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How to help teams improve their flow of work

Updated: Sep 7, 2023

How many of you have been in the situation where you’re in a team that’s inundated with work? It feels chaotic. One day you’re working on something that’s definitely the highest priority, then the next day the priority shifts. You abandon what you were working on, you’ll pick it up again when there’s time, for now you need to switch context and focus on the new highest priority work.

You pull out all the stops and get the work done, you’re relieved and satisfied. You proudly pass the work on to the people who need to do the next phase, only to find that they’re busy on other, high priority, work. The work that you put so much effort into just sits in a queue . . . and sits . . . and sits while the clock’s ticking.

Stakeholders are frustrated that work is taking ten times longer than expected. Customers are unhappy with the service that they’re getting. In the customers’ eyes, the product never improves and isn’t keeping up with the market. However, you just can’t work any harder, you’re so exhausted that you’re making mistakes. This leads to even more work. There’s no way out, it’s just going to carry on getting worse...or is it?

In this post I’ll share my experience in helping teams take a breath, step back, look at how work is flowing through the system and take ownership of improving it. FYI I’ll use the term cycle-time when referring to the time it takes work to flow from the start point to the end point. An example of a cycle is one I’ve seen used in software engineering which has the following phases:

To Do -> In Analysis -> In Development -> In Testing -> Done.

In this example cycle-time is typically measured from the beginning of “In Analysis” to the end of “In Testing”.

I note that improving cycle-time is just one step towards improving the flow of work all the way through the business. For this we also need to consider the whole end to end journey, all the way from new ideas for valuable products or solutions to the ideas being finished successfully and providing value to the customer. That’s for a future post.

When I coach teams about flow, as Simon Sinek recommends, we start with why. I ask:

What do you think we gain from having short cycle-times?

In my experience asking questions, rather than telling, is key to helping people become engaged and creative (see my post on how to generate creativity in meetings). Everyone’s busy at work and sometimes deadlines loom. It can be difficult for everyone to focus on other meetings with pressing work hanging over them. Questions are the key here: when you’re asked a question you just can’t help thinking of the answer.

After asking this question, collaboration begins. Everyone exchanges thoughts and ideas. Typically, ideas about what we gain from having short cycle-times are:

  • Customers are keen to collaborate with us because they know the product or solution will be delivered soon.

  • Customer collaboration means that we continually show our progress. We work with the customers to check that we’re going down the right path. We can pivot and change direction if it’s more valuable. This means we produce something from which customers really benefit.

  • We become more engaged and focussed because we know that our work will soon be with the customer.

  • We can get the work done without context switching. This saves us time and improves quality because we can focus.

So now everyone understands why we’re looking to shorten the cycle-time. The purpose of the desired outcome, to shorten the cycle-time, is clear.

Rather than going straight on to talk about what we need to fix with the current way of working, we focus on what we envision the ideal workflow to look like. This is vital because if we just fix the problems with the existing flow, we won’t necessarily aim for a flow of work that is significantly better. It’s easy to overlook where we really want to be. To achieve a vision, I ask:

What do you think the ideal flow of work should look like?

Asking this question often stimulates debate. Typically, teams want things to be worked on continually from start to finish with no pauses. This means limiting the work that’s in progress so that no queues of work build up.

They want slack in the system and cross functional teams so there are no bottlenecks where work is waiting for subject matter experts. People are willing to pair up and swarm on work together both to prevent bottlenecks and share knowledge. Teams work closely together so they know the status of the work and can help each other out where needed.

Pieces of work are small enough that stakeholders don’t feel the need to adjust priorities of work that’s in progress. Stakeholders know that they won’t have to wait long for the next piece of work to be picked up and completed.

While this conversation is happening we also start to hear the doubts about reaching this ideal. There is a feeling that there are constraints. For example teams can feel that they don’t have time to learn and become cross functional.

In life we make assumptions. It’s how we survive. We assume that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. We assume that the ground will hold our weight as we walk along. If we didn’t make these assumptions, life would be impossible. At the same time we also make untrue assumptions. They feel true until we question them. The assumption that there is no time to learn more and become a cross functional team is likely to be an example of this. Our next step is to identify, and question, these assumptions.

What are you assuming is stopping you succeeding in getting the flow of work to look like your ideal?

Assumptions vary from team to team. Typical examples are that:

  • there’s no way of getting slack in the system. There’s just too much to do. If anything we need to increase the amount of work so that we can hit delivery dates.

  • pairing and swarming won’t work for this team as we’re too specialised.

  • there’s no way of breaking work down into smaller chunks that are still valuable.

  • customers aren’t interested in having a “show and tell” with us about how the work’s progressing and they won’t provide any ideas of what’s valuable.

Together we question whether these assumptions are true. Usually it turns out that most, if not all, are untrue.

At this stage of our conversation people understand why we’re looking to shorten cycle-time, they have their vision of the ideal workflow and they have removed untrue assumptions about what’s stopping them from changing. Now it’s time to embed the ideas they have on what they can do to shorten cycle-time. To do this, I ask an incisive question:

If you knew that the senior leadership is 100% behind you shortening the cycle-time, what would you change?

Now the ideas flow. Knowing that the leadership wants this improvement to happen releases any reservations and doubts even further. The team starts to confer on how they can work together to get this to happen. Often we then follow up by agreeing what small steps can be taken in the next two weeks to get the ball rolling.

I have found that this approach helps teams take ownership of improving the flow of work. They are closest to the work and the challenges that they're facing so are best placed to drive improvement. We know that it won’t necessarily be easy and that there may be some hurdles on the way. However, now they know where they want to get to and know that the leadership is backing them, they are motivated and keen to change.

If you'd like to book a free 30-minute consultation to find out more about how we can help you with improving the flow of work, please contact us using the link below:

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