It’s the workflow, stupid

Sausages making illustrates workflow brilliantly! – For years I used this picture of sausages makers to describe the way teams work: meat goes in, sausages come out.

If you put pork in you get pork sausages out

If you put chicken in you get chicken sausages out

If you put beef in you get… in the aftermath of the 2013 horse meat scandal I used to joke “You out horse meat in you get beef sausages out.”

What comes out bears a strong relationship to what goes in.

If you put project A meat in in you get project A sausages out

If you put project B meat in in you get project B sausages out

Sure it works best if you have a dedicated team and you only put project A requests in. When A is finished the team switches and focuses exclusively on project B. But you know what it? It still kind of works if you mix as you go along.

When a team works on multiple different projects in parallel it is not so productive – reduced focus costs, switching between things costs too. It will be a damn site harder to make forecasts about what will be done when, answering the “when will it be done” question will be tougher. But it still works, you can still make forecasts just they will be even less reliable.

By extension, if you put business as usual meat in you get business as usual sausages out. If you put DevOps meat in you get DevOps sausages out. If you put company admin in you get company admin sausages out. Get the picture?

While it is great advice to “focus on just the project/product” the vast majority of teams I’ve ever worked with are not in a position to do that. Turning work down is above their pay grade.

Seeing the whole

In Xanpan I called this “Team centric”. The project you are doing is less relevant than the workflow you are operating. Xanpan explicitly discusses how to integrate “urgent but unplanned work” with planned “project” work, I’ve extended the thinking with OKR Zero.

When things go wrong teams become like a saturated sponge. People can’t see the correlation between what goes in and what comes out. Trust is reduced, more reporting and even policing is added. The workflow becomes more complicated, less predictable and more costly.

It is no use looking at the project. Each project is only part of the picture. Neither will looking at the BAU, DevOps or urgent but unplanned work help either. They are only pieces.

You need to look at the whole: the workflow, the sausage machine that makes the sausages.

It is of little use looking at the pork sausage project and asking how many pork sausages will come out next week if the team is also doing BAU and making some chicken sausages on the side.

Nor is it any use talking about the pork sausage project if every time the team turn the handle they have to stop. Check with accounts, check with the security team and check customers – all of whom have their own workflow. Customers who just want the team to “get on and deliver it.” Every time a team needs to interact, get permission, get feedback or anything else with another team, things slow down and grind to a halt. Other teams are most likely struggling with similar things so they all block one another.

Often when this happens, because people have the best intentions, and because they want to be productive, they start doing something else. Pork sausage production stops while they wait feedback on sausage sales. So they start producing chicken sausages. Then just as chicken sausages start coming out the pork feedback comes in and everything must switch back. But now the chicken meat is unwrapped and getting warm. By the time they get back chicken sausages it has gone off.

It’s the workflow, stupid. Let me suggest again: watch Stockless Production.

No one person

Everyone, and every team, is linked together in workflow so it is difficult for one alone to make a difference. Working harder, producing more often makes things worse not better. Individually people are pretty helpless.

Such workflow streams are full of work-in-progress, WIP, they are overloaded. This is really “work hopefully in progress” (WHIP). It is bad when one team is overloaded but when it is excess strategic wip the whole organization struggles. It is difficult to know where to begin fixing thing. You still have to start fixing it at the team level but until multiple teams start fixing there is not much improvement to show.

No one person can fix this. No single technology can change it. Maybe not even a single team. Everyone is connected. Only by looking at the whole can things be fixed.

Unfortunately this is where project warriors come along. They insist that everything is a project – which increases administration. One or two projects get expedited and are forced through but everything else deteriorates.

Saddest there are know solutions: work to completion, reduce workpiece size, operate a pull system not a push, work within capacity, allow for shit to happen (unplanned but urgent work) and don’t overload the team – in fact don’t load them more the 76%.

That is workflow management. The devil is in the detail, there are no big easy solutions – if there were they would have been applied already. Workflow management cuts across projects. Managers have a role to play here but not project managers. Project management is too narrow.

It’s the the workflow, stupid.

So finally, an advert: I’d love to help, call me, e-mail me, LinkedIn, WhatsApp, whatever medium you like, just ask.

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