Driving Continuous Improvement at the Speed of Innovation

Client Situation

The Intellectual Property Office (IPO), the official body responsible for intellectual property rights in the U.K., aims to drive innovation, enable the economy and society to benefit from novel ideas, and stimulate economic growth. However, a seven-year patent backlog was hampering its ability to meet those goals. The IPO engaged North Highland to design an approach that would sustainably reduce the near-term backlog, and devise a long-term plan for strategic improvements that upholds quality and government-mandated timelines.

Our Approach

Applying a hypothesis-led approach, we deployed an experienced team with process, change, and analytics skills to work directly with the IPO’s leadership and its team of 500 patent examiners. This approach elevates traditional process improvement by focusing on the “why” before the “what.” It enables us to concentrate efforts on the root causes of problems to deliver impact and value quickly. We worked with the IPO to apply this approach across four phases:

Phase one: mobilization. We started by rallying the core team and sponsors to ensure clarity and agreement on the purpose, scope, and approach of the project. This included a kickoff meeting with senior stakeholders and interviews to gain a holistic understanding of the priorities, challenges, and desired outcomes for the work. Through weekly check-ins and monthly steering groups, we engaged our direct sponsors in progress, impacts, and benefits for their area so they could best shape and guide the direction of the work.

Phase two: discovery. We then gathered rapid insights about key business challenges and identified a set of pain points and hypotheses to test. Rather than spending up to three months evaluating issues in detail and risking analysis paralysis, as is common with traditional process improvement approaches, we focused on understanding just enough about the issues to generate incremental value, early and often. To do this at the IPO, we collaborated with every impacted stakeholder group to build an end-to-end value stream map and identify pain points. We then calculated the misalignment of takt and cycle times as well as levels of rework and defects to quantify the opportunities. We identified 122 hypotheses on the causes of the backlog and how they could be addressed. Then, we prioritized core hypotheses to be piloted in the next phase.

Phase three: design and test. We tested the short-listed hypotheses in a practical way to minimize risk. By combining quantitative and qualitative data, our team was able to demonstrate the benefits of scaling the solutions throughout the organization. To capture all the factors affecting the backlog, we focused on three two-week sprints: 

  1. Governance, process, and technology
  2. Structures, skills, and workforce management
  3. Culture, behaviors, and ways of working

Throughout the sprints, we worked alongside multiple groups to understand the internal challenges in their ways of working, information flows, reporting, decision-making, and management practices. This included mapping processes, data modeling, blending data sets for new insights into complexity, cycle times, resourcing modeling, and forecasting.

Phase four: roadmap and recommendations. Once tested, we incorporated solutions and recommendations into an evidence-based roadmap to prioritize, implement, and create compelling business cases for internal change. We then fully scoped the five highest-impact recommendations from the design and test phase to enable the IPO to scale, while building medium- and longer-term solutions. The five priority recommendations were:

  • Building tactical capability: Systematically identifying cases with criteria that suit sending a truncated exam report. 
  • Unlocking capacity: Removing non-value-add activities to increase the relative amount of case work time.
  • Maximizing efficiency: Building a division-wide view of work to better plan capacity, remove bottlenecks, and prioritize case work effectively across the examiner groups.
  • Appropriate focus: Take advantage of the grant decisions from the European Patent (EP) office by identifying cases with EP equivalent characteristics to send an abbreviated exam report.
  • Improving quality: Reducing outputs that are produced over and above and fit for purpose by creating a common definition and core principles checklist aligned with customers’ expectations.

This approach gave the IPO a holistic understanding of the patent backlog’s contents and how the IPO could quickly reduce it while maintaining quality and meeting government-mandated timelines.

“North Highland consulting has brought original thinking, deep knowledge, and curiosity to its work with us. The North Highland team has changed our view of how to innovate and develop solutions. We really valued how North Highland engaged the entire organization appropriately to get a wide understanding of all the factors that could be influencing our challenges. This resulted in effective collaboration, engagement, and built-up momentum for change.”— Peter Mason (Joint Project Lead), Deputy Director in the Patent Examination Division

Value Delivered

Our experts worked hand-in-hand with members of the IPO’s workforce to cultivate a continuous improvement culture across teams and build a sustainable new capability and ways of working going forward.

The project resulted in a 57 percent reduction in backlogs, which led to savings of £1.5m ($1.9 million) in 2021 and forecasted savings of £4.5m ($5.7 million) once the recommendations are fully implemented.

The IPO also reduced the timeframe for determining all patent examinations from roughly six years to just 42 months. By accelerating the patent process, the IPO can better fulfill its mission to fuel innovation.

The project was a finalist in the MCA Awards for best Performance Improvement project in the Public Sector, with judges noting that the unique approach was impactful at pace, collaborative, and generated cultural change.

“North Highland has built an excellent relationship of mutual trust and respect. A highly professional and experienced team dedicated to helping us succeed, North Highland was responsive and innovative and leveraged best practices, bringing in colleagues with expertise in other industries to advise and shape the project as we worked together.”— Joanne Pullen (Joint Project Lead), Deputy Director in the Patent Examination Division

To learn more about this work, hear from David Holdsworth, former deputy CEO at the Intellectual Property Office UK, here.


People working together

Creating Sustainable Change At The Intellectual Property Office