Buying Beans – What is Pull in a Services Business?

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Robin Barnwell

Pull processes do work in a services business and they do deliver real improvements in communications. But don’t think they will solve all your problems, says columnist Robin Barnwell. When you open that tin of beans you may be surprised at what you find inside!

Buying beans from a supermarket shelf awakens the Pull process. As the shelf runs low a message is sent to the backroom to restock. The backroom messages the warehouse for overnight delivery to restock. And so it continues down the value stream with messages to grow tomatoes & beans and manufacture tin cans to meet customer demand. The Pull process is used to synchronise supply and demand.

Pull is used in manufacturing industries as one approach to solve problems of excess inventory, extended production times and over/under production.

The essence of a Pull process being an upstream stage only produces/delivers when they receive a signal from their downstream stage rather than producing to a defined schedule. The main elements being:

  • Minimal working inventory held at stages in the production line
  • Downstream stages Pulling product and inventory when needed – aim being to produce one product at a time – single piece continuous flow
  • A signalling system (Kanban) to ensure just-in-time delivery of required inventory or product

Buying Beans - Pull in Action

Sound good? Of course it does – it’s really efficient with production based on demand. So how does Pull work in a Services Business?

Let’s start with a simple example, the office printer. You send a signal to the printer and pull the output – you get your beans. What working inventory is required? Essentially its paper and toner, so in a Pull process you would hold enough of both to ensure the printer can always print to demand. When inventory runs low then a re-order signal is sent. If you find a note on the printer saying "Toner on order" and a few days waiting then you do not have a Pull process.

But applying Pull can be trickier than it looks because in a services business the final product can involve creating a new idea or concept rather than following a pre-defined production path. For example solving a customer’s IT issue may require a new solution not created before. A common IT set-up is 1st, 2nd and 3rd line support teams moving from generalist to specialist. Issues are passed down the line to the correct level of expertise to resolve the customer issue.

Let’s look at flow here from a Pull perspective. The 1st line team nearest the customer is sending a signal to the 2nd line to produce to demand and similar from 2nd to 3rd line. The response coming back, the beans, being the answer to the customer’s issue, hence a Pull process. The efficiency and effectiveness of the flow is something else. If the answer back from the 2nd & 3rd line teams is slow or incorrect and you get a tin of spaghetti, then that is a different problem to solve. Equally the number of teams and hand-offs is a question of design with people sometimes looking at earlier engagement of specialists.

For a great example of the Pull process in operation I draw from the work I do in the financial services sector. We work with institutional clients and winning their business involves our whole business coming together to ensure we have all the systems & processes in place to serve them correctly. We term this Client Take-On. It typically involves up to 20 different teams who each need specific details to allow them to deliver their part. Using the Pull process a single key-facts document is produced and sent to all teams to enable them to immediately start work. Any issues can be raised and resolved. This avoids the need to completing 20 different template documents – one for each team.

In summary, Pull processes do work in a services business and deliver real improvements in communications. But don’t think they will solve all your problems. People can still deliver late and when you open the tin of beans you may be surprised at what you find inside!