A Business Technology Place

Is the rabbit big enough to chase?

Stay the course.

Six weeks into the New Year is when many people lose their motivation to follow their New Year resolutions. It’s difficult to have the discipline required to change behavior.  It’s also around this time when we are tempted in our businesses to shelve the new annual plan. It’s not intentional. We get busy with the day-to-day steps to run the business and solve immediate problems. Years ago I decided I couldn’t let this happen. I make the IT annual plan in a portable format. After reflecting on using this approach the last few years, I’m thinking about how to introduce technical margin in the plan next year.

Rabbits, squirrels, and other tempting things.

Throughout the course of a year distractions tempt us to wander from our plan. Some of the new things we see are good and worth making adjustments to achieve. But most distractions are industry fads, marketing mind tricks, or situations of minor inconveniences we make into urgent matters. I call them office squirrels or rabbits.

Every week my voicemail and email have unsolicited messages about products and services to make my life easier. Every week someone suggests a new project to solve an opportunity they see in their work area. Every week unplanned requests enter the organization from a variety of sources including customers, auditors, and executives.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The question is so easy to ask but difficult to answer. The rabbit begs us to chase it. It lures us with the temptations of rewards and the fear of not catching it. The annual plan consists of activities to support long range goals, the organizational mission, and the core values. The rabbits may support organizational improvements too. But something I’ve learned is to accomplish the plan of great things we often have to learn to say no to some good things.

“Is the rabbit big enough to chase?”

The rabbit hole.

I’m not advocating sticking to the approved plan without the ability to make tactical course corrections or even the ability to alter goals. Executing and closing projects on the plan is hard enough without the distractions of office rabbits. We make calculated decisions through the course of the year. Changing course on a whim, or because an influential requestor swayed opinions, is expensive to the productivity of the organization. Changing course quickly promotes short-term thinking and often results in mistakes. How many times has a ‘must-have’ project for a customer never used or cancelled halfway through implementation? That’s when the rabbit disappears down the hole and we look up to discover we’ve wandered from the path and deeper into uncharted woods.

I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down.

I’m passionate about following the plan, or going on the hunt every week. But I make mistakes and follow rabbits that run down holes. So I’m trying to grow wiser through experience. I want to make decisions with the long term success of the organization in mind, keep the annual plan readily available to maintain focus and alignment, and make decisions through consensus to support the mission and core values.  

In the book of Nehemiah in the Bible, Nehemiah was tempted by adversaries to stop rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem. He stuck to his plan saying “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop, while I leave it and go down to you?” He was intentional and focused on his plan. He considered the cost of leaving the work for what his adversaries promised. By doing so, he avoided the rabbit and completed his goal. I like it. Let’s stay focused.

Onward and upward!

Photo Source: Ballad of the Lost Hare – Public domain book.

Creating Technical Margin

While I was reviewing the IT annual plan this week I remembered some of the recurring challenges that exist with annual plans. One of the biggest challenges is determining how to service and solution work that is not originally on the plan. The usual work initiators that meet this criterion are new business won, compliance/regulatory requirements, and custom requests from existing clients. When this happens, managers and business leaders have to determine how to shift priorities and possibly even postpone goals on the annual plan until the next year. It happens every year.

Leaving contingency funds for the unexpected is a key concept in personal finance budgeting. A best practice with budgeting is to leave margin between your income and monthly obligations. This margin can be used for savings as well as unexpected expenses that occur during the month.

What if we created business plans that provided margin between the capacity of the organization and number of goals/objectives on the plan?  For IT, I would call this Technical Margin, but a more general term is Work Margin.

The tendency with annual plans is to fill them with objectives that are beyond the capacity of the organization. Our appetites are always bigger than what we can accomplish and we tend to underestimate the time projects will take. Even without new unplanned work we have challenges accomplishing everything on the plan. If our plan leaves margin then it allows us to adjust goals easier during the year when new work appears.

In 1992 Ward Cunningham first noted a comparison between software code and debt that became known as technical debt.  For IT leaders, creating technical margin is a perfect way to have some time to eliminate technical debt as well as service the unexpected.

The concept looks like this:

In a formula the amount of work margin is variable depending on the amount of planned work you choose to put in the annual plan. The decision is based on how much risk tolerance you have for unplanned work adjustments through the course of the year and how much room you want to leave for retiring technical debt.

Onward and upward!

Level the workload for development team leads

Incoming work.

If you work in IT you know that some days it feels like work requests appear from every direction possible and then some. The IT group is a service organization at its core and there is a strong drive to satisfy all customer requests in a timely manner.

For the development group within IT, incoming work results in new projects to create code, fix defects, or mitigate security vulnerabilities. It’s very easy to over allocate the development team leads because the natural tendency and customer desire is to solve all the requests quickly. Inevitably, unchecked incoming work will overburden a development team lead. That creates a large bottleneck in the flow of work and then the rate of production code pushes becomes erratic as the amount of work-in-progress increases!

Load level.8560840624_c67c5c1fef_z

Many modern workflow systems, including Lean, Six Sigma, and Theory of Constraints show the benefit of leveling the load within a production system. Effectively, the idea is to eliminate overburden on people and machines to make production more even and eliminate wastes. In my IT shop we have evolved to a regular prioritization meeting to review current projects in progress, prioritize work not started, and look at the allocation of team leads responsible for executing the work. The intent of the meeting is to level the load of current work that the team is processing.

But the team lead assignment review is a newer component of our process. We realized that even though we were meeting to assign priorities to projects that we had not considered the capacity of the team lead when assigning work. Initially, we looked at the capacity of the entire team and quickly overburdened our team leads. This clog of work stressed our team leads and disrupted the flow of work output for the team.

Now we look at our active work and continuously ask the question, “Have we over allocated our team lead in this area?” When the lead has capacity for new work then it’s pulled from the backlog of prioritized project requests.

This is a simplified look at a much larger concept, but an easy practical step to implement. Maybe it will spring an idea for you to use if you face the issue of over allocation.

Onward and Upward!

 

Push-ups to Push-downs.

Push-ups are for treats!pushup

One of my most memorable childhood treats was orange sherbet push-ups. I can still envision those pops with the plastic push sticks and the plastic bottom. Of course the plastic bottom was good for licking at the end! A paper covering with colored circles surrounded the orange sherbet that made for the tasty sweet treat.  Today, I’ve replaced Push-up pops with the push-up exercise, but I never lost my taste for orange sherbert.

Push-downs are for opportunity and growth.

At work, I prefer push-downs. I prefer to push decision making down to employees that are valued not only for their knowledge and skills but for their customer service and relationship skills as well. These are the employees closest to producing tangible output and closest to direct customer interactions. I use the word ‘prefer’ because I know there are pros and cons of decentralized versus centralized decision making. Decentralization doesn’t work best for all things (i.e. culture, philosophy, values). But a decentralized approach allows employees the opportunity to own the customer experience. That means opportunity for employee growth and a closer relationship to the company’s customers.

So push-up for strength and conditioning. But push-down for opportunity and growth.

Onward and upward!

Technology Constipation

We all want to be regular.

Something we all have in common at work is the desire to have a regular and predictable cadence of work output. Doing so just makes life easier. It’s rewarding to our customers when they receive their goods and services within expected boundaries. It’s good for the well-being of our team dynamics and mental happiness because everyone achieves the goal together and feels the satisfaction of customer acceptance.

Work methodologies agree on this concept as well. Systems such as Agile software development and Lean aim to create flow and eliminate unevenness in a system.  Unevenness brings excess inventory within the system that is apparent when materials, supplies, and outputs start to collect in areas while waiting for the next step in the flow to process them.

Technology Constipation.

I had never really thought about excess inventory like constipation before this week. But while looking at the portfolio of technology work and the length of time some projects had been in the system, I started to see the pains and strains of organizational team members to keep up with the work. When technology projects don’t keep a regular cadence the tendency is to continue to start new work to meet stakeholder expectations for delivery. That’s a recipe for technology constipation.

Warehouse

Warehouse

Finding relief.

Pushing more work is analogous to painful straining. It gives the allusion that the team is working harder, but in the long run it will only make things worse.  Work system methodologies like Agile and Lean have a manual describing the steps for better workflow and reducing inventory. These steps require management support, team culture fit, a common approach, and persistence over time. But you we can’t let the symptoms of the problem overwhelm us and paralyze the team into inaction.

Here are some good initial steps for technology teams to find relief:

  • Communicate with internal customers about the build-up of inventory and future demand. It’s more than being transparent with your customers it’s also about involving them in the decision making of priorities.
  • Focus on current work in progress to finish what you’ve started while not taking on other work. This is like telling a person with large credit card debts to stop putting more purchases on the card until they are paid-off. Otherwise the cycle continues. Stakeholder support is required for this!
  • Start to analyze existing work streams with an eye for implementing agile and/or lean tactics. Iterate, review, reflect, and repeat.

One thing is certain; it’s good to be regular and painful to experience back-up of solution delivery. That’s reason enough to start or continue working towards better flow of work.

Onward and upward!