A Business Technology Place

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!

 

Long term thinking – right now

“If you don’t have a real stake in the new, then just surviving on the old – even if it is about efficiency – I don’t think is a long-term game.” – Satya Nadella

Is any business safe surviving on “the old”? Managing a product or service that is in decline requires skill. Companies that do it well can use the cash to fund investment in other areas and to support their long term vision. I’ve spent a large portion of my working life in the print industry with declining product sets. The business of print is, and has been, a good business to run. But all products run the full life-cycle. Continuing to focusing on getting more efficient at a specific product or service is like a race to zero when competition is factored in the equation. At some point the financial margins have been squeezed and re-squeezed to a point that it becomes difficult to sustain and support the business for future growth.

How is long term thinking connected to now?Vision

One of the principles of the Toyota Production System (TPS) is to base management decisions on a long term philosophy. That’s easy to agree with, but more difficult to focus on in a business environment that demands quarterly results to shareholders. I’ve had a hard time seeing this principle supported over the years. Just how do I connect long term thinking to the here-and-now?

Inspiration comes when you aren’t looking for it.

This week I had lunch with a few colleagues and the conversation drifted to automobiles. Everyone at the table had a story about a car that was impactful to their lives. Each of our stories shared a common theme; each of us placed the most value on the vehicle that was reliable, required the least maintenance, and lasted well beyond any loan payments. As I reflected on it later, I realized that no one spoke about add-on features, engine sizes, or even gas mileage. The most important thing was reliability, predictability, and service. These are all characteristics of transportation that transcend the offering of an individual vehicle.

So I asked myself, what are the characteristics of my business and workgroup that transcend an individual goal or project? What are those characteristics that define an ability to create new and adapt the old with the changing conditions of the business?

How can I think long term in the now?

Engage with people

Investing in people at work is a long term commitment for both the relationship and the value the employee brings to the organization. When I stress the importance of a weekly one-on-one meeting it is intended to coach, mature, and grow the individual in the values of the company. When I make an objective for employees to seek continuing education, it is an investment in the long term skills of the employee and their ability to contribute to the company in the future.

Stick with the plan

Make long term goals part of the annual goals and objectives process. Sometimes these goals are a continuation of key metrics for more efficient processing. Sometimes these goals are to expand into new markets, launch new products, or improve efficiencies. The point is to make sure the goals align with the long term vision of the organization. This links to my current day activities because the work that I’m doing to satisfy an individual goal should support the long term vision. The work is a building block in moving the organization toward a future goal.

Be persistent

Another principle of TPS is that the right process will produce the right results. I know personally, I don’t accomplish every goal and objective I set for myself or group. But if the goal is aligned to the long term vision, then it shouldn’t be abandoned. Long term thinking ‘in the now’ means I should stay persistent to win the day. I should work through setbacks by rethinking my approach.

Those are three characteristics for long term focus that I see in my day-to-day. How do you push long term thinking into your everyday routine?

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: C.P. Storm

A manager’s guide to the annual plan

Creating the annual plan is like solving a puzzle.

Participating in the annual plan has always been a challenge to me to a certain extent for two reasons:

  1. In the past, I viewed the activity as more forecasting than planning. The plan was a list of goals and objectives that we hoped to achieve but we never knew what changes in the business might alter the plan. Inevitably something like customer mergers, acquisitions, unplanned results, or even customer defections would alter our plan. For me it was puzzle challenge number 1.
  2. The annual plan received focused attention before starting the year and then became a dead-document.  In this sense I’m referring more to the goals and objectives. I worked many years where we didn’t relook at the goals and objectives again until it was time to write the annual performance reviews. It was always a mystery to me why we didn’t go back and look those plans. This was puzzle challenge number 2.

Working the puzzle.

The good news for me is that I like working puzzles. I’ve always enjoyed the journey of solving puzzles even more than the end result. As with most cases in business processes and management there isn’t one best way to create an annual plan. There are many variables such as culture and industry that will influence the approach. As my responsibilities have grown over time I’ve been able to influence the annual planning process more with my thoughts and learnings.PlanDoCheckAct

I like the A3 problem solving method that is used by lean practitioners. The method looks for root causes with an attempt to prevent recurrence. It addresses the dead-document issue by including steps for checking and following-up on the solution. The approach is also attempts to simplify the whole process by focusing on what is most important. Get the plan on a single page and then execute it.

Creating the annual plan.

For the 2016 year I used past learnings and tried an approach to put the annual plan in A3 format (source:Lean.org).

Step 1 – Get input from other department heads to focus on alignment.

Nothing spells dysfunction like an IT department out-of-synch with other business departments. I’ve always said that IT is a service organization. It exists to enable the other business functions to be successful. Asking for input on business objectives from marketing, operations, customer service, sales, and finance should be a natural first step to create the IT plan, roadmap, and budget.

Step 2 – Learn, repeat, and stretch.

The A3 approach for planning focuses on a structure approach to thinking about the plan. It allows us to state what was learned, repeat what works and to stretch to set new baselines.

Plan Template

Step 1 – Targets/Goals for the coming year (where are we going?)

Step 2 – Results from last year (where we came from , hits and misses )

Step 3 – Reasoning for new plan and targets (what we learned)

Step 4 – Action plans for the coming year (how to get there)

Step 5 – Unresolved issues/questions (items that need more clarification and research)
Big plans are complicated to write and can leave the audience overwhelmed. The A3 approach keeps the message concise and focused on the most important things. When I wrote the A3 based plan it required that I make decisions about what to purposefully include. That doesn’t mean that our group doesn’t have other planned actions, but those actions should support the larger initiatives. The plan is intended to give business partners a chance to see a consolidated statement of how the IT group intends to contribute to the overall business objectives.Step 3 – Get the story on one page.

Step 4 – Review the plan with other department heads to check and confirm understanding of alignment.

The plan ends right back where it started. The best way to check understanding is to confirm the plan with the other department heads. It’s a quality check. But it’s also a touch-point for IT-business alignment and the start of the momentum to execute the plan activities.

Onward and upward!

Photo Credit: Jurgen Appelo

 

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!