How to quantify work in process so you don’t lower the value of your work
Human beings are limited capacity resources. They can only achieve so much in a single day, and when we overburden them with too many tasks they actually get less done. So how do we find a balance?
You might assume that individuals are the best barometer of what they are capable of accomplishing, but time and again we have found that people are surprisingly inaccurate at estimating what they can accomplish in a given time interval. High performers in particular are known for overestimating what they can accomplish in a day and underestimating the risks they are likely to face — which is why software development projects are almost never finished on time.
Too Little, Too Late
When teams try to accomplish too many things at once they lose focus and create wasted space in switching between tasks. This causes them to be less productive, and leeches value from every project they touch. They also tend to work on projects with the shortest deadlines even if they generate less value.
This is where the fourth dimension of Agile transformations come in; “quantifying work in process” is the natural progression from sequencing. It is the process of measuring the value of accomplishing each task, then determining where each individual’s time is best spent. This results in a list of high value “to-dos” that can be achieved over a set period of time. While there is no rule of thumb for how many things a person can do at once, it is usually not more than a handful.
When a team takes the time to quantify the value of their work in process, they are more likely to choose tasks based on value rather than deadline, and to seek out appropriate trade-offs to achieve priority goals. That may mean narrowing the scope of one task so another can be addressed, or adding more resources to deliver critical goals on time. As with sequencing, this process helps teams gain an inherent level of agility that causes them to be more adaptive to risks and improve the quality of their outcomes.
It also makes leaders happier because deliverables become reliable and predictable, which results in a more collaborative corporate culture.
When quantifying workflow, we like to focus on what can be accomplished within each quarter, because it’s enough time to complete a significant value-driven task, without wasting too much time on something that may have been the wrong choice. At the end of each quarter, teams can:
Assess whether they completed the committed objectives
Determine whether they delivered the value they predicted via the corresponding leading indicators, and if not, why not
Figure out what they can improve on as they go forward
This simple process of quantifying value and setting goals can transform team dynamics. For example, we recently worked with a tech firm where the innovation lab and executive team were at odds by the time we were engaged. The experts in the lab were generating lots of amazing ideas, but in its first few years no tangible product or service had emerged from their efforts. The leadership team wanted to create some accountability around the lab, without crushing their innovative process.
To find a balance, we first helped both the lab and executive teams achieve alignment, gain visibility, and sequence their objectives based on the value the company wanted to achieve (the first three dimensions of an agile transformation). Then we quantified their work in process and selected the deliverables that promised the most value. These included development of a number of new software features for internal clients. Then we set them loose.
At the end of the first quarter, the lab met 54 percent of its committed goals — a significant improvement yet many targets were still missed due to unforeseen risks, which isn’t uncommon early in this process. It was an impressive accomplishment considering they had never previously delivered a tangible product. However, once the lab team had incorporated this process of quantifying their work into the innovation culture, they were far from satisfied.
For the next quarter, they reassessed their capacity as a team, honed their risk identification process, and established a new set of incremental objectives. This time when they made their list of tasks they paid more attention to risks, creating a risk threshold that could not be passed. Once the “risk bucket” was full, they either had to stop adding items to the list, or adjust the selections to lower the level of risk they faced.
At the end of the second quarter, they hit 95 percent of their goals, and by the third they reached 97 percent. They have maintained that level of output in every subsequent quarter.
The lesson learned: When companies make the connection between the work they do and the value it delivers, and they measure the results of these efforts over time, they make better decisions about where to invest their resources. That leads to more value generated and helps individuals and teams see the impact of their efforts on business results, all of which is inherent to the agile transformation process.
Andy Czuchry Jr, PhD is a proven business transformation leader with extensive experience driving strategic and operational transformations that significantly increase business-value outcomes for mission-critical objectives. Over the past 10 years of his 25+ year career in business and technology innovation, Andy has led nearly a dozen organizational transformations in national and global organizations spanning across all disciplines, both within and beyond the traditional agile core.
Andy earned Ph.D. and Master’s degrees in Information and Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence, with a minor in physiological psychology) from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He earned his bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth College in Computer Science and Mathematics with a focus in applied algorithm development. Andy maintains numerous certifications in the domains of Agility, Lean Six Sigma, and Program Management. He is the holder of two patents issued by the US Patent Office, as well as a recognized global leader with 20+ peer-reviewed papers published in elite business and technology journals and conferences.