Be Productive by Focusing on Value

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Productivity is defined as our ability to create value.  Traditionally manufacturers and farmers became more productive by adding resources—people and machines—to the process.  Knowledge workers can generate more value by working smarter, rather than harder. 

The massive shift to remote work caused by the pandemic has exposed complexities and inefficiencies in how we work.  Through the wonders of modern technology, we remain connected to our colleagues and customers.  However, most people report that they are working longer and getting less done. 

To face the challenge of keeping our teams productive, we can use Lean-Agile management practices that focus on delivering value.  These practices will help us navigate the current situation and accelerate performance when things return to “normal.” 

Focus on Value

A core principle of Lean is delivering value quickly and eliminating waste.  In consumer products and customer-facing operations, defining value is easy—they are the features and services people want to buy.  Value may be defined in by quality, convenience, and superior product performance or design.

For those of us in internal operations or support functions, tracing our contribution to the end-customer can be difficult.  I spent most of my career managing finance applications that were critical to the business but did not generate revenue.  We triangulated value by balancing accuracy, control, and cost-effectiveness.

For support organizations, simplicity is a good proxy for defining value.  Agile defines simplicity “as the art of maximizing the amount of work not done.”  Are we delivering our services efficiently?  Are the process steps necessary?  Can we reduce hand-offs or waiting times?  We can almost always do better.

To identify waste and embrace simplicity, start by mapping the flow of work or value stream.  Then interrogate each step and ask:

  • Is this necessary for creating the end-deliverable?
  • Is the effort required commensurate with the value provided?
  • Does this enhance or improve the process flow?  Does it improve quality?  Is it required to maintain the required controls? 
  • Is there a better way to achieve the outcome?

Evaluating processes and activities based on the value delivered vs. effort is another useful tool.  Ideally, we want to generate the greatest possible value with the lowest level of effort.  Consider eliminating things that provide little value.  Where both the benefit and effort are high, we should simplify the process. 

I used this framework to help an accounting organization identify inefficiencies in its operations.  We found the time spent on a declining product’s revenue was twice as high as the largest.  Consequently, we simplified the process and significantly reduced the effort.

Prioritize you Work

We all face constraints—time, resources, financial—and always have more work than hours in the day.  Consequently, we should focus our efforts on completing the most important things first.  A corollary is: it’s better to complete fewer critical assignments than to start (and not finish) many. 

Concentrating on fewer things increases our completion rate.  Splitting our effort across multiple activities creates a 20% – 40% productivity loss when we switch from one task to another.  Little’s Law is a queueing theory principle that mathematically supports this observation. 

To prioritize our work, we must first visualize all of the things that need to be done.  Create a list or backlog using Post-It Notes where each card represents one discrete item.  Second, place the cards in an ordinal ranking with the most critical items at the top of the list.  Stack ranking forces us to make explicit trade-offs. 

We will work down the list sequentially, only starting something new when something else is finished.  Since priorities change, we should periodically review and update the ordering of the backlog.

Imagine a customer service desk where requests are ranked in priority order.  Representatives take the first (most important) item off the stack and complete it before moving to the next one.  Using this model, the representatives will resolve more items, more quickly than if working several tickets simultaneously. 

Delivery Quickly

Lean-agile practices promote the principle of delivering value quickly and in small increments.  On agile software projects, teams continuously deploy new, usable features some as often as daily or weekly.  Establishing short delivery cycles makes it easy for people to focus their attention and regularly demonstrate progress. 

Everyone can benefit from adopting these practices.  A Kanban Board is a common tool  to improves the flow of work.  Kanban is Japanese for “signboard” and has been used since the 1950s to regulate workflow on the factory floor.  More recently, it has been adapted to manage agile projects.  Kanban helps us to:

  • Visualize and maintain our priorities, and
  • Minimize the number of items being worked on simultaneously.

The most basic Kanban board has three columns:

  • Backlog.  Prioritized items waiting to be worked;
  • Doing. Items currently being worked on; and
  • Done.  Items that have been completed.

At the beginning of the week, the team should review the upcoming work.  First, they should confirm the prioritization in the backlog.  Then, they should clarify the items and break them down into interim deliverables or tasks that can be completed in 1-2 days. 

In this simple example, there are 4-prioritized items in the backlog, 2-items being worked, and 3-items that have been completed.  If there are well-defined steps in the process, we can expand the Doing column to include each stage in the flow. 

The WIP or work-in-process limit defines the number of items that can be worked concurrently.  Start by setting the WIP limit at 2 or 3-items per person.  The fewer the items, the faster the work gets done.  When a team member completes an item, they move it to the Done column, take the next item from the top from the Backlog, move it to Doing, and start working.

Each morning, the team can hold a daily stand-up meeting to review status and address issues that are blocking progress.  The stand-up is a time-boxed, 15-minute status meeting using the Kanban board as the central prop.  It is an effective way to keep teams coordinated and focused. 

For co-located teams, using painters’ tape on the wall is the most effective way to create the Kanban board.  For remote and virtual teams, collaborative web-based applications, such as Microsoft Planner, Trello, Smartsheet, or LeanKit can be used.

As Peter Drucker noted, our most valuable and scarcest resource is time.  Time cannot be expanded.  So, we need to use our time wisely.  These practices of focusing on delivering value quickly are proven techniques applicable across industries and professions.

© 2020, Alan Zucker; Project Management Essentials, LLC

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