August 2014 – Using Numbers (one more time)

I don’t know why it is so hard for planners to learn how to use numbers, but I keep running into the same problem, over and over again.

So, here it is again.

1.      Stop Using Averages
Averages normally measure the wrong thing or are misleading. You’ll see a few examples below.

2.      Counter Wait Times
Good planning departments have a standard for counter wait times. Once the standard is not met then additional help is brought to the counter. The statistics for this are often shown as the average wait time. However, this means that someone with a 5-minute wait is averaged with someone with a 65-minute wait. A good standard for many functions would be 15 minutes. The average may end up to be say 14 minutes. But, this doesn’t have much meaning for the poor person who is waiting for 65 minutes. A better statistic is simply what percent of people were served within the 15 minute standard. We like to meet a standard of at least 90 or 95%.

3.      Apples and Oranges
The same issue as counter wait times relates to statistics for processing an application. For example, we have seen places that have a 60-day standard. However, they mix together applications that normally take 5 days with those that take over 100 days. When they then use averages, they can show that all applications were processed on the average in less than 60 days. Again, say what percent were processed within the 60 days. Also don’t mix the apples and oranges. Have a separate category for the 5-day applications and another for the 60-day applications.

4.      Applicant Time
Many systems set a standard from the date an application is received to the day it is approved or denied. However, this time can be very misleading since it includes both your time to process and the applicant’s time to make changes. Your monitoring system should measure both your time and the applicant time. You can control your time but not that of the applicant.

5.      Days To Review
Many departments set a standard for the number of days to review an application. For illustration, let’s say 20 days. Then many applications cycle two, three, or even more times. Each time the application comes in again, another 20-day standard is used. However, each subsequent cycle should go faster than the first. Your monitoring system should measure each cycle. We suggest the time be cut in half for each cycle. So, first cycle is 20 days, second cycle is 10 days, and third cycle is 5 days. As always, measure in percent who meet the standard, not averages.

The Management Doctor


Reader Responses

Thanks for the advice.  My office consists of me.  I share the assistant in the Building office.  When someone has to wait there is no one to bring in for faster service…  But it is good to remember about how to continue good customer service.

Thanks for the reminder that I could be working in a crazy-huge place…  I used to work in a somewhat larger town during busier economic times with people lined up at the counter and that was chaotic but in a different way it was sort of good to keep busy.

Delia P. Fey, AICP
Town Planner


Thought you might find this request interesting. Does this sound like a guy who knows how to delegate? Notice the overuse of the pronoun “I”. Also, more responsible planning departments would first look at contracting for this service. This was suggested to Greg while I was still working at PDRD and was consistently stonewalled because I  believe they see it as an opportunity to add staff. Temporary staff positions have a way of becoming permanent at the City of Austin.

Garner Stoll

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