Book cover: Tame your Work Flow

Tame your Work Flow

Today we tackle Chapter 1 in our re-read of Tame your Work Flow by Steve Tendon and Daniel Doiron. Chapter 1 lays out the four flows which the book explores in detail and begins a deep dive into the power of mental models. The Chapter also touches on one of the great evils of modern times — multitasking (I say that with no attempt at hyperbole).  

As we noted our discussion of logistics, there are 6 parts of the book.  Part 1 is titled, Getting More for Nothing with Flow Efficiency.  An ambitious title, if this is your first trip through the book know that Steve and Daniel deliver on the promise. Over the years, one of the most powerful concepts (often ignored) in lean and agile circles is the need to do the right thing and do it right. All sorts of breakdowns between product owners, other stakeholders, and teams lead to less value being delivered than possible. Flow efficiency is premised on doing the right thing and doing it right; our mental models need to be refined to get the most value. How we see the world—mental models—impacts both the efficiency and effectiveness of operation flow.

Chapter 1—The Power of Explicit Mental Models

Before you read Chapter 1 I would like to suggest that you listen to Steve Tendon’s description of the genesis of the TameFlow approach that I recorded in my last interview with Steve (SPaMCAST 599  at approximately 23:53 in the Podcast).  TameFlow is a synthesis of many influences into four flows hence the need to understand the journey. The arrangement into flow is one of the reasons I am drawn to these ideas in this book. The four flows allow an organization to pragmatically inspect and adapt based on the context they find themselves facing. Secondly, the focus on the bottom line allows a conversation about effectiveness and efficiency with senior leaders based on their language. The four flows are: 

  1. Operational Flow, which represents the transformation of raw materials, needs, and wants into delivered goods, services, or functionality. This flow can be visualized as a path through the value chain. The speed of the flow is throughput.  Throughput and cycle time are core agile metrics.
  2. Financial Flow, which is how much money is generated. Over the years the discussion of value has held center stage in the software development and maintenance community repeatedly. Financial flow is inarguably one of the key components of value in any commercial organization. 
  3. Informational Flow, which is a reflection of the effectiveness of communication on decision making. Organizational design and structure have strong bearings on this flow. 
  4. Psychological Flow, which is the impact of the culture including psychological safety and intellectual diversity. 

People are decision-making machines. Whether you’re deciding on what to wear or how to solve a technical problem, all of us make a ton of decisions. As noted in our re-read of Thinking Fast and Slow, humans have developed rules, which include cognitive biases and mental models, to make decisions quickly (and to avoid using System 2 thinking). The authors of this book note that mental models are practical tools for decision making, but they are imperfect. In order to improve our decision making capability, we either need to improve the models or replace the bad assumptions. As I re-read this part of the book I was struck by any number of examples of how different mental models generate different outcomes from the same events. 

The authors use examples of how different mental models are impacted by a simple supply and demand example. It is my observation that over the years, most improvement programs have been focused on increasing the capacity (create or free up more effort to deliver product). This is based on the mental model that more effort is linearly (and positively) related to more output. Note: Fred Brook disproved this model in his famous essay (The Mythical Man-Month — another re-read). However, many managers continue to add more people on late projects only to be surprised by that the result isn’t improved delivery. 

The example builds by adding the idea of the rate of demand (how much work is coming to the group) to the delivery rate discussion. At a macro level, I personally have never seen an organization that was not trying to increase sales and/or demand for their product. I have seen product owners gloat about how quickly they were increasing their product backlog. Increasing the backlog invariably leads to pressure to increase the number of work items a team is addressing. The authors note, and as we have seen in our re-read of Actionable Agile Metrics, when demand outstrips the ability to deliver, delivery times get longer and more work in process is created.

Only when demand and delivery rate move in the same direction at the roughly same rate (they do not have to be the same just move in a parallel direction) will a team or organization be predictable and dependable (think TRUST). The team will be able to say what they are going to do then deliver on that promise.

The punchline of the example is that our mental models tend to push us to address capacity (remember the sayings, Do More With Less or Work Faster, Better, Cheaper) rather than managing demand to generate predictability. Without managing demand, predictability will never be achieved except by accident.

I suggest reading the section on multitasking on page 36 a few times. Needless to say, multitasking creates a scenario where you are delaying the delivery of value across the board at the expense of being able to say “I am working on it.” Agilists use the saying “stop starting and start finishing” as a reminder that multitasking is bad.

One of my key takeaways from this chapter is the need to expose the mental models we are using to guide decisions. They may be correct or they may be flawed, but unless they are exposed and evaluated we can easily set off a cascade of problems that lead to unintended consequences. 

Remember to buy a copy of Tame your Work Flow to support the authors and blog!  

Previous Entries

Week 1: Logistics and Front Matter

Week 2: Prologue (The Story of Herbie) –