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10 Ways For Teams To Do More Useful Stuff

Simple Task Kanban

If a new manager were to approach me early in their career and ask today, "David, how can I really manage work flow well?", I'd give them the following ten tips. They are what I aspire to myself every day.

Whether it's managing software development teams, call centres, HR projects or staging events, I've found these principles to work. Reading about Japanese production methodologies has helped me reflect on what has worked for me and why.

So, here's my ten tips for getting stuff done well...

1. Make the work flow public

Get the work on the wall. In real time.

These days there are plenty of software solutions to track the status of a project but sadly even the best software fails when it comes to improving team effectiveness. That's because looking at a computer screen is generally not a public process and public processes create peer pressure.

Simply getting the status of the project on a wall and updating it on a daily basis creates awareness amongst all team members and prompts discussions such as, "why is everything stuck in the design phase", "we're not going to hit our target so what are we going to do" or "we're doing well". For example, use post-its that represent tasks that move along between phases of a project, columns for these phases and rows for individuals or sub-teams. Or, in the case of service environments data points such as open cases today, calls waiting, calls successfully answered within 3 rings.

By making the data public and keeping it updated the team starts to work together to address the challenge.

You might think that post-it notes, whiteboards etc are an extra layer of information processing that you don't need if you already track on a computer. Even if there is an extra cost or maintaining real time public work boards I've found the productivity gains to be worth the extra effort. It's counter-intuitive but like most things counter-intuitive it has a surprising effect.

Visual controls. They're very very effective.

2. Go and see the work

You can run all the metrics you like but a good manager needs to be close to the work.

As a Senior Manager this is not practical to do with all the teams that you manage but you still need to periodically "go and see". And literally spend time watching. It's these observations (supported by relevant data) that allow you to make the smart decisions. What's important to fix right now. What's causing the delay / error / problem. Who can help me improve this situation.

A manager is focused on what's closest to him or her. So go to where your customers are and you'll end up focusing on your customers.

3. Be your own customer

I use the word customer in the very broadest sense. Customer can mean consumer, the purchaser of the product or service. Or - a customer could be a supplier. Or - a customer could be a colleague in another team. Basically, if you deliver a service or product to anyone internally or externally, they are your customer.

For example, the finance team are customers of the HR team because they require payroll data from the HR team. The worker getting paid at the end of the month is the customer of the finance team.

Being your own customer can really expose you to the experience of being that customer. What problem is it that you need solved? What does it feel like to have that problem solved by your company? What could be better and why?

At the end of the day, people pay for products and services to solve a problem that they have. E.g. making phone calls (telephone), keeping on touch with friends (social network), self-esteem (fashion), hunger (food), family time (holiday).

If you don't experience the problem and solution yourself you cannot achieve the same level of understanding. Go and be your own customer as a customer would experience it. That helps you to see the value and see the improvements needed.

4. Be able to do the work yourself

Simply sitting with a team creates an awareness that you can't get by sitting in an office next door. Even better, you need to have done the work to truly appreciate what could be improved.

If you can shadow a team member for a day or two, see what it's like to receive the information that they receive, use the tools they use, you are so much more aware of what's important, possible or needed.

Some of the very best managers are those that worked their way up through the organisation from knowing the work in detail from the ground up. They are indeed "grounded" yet have managed to take on senior manager roles. This gives them the ability to have a "helicopter view" and a "ground level view" and they can switch between the two quickly and at will.

This is why it's so important to develop people within a team and train the next generation of leaders from within if at all possible.

5. Reduce work in progress

This is one of the most important and effective principles of all and it's one of the most difficult to achieve. Often we will hear of the importance of focus. Focus is all about deciding what not to do rather than about what to do. It actually about reducing work in progress.

If you have 10 tasks that you are simultaneously working on, you will be switching between tasks a lot. If you have 2 or 3 you can generally work through those in some detail and do them properly. You will actually end up doing more and doing it better. Fact, trust me.

Easy to say, not easy to do. Why?

Think about email as an example. You have a number of projects on the go. You reply to emails, you send emails and that's often because you're collaborating with others to achieve a project goal. Rarely do we work completely alone. The emails that are "sent" go out into the world and one day they might come back with the information you need and you can carry on. In the meantime what do we do? Go to meetings and collect new "to do" actions, plus we reply to whatever is in our inbox. This creates more threads and open items. Everyone else you're working with is doing the same thing and before long the organisation is multi-tasking and task switching adding more and more tasks that get slower and sometimes don't finish at all.

To combat this, discipline is needed. One way to achieve this is to periodically meet as a work group (daily or weekly depending on the group) and identify the top 3 things that matter for the common period and work together on those first every day until they're done. Not 10 things but 3 things.

Work through those 3 things and (here's the important bit), do not start anything new unless you've finished what you can on those 3 things.

You can always create a "queue" to have agreed items next in line once you have spare capacity to "pull" new work onto your schedule.

If you force a limit on the number of items in progress at any one time, the ones in progress move faster and the overall speed of the team improves.

6. Document the process

By writing down your process you have a point from which to measure and optimise it. In fact I would argue that the main purpose of documenting a process is so that you can change it in the future.

The process of documentation (whether it be in words or diagrams) exposes the process to the eyes of the team. You can start to see opportunities to optimise it. Do we really need to do that bit? If we bypassed step 4 would it speed up the process? How many people are involved and could we reduce that? (See point 10).

Go back to the process on a regular basis and ask, "how can we make this process better for our customers?"

Once a team understand that a process is there to be changed and not to be blindly followed without critiquing, it can be very empowering.

7. Measure the flow

How long does it take for a task to go from initiation to completion? Measuring the speed of work but also the variance of work demand is essential to speed up and smooth out the flow. And speeding up and smoothing out the flow (see point 9) leads to better value for all involved.

An example for an HR team; from job requisition approved to offer made, what is our average lead-in time? (And following on from that, what causes the delay in the process and how do we improve that without reducing quality of hires?). If you can measure the flow you can improve it. So go figure out how to measure.

8. Design processes starting with the customer

In any system, there is some kind of end result. Software shipped. Employee hired. Customer enquiry answered. Expenses paid.

When designing processes start with the end customer (either internal or external customer) and figure who sits directly before them in the process. Then who sits before them. And so on. The end customer is "downstream" and the initiator of the process is "upstream".

The process needs to be designed so that the downstream people get what they need when they need it. Then work backwards. This is known as a "pull system". A true pull system provides the quickest path to providing value for the customer.

So many organisations and teams work the other way around. They push things through and you end up with bottlenecks, delays and stress.

This a really tricky principle to pull off well and it requires the buy in of decision makers involved to make it happen. I can't claim to have mastered this myself in all areas of my work. I have however seen it work very well in software development teams that I've managed.

9. Level the flow

What does levelling the flow mean?

In software it means a steady stream of (pulled) productive work without overloading the team with spikes of (pushed) deadlines.

In contact centres it means predicting inbound consumer demand and matching staffing schedules to meet those predicted demands rather than being quite on slow days/hours and overwhelmed on busy days.

Sometimes you'll pull ahead of demand, sometime you'll catch up but all the while your people are steadily adding value in a productive way.

10. Reduce the number of people involved in a task

If a task has 2 people involved and 4 steps it will much faster than if there are 4 people and 4 steps.

If a task has 2 people involved and 4 steps it will be faster than if there are 2 people and 6 steps.

Reducing the steps and the people increases speed and, as long as quality is not decreased, increases value.

Modern companies tend to evolve to create division of labour. This is very useful in fact. A lawyer is better at being a lawyer than a software developer and vice-versa. So for some tasks you need experts. But for others there is division of labour because it's easier to train one person to do one thing than train one person to do many things. Plus, you can pay less for the low value tasks.

So, a simple question to ask is, do I really need this division of labour on this task or do I just need to invest in training?

As customers we hate being passed from one person to another. So as business owners we need to do that only when needed and create multi-talented well trained team.

Recommended reading

The Toyota Way by Jeffery Liker
The Power of Less by Leo Babauta
Kanban by David Anderson
Switch by Chip & Dan Heath

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