Agile Coach (Advanced): Manage Workflow, Not People

The Three Great Mysteries: air to a bird, water to a fish, mankind to himself – Hindu Proverb

Virtually all organizations are formed in a hierarchy. Some are taller than they should be, but essentially people are reporting to people. In most organizations, this means management focuses on these questions:

  • Are people working on the most important items?
  • Are they working effectively?
  • Is the quality of their work high?
  • Are they working the right amount? (Often meaning are they working enough?)

There can be a discussion about how our leadership/management approach, but I think most would agree that the above four questions would occupy a significant amount of the managers’ energy.

But consider how the work moves across the organization. It comes into one part of the organization, e.g., an idea presented to support, goes to a different part, e.g., marketing, then another and another until it finally makes it into the development part of the organization. Even there, it may go from one group (analysts) to another (architects) to another (programmers) to another (testers). This is illustrated in Figure 1.

Figure 1. The flow of the work

Now, we can be assured that all of the people it goes to are very busy. But, because they are very busy, the work itself starts and stops. It stops because it requires attention from someone who is working on something else and we must wait for their availability. The question arises, how much of the time is the work waiting to be picked up and how much time is someone actually working on it?

Figure 2. The work starts and stops

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the percentage of time work flowing through an organization is being worked on is as little as 1-3% in support organizations with infrequent releases, 5-15% in waterfall style organizations, 30-45% in effective Agile organizations and upwards of 50-70% in effective Lean-Agile organizations. While you may disagree with these numbers, the real question is – “how would you know?” In other words, are you measuring this in your organization?

Let’s step back and look at this workflow I’ve just described. The path this work goes through is called the value stream since it’s the path taken to adding value. The time from the initial idea until it is released (“concept to cash”) is called the lead time in Lean jargon. It is equivalent to “time-to-market” – a better known term. The percentage of time the work is actually being worked on is called the process cycle efficiency.

I would suggest that time-to-market of those work items that will provide the greatest value to the business is the most important thing to be managing. Yet, few companies could tell you what their process cycle efficiency is. Fewer have anyone even looking at it.

Instead, they are looking at the items we first started with – essentially are our people productive? The challenge with this focus is that it tends to get people working on too many things. And that will introduce delays into the workflow – increasing time-to-market.

In other words, our organizational style inherently sets us up to manage productivity in a way that has us adversely impact that which we want – shorter time to market – something no one is directly managing. This insight provides the basis of Lean Thinking and why Lean suggests managing our work and not our people. The dilemma of how we manage our people Vs how our work flows is illustrated in Figures 3 and 4.

Figure 3. How work is often managed

Figure 4. How work flows across the value stream

Lean suggests we focus on time-to-market by aligning our people with the work that needs to be done. While this can simply be stated as work on the most important things with the right people in the right way with the right work load, achieving this is far from simple. But clearly if we can’t see the workflow itself, we will not be able to learn how to do it consistently.

Viewing the value stream also provides insights into the holistic nature of our problem. Work taking place upstream can affect downstream workflow (example: Ops). This provides us with insights on why and how different parts of our value stream need to collaborate. Many times we mis-identify where our challenges originated from.