Secrets of Speed #3: Workflow

If you want to create a fast pipeline of work you need to take both throughput and cycle time into account (read my previous articles to get a clear picture of what these terms mean).

This means a system that keeps queues short and limits Work In Progress (WIP). So let’s take a quick look at how you combine limited WIP and short queues into your workflow.

First let’s replace our cars from the throughput article with work items (more on what these are in a minute).

Second let’s add the inevitable queue that backs up when WIP is limited (or even when it’s not really).

In order to keep this queue short you need to add a barrier (the black line at the bottom) – a permeable membrane that lets work items through based on a specific set of criteria. In effect you’re limiting WIP twice; once for items being validated and once for committed items. Everything else is “on the backlog,” meaning we’ve captured it as a possibility but haven’t yet committed to it. Putting things on backlog is a great way to say “not yet.”

The backlog keeps things on your mind without taking up actual work time or focus.

Another value of having a backlog as well as a set of clearly articulated priority work items is that when someone brings you an item that they feel is a must, you can say, “Of course!” But first, you can ask for help with understanding where it fits into the priority. Since we are operating at full capacity, saying yes to this new item means we’ll have to say no to something else.

Having the queue of work visible and clear means it can easily be shown to someone else.

When building a work pipeline we not only have to pay attention to how we manage the pipeline but also plan carefully about the items that are in it.

Your goal with work items is to describe the value they deliver to your customer – in insider parlance this is called a Job to be Done We don’t want to know how many lines of code a programmer writes, we want to know what difference they made in the lives of our customers.

Use simple, understandable language when talking about what you’re trying to accomplish. Describe your work items so that they are easy to attach to an actual outcome for a customer.

Next you want to break it down into the smallest chunk imaginable, which will speed you up in two ways. First, it forces you to prioritize even within a specific body of work.

In other words, you can ask yourself which part is delivering value and which part is waste? So you can abandon a project or a piece of a project and not waste your time on the other portion.

Second, small chunks support the flow of items moving through your work pipeline. The psychological dynamics of several small items that each a few hours to do is quite different than working on large chunk that takes a week, month or multiple months to complete.

The degree of urgency you feel when working on a flow of small items is simply more acute and also more achievable. You’re less likely to freeze.

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