Jesus said Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven. Mt. 19:14.
 
— Laurie
 
I love the intentionality here as well as the challenge to look at the data. That's missing so many times. I would like to offer a contrarian's take. Church members and regular attenders have so many ways to get information: Announcements, bulletins, social channels, relationships, and email being among the options. But brand new people are likely going to check out the website and that's it. It might be wiser for churches with limited time and resources to focus their website almost exclusively to guests. This group of people isn't looking for a calendar of events but wants to know about regular programs. They probably aren't interested in watching all of the messages but instead may want to preview one of the services. For the times we need church members to go to websites (sign up for camp, join a group, etc), we're probably better off designing and promoting a specific page rather than cluttering up the homepage.
 
— Michael Lukaszewski (@mlukaszewski)
 

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