The Death Industry’s Supply Chain

Dying is a complicated business.  No one really plans for it in advance.  For those who are charged with the affairs of the ones who pass away, there is always so much to do and limited time to do so.

Funeral service providers have become more than just parlours where proprietors prepare the deceased for burial.  They have evolved into invaluable assistants in helping bereaved families retrieve the remains of loved ones from the hospitals, prepare legal documents, and make available facilities for relatives and friends to get together. 

Many funeral providers also offer cremation services, which instead of burial, the deceased’s remains are burned and the ashes placed into urns or vessels.  Families would then inter the urns in niches at a columbarium, the final resting place for cremated remains often located at the grounds of religious churches. 

Cremation has become a popular option due mainly to economic reasons if not for the expediency it provides.  Many families do still opt for the traditional interment of late loved ones at cemeteries and funeral providers do help in the paperwork and burial assistance.

Cemeteries and columbaries are typically separate entities that funeral providers and the bereaved of the deceased deal with.  On top of needs such as urns and coffins, funeral providers also procure materials (e.g. chemicals) for the preparation of the remains either for cremation or burial.  They also supply paraphernalia, such as flowers, guest books, cards, and placeholders.  In some Asian countries, these paraphernalia include banners, streamers, incense, ceremonial clothing, and paper money.

The business of sending off the dead is a complicated one that requires a supportive supply chain. 

Demand first of all is not certain.  The dying do not arrive in steady predictable numbers one day to the next.  Funeral service workers may be idle one week with few arrivals only to find themselves working overtime the next due to a surge. 

A friend of mine who works in the funeral business says that arrivals are few in number usually before Christmas but many towards the end of a calendar year.  “It’s as if those close to death are scheduling when they will go,” she said. 

Funeral providers by experience keep stock of coffins and urns in anticipation of those surges but they sometimes still run out.  Coffin makers would always be busy even if their market share has dwindled due to the growing preference for cremation and urns.  Churches and private groups have invested increasingly in constructing columbaries to make available more niches.  And funeral supply shops always make sure they have enough paraphernalia for the traditional rituals families would hold for their departed loved ones. 

During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 to 2021, funeral providers were challenged.  Health protocols forced the temporary closure of chapels but caused a spike in demand for cremation. 

Funeral providers who already had cremation facilities didn’t feel fortunate; they had limited capacity on how many can be served in any one day.  Service crews were also not allowed to report to work every day to avoid risk of infection. 

The queues for cremation grew as a result and so did the demand for coffins to temporarily safe-keep remains while they waited their turn.  This surprised the coffin makers who believed their businesses were becoming a sunset industry.  They found themselves busy when they thought they would no longer be needed. 

Funeral providers lengthened operating times to accommodate the continuous arrivals.  They did so carefully.  Cremation furnaces needed to cool off and rest for at least a few hours a day.  And one cannot speed up the burning.  The process had standards to follow to ensure completion and thoroughness. 

What funeral providers gained in cremation revenue, they lost in the drop in the demand for venues and paraphernalia.   But for my friends in the funeral business, that didn’t matter.  As the pandemic raged on, they found no time to reflect. 

The dead just kept coming.  They had to keep on working. 

About Overtimers Anonymous

Automated Queuing Systems Don’t Reduce Waiting Times

A large bank installed an automated queuing system at its branches.  Clients were required to enter the details of their transactions on a terminal and receive a queuing number and then wait to be called by the teller via a display on a video screen. 

The system replaced the previous process of clients writing on paper transaction slips and proceeding to the tellers.   Instead, the teller would access and process the client’s transaction from the entry of transaction data into the terminal. 

With the automated queuing system, the teller no longer has to input data from the previous handwritten transaction slips.  The teller also no longer has to decipher the penmanship of individual clients from the transaction slips.  Errors and rework are eliminated.  The teller just has to take and confirm the cash or checks the client is giving or just has to count the cash the client is withdrawing.  The time to process the transaction was thereby reduced.

But was the process time really significantly reduced?  Did the system really improve the client’s experience, or specifically, did it reduce the client’s time at the bank? 

Queuing systems have become the norm among banks.  But the system varies from one bank to the next.  Most of the differences between banks are in the user interface, which consists of the design and manner of layout of buttons and sequence of steps in how data would be entered into a remote terminal.

Some banks also offer the feature in which clients can access the queuing system online from their smartphones, tablets, or desktop computers before going to the bank’s branch.  A client either receives a QR code or a transaction number which he or she then presents at the bank.  The client is then given an queuing number which is usually for a line exclusive to those who did the input online. 

For the walk-in clients who had to input data into a terminal, I didn’t see much difference in their waiting times whatever bank they went to.  For some, especially those who aren’t what people call tech-savvy, it got worse.  They would almost always require assistance from a nearby employee or even the security guard.  When there were plenty of clients, such as on Mondays, Fridays, payroll days (i.e. mid- and end-month), and tax filing deadlines, the waiting times would surge to more than an hour.  Fewer tellers during the day would aggravate the waits of clients. 

I also didn’t see much difference in the productivity of tellers despite the elimination of hand-written transaction slips.  Tellers still had to count cash and examine checks which made up most of the transaction time.  Tellers also had to print out the client’s transaction receipts or withdrawal confirmations.  When the system sometimes ran slow or hangs, any productivity gained is wiped out. 

The less tech-savvy clients also sometimes don’t take advantage of the queuing system’s feature to bundle transactions under one queuing number.  Some clients would enter one transaction for one queuing number at a time as they had been used to do with hand-written transaction slips.  The less tech-savvy clients would then have a handful of queuing numbers which adds to the queue to the tellers and lengthens the teller’s time to process as she’d be going through the client’s queue numbers one by one.

The tech-savvy clients have a slight advantage as they usually are assigned an exclusive line separate from the walk-ins.  In some banks, they can go straight to the teller, show their QR codes or online numbers and have their transactions done right away.  But in many cases, tech-savvy clients still had to wait.  Tellers would often be busy with clients at the time the tech-savvy clients arrive.  In some banks, they’d still be required to register at a terminal to get a queuing number and there’d be a waiting line there too. 

Automated queuing systems by themselves don’t reduce waiting or process times.  As much as the system may make it more convenient for clients and efficient for tellers, it addresses only a part of the process. 

Queues and how long they will be and how long one will wait are determined not only by the length it takes do a process but also by the number of processors (i.e. tellers) and by the behaviour of arrivals (i.e. how many clients arrive at a given time and how many transactions they are bringing).

A state-of-the-art automated system can only do so much.  If banks are serious about improving productivity for tellers and clients, they should take a harder look at the steps and gather information about the volume of transactions done at their branches. 

And when I say steps and information, I mean all the steps and all the information that would be involved.  Targeting one step at a time does not improve productivity; one has to target the entire process from beginning to end and identify the factors that influence all of it. 

About Overtimers Anonymous