DO SOMETHING! It’s been 8 weeks since our law library closed. Our corporate management has started to plan our return to work. We have another 8 weeks before we’re back in our physical space, and more time until we return to regular operations. This is the period where there will be urges to rush. It’s a good time to pause and think: what are we trying to solve and do we need to do it now.

There is no question we all have pots boiling and you may have one that seems like it’s going to boil over. For us, it’s the print collection. The mail just keeps coming, like the letters through the Dursley’s mailbox, and it is piling up.

Understand the Context

This is not just a library issue. There’s a mail room and their loading dock is filling up. There’s the finance group, who is accustomed to paying invoices. In fact, there is a workflow that incorporates multiple units before the materials hit your acqusitions team and who deal with paperwork after the item has been handled.

Some of those people may have time on their hands. Finance can process invoices remotely, so the backlog stops them from getting work done. In essence, it creates an artificial backlog because they’ve got the cycles to process the invoices now.

The mail room is trickier. If the organization returns in a coordinated fashion, then the mail room and the library acquisitions people will return at the same time. This would allow all the gears of the workflow to turn at once.

But what if they don’t?

That’s our experience right now. The mail room has returned to work (they’re a third-party vendor that lives in our corporate space) but our organization hasn’t. What do you do when one gear is turning but one isn’t.

We started to get some pressure to consider returning to work to start processing the backlog of print format. It’s a completely understandable reaction. But it jumps ahead to a solution without assessing the problem.

Understand the Problem

What is the problem? Based on our three-stage workflow, to keep it simple:

  • the mail room needs to clear its loading dock. Our early return to work would help them do that.
  • the library needs to process the backlog. Our early return to work would enable us to do that.
  • the finance people need invoices. Our early return to work would allow us to process the materials, confirm receipt, and forward invoices.

So the question is, do we really need to return to work to solve the problem? It depends on whether we’re trying to solve the mail room’s problem or the finance people’s problem.

If it’s the mail room, the better solution is to find them a space where they can put our materials until we can process them. There’s no need for our staff to return early. We just need to designate a location in the library and have the print stored there until we are back.

If it’s the finance end of the workflow, that’s trickier. Now we’re talking about restarting and maintaining the normal workflow. In order to get an invoice processed, all the print items on that invoice need to be processed in the library.

What became clear to me was that there was a misunderstanding about what the workflow was. The initial suggestion was that our staff come in for a few days so that the loading dock could be cleared and the invoices could be forwarded.

Here’s the thing:

There is an 8 week backlog of print materials. We would normally take 8 weeks to process the materials that comprise that backlog.

We could definitely do it in less time assuming staff who normally handle multiple functions just process the backlog. But, like the letters from Hogwarts, the print will keep coming and so we’re not really talking about a couple of days. In order for all the gears in the workflow to turn, they all need to keep turning.

Choose Your Solution Carefully

It became clear that, while all three elements of the workflow were represented in the discussion, no-one was clear about what the actual problem was. Given that our choices involved either (a) not sending back library staff, and just freeing up loading dock space or (b) sending back library staff permanently to clear the backlog and process incoming materials, I went for (b).

The boiling pots are going to be feeling like they’re truly roiling by the time you can reopen. If you’re fortunate to be reopening soon, you may be able to manage this pressure to rush reentry. We would have managed, giving staff PPE and rotating them, and providing options for those who weren’t comfortable coming back before the rest of the organization. But now is the perfect time to take a beat and be sure you know what the problem is and whether it needs to be solved now.