Everyday Kanban

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Is capacity a silver bullet?

Today I watched the first Seattle Seahawks game of the NFL season. During the game, which we lost, I did get a chance to see a series of Verizon commercials themed around a better network explained in different ways, one of which was a door. This commercial had many of my friends geeking out because it has great parallels to dealing with constraints at work.

The initial scene is that there is a horde of people in a seemingly endless room. These people are leisurely existing in this space with some standing around talking, some laying down. All of a sudden a man yells that there is a door. At that point, people start excitedly running to the door. One person manages to get through easily, but right behind her, three people try to get through at once and they get stuck. Verizon’s point is that when their competitors’ networks get busy, data has a hard time getting through. I immediately drew a parallel to what happens when your work-in-progress gets too high at work, meaning you are trying to do too many things at one time. You are figuratively cramming more work through a fixed-size “door” than will fit and progress can nearly stop.

In the commercial, the door magically widens. Now the door is a metaphor for Verizon’s network, which claims to have a much larger capacity than their competitors’ networks. Now, all of the sudden, the bottleneck is gone and the people can get through the door with space to spare. Yay Verizon! This may or may not work for a network or other technology-based systems, but the problem comes when people think that capacity is a silver bullet for people-based systems.

When teams are bogged down at work, the first thing they often say is “We need more people!” In reality, adding more capacity is often one of the last things you want to do when you are having issues getting work completed. First, before you do that, you need to find out why work is getting bogged down. If you add more people before you do that, you aren’t really solving the problem, you’re masking it. Eventually, the workload creeps higher and higher and you now need to add even more capacity. Even the most lucrative companies can’t infinitely scale the number of their employees. In order to be sustainable, you have to fix the problems, not the symptoms.

Take the time to do a health-check of your current workflow. Assess the current situation, find the bottlenecks — areas where work piles up — and look into why that happens. Perhaps you can use technology to solve some problems. Perhaps you can shuffle some responsibilities around and right-size the workload with existing employees. Do your research, try some experiments and see if you can make an impact with the people you have. If you haven’t already spent time really analyzing how work is flowing through your system, I would feel safe betting that there are areas you can improve without increasing staffing numbers.

There’s something else you should think about before throwing more people onto the problem. You need to understand how supporting teams would need to scale if you added capacity to your team. Creating a larger team while keeping crucial supporting functions at the same capacity moves the bottleneck but doesn’t solve the problem. You’ll still find that work doesn’t get done, though now it might look like “someone else’s problem.”

The moral of this story is that, as with anything else in life, there is rarely a silver bullet for important issues. It is worth the time to peel the layers back and find the core of the issue. For a real impact that will last, you need to solve the problem, not just fix the symptoms. Lastly, don’t just move the problem to someone else’s area. You’re all working for the same end goal even if it doesn’t always seem like it. So, make sure you understand that you are part of a larger system in which every change has an impact to another part of the system. Make sure that change is a positive one for the system overall.

2 Comments

  1. The general concept of preventative maintenance is an example of improving the system. If you don’t do it you spend tons of time dealing with the all the “fires” created when things break. In software this could also be seen as “technical debt” which when it exists in abundance leaves the system fragile and exposed to lots of fires. You can often decide to increase staffing to cope instead of fixing the system.

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