Book cover: Tame your Work Flow

Tame your Work Flow

Today we transition to Part 4: Maximizing Business Value in Knowledge-Work in Steve Tendon and Daniel Doiron’s  Tame your Work Flow. We are currently 40% through the book according to the Kindle App on my laptop.  (Side note: I would like to talk with anyone in the audience that uses a Kindle to read non-fiction books that they will later use for reference; I am working on a buying decision).

Chapter 9, Constraints in the Work Flow and in the Work Process, makes the transition away from the manufacturing world—where lean and Kanban have been prevalent approaches—and slams us into the topsy turvy world of knowledge work.  Steve and Daniel invoke two acronyms to help characterize the world most of us find ourselves in.  The first is VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, Ambiguity) and the second is PEST. PEST stands for:

  • multiple Projects or Products, 
  • multiple Events (or deadlines), 
  • multiple Stakeholders and 
  • multiple Teams.

I have never used the PEST acronym before I read this book but I am drawn to it.  The downside of the acronym is the slightly negative connotation of the term pest while the upside is that it gives me pause to think that maybe challenging how we organize work might make life easier, more efficient, and deliver more value.  Regardless, most programs or products can be described by VUCA and PEST. Choosing my words carefully, finding the constraint in these environments is “challenging.” I have heard the process of finding the constraint described as a game of whack-a-mole, Steve and Daniel use the more formal term “moving constraint syndrome.” The fact that the constraint moves should not be an issue because we should all recognize that all systems have a constraint. If we improve the capacity of constraint, the constraint will move somewhere else. This is not a big deal IF we care about where the constraint is, accept the fact that the constraint moves, and can recognize where the constraint is.   

This chapter introduces two forms of constraint (hence the title).  The first is the “Constraint in the Work Process.” In earlier chapters, we have defined this form of constraint as the step that has the longest average flow time in that work process. An organization I studied a few years ago had a workflow that followed a pattern of a 2-week architecture sprint, a 2-week “development” (again choosing my words carefully) sprint, and a 6-week regression test “sprint.” Based on the long average flow time definition, the regression test marathon was the constraint. Interestingly the organization had increased test automation to cover 60% of the base with only minor improvement in the regression test duration (fewer functions were not getting tested at all however which was positive). 

The second form of constraint is the “Constraint in the Work Flow.” Constraint in the Work Flow is the part of the workflow facing the greatest workload. Continuing the example, the organization had 12 “development” teams and ONE testing team doing regression.  Based on the definition this is a workflow constraint. In the organization’s case, this was clearly the bigger issue. Using Deming’s vocabulary, the flow of work was generating common cause variation. Fixing common cause problems typically has systemic impacts whereas special cause variation addresses one-off issues that crop up and may or may not happen again.  

As someone that is acutely interested in improving work and value delivery, the distinction between constraints in the work process and workflow initially felt academic. It was not until my second reading of this chapter during an early review that the understanding that knowing the two types of constraints can occur in different parts of a delivery process and that how you exploit and then evaluate each type of constraint can be very different. I can see that in the past some of my recommendations and solutions could have been more effective if I had more actively discerned the nuances in types of constraints. 

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

Week 1: Logistics and Front Matter

Week 2: Prologue (The Story of Herbie) –

Week 3: Explicit Mental Models 

Week 4: Flow Efficiency, Little’s Law and Economic Impact 

Week 5: Flawed Mental Models  

Week 6: Where To Focus Improvement Efforts 

Week 7: Introduction to Throughput Accounting and Culture 

Week 8: Accounting F(r)iction and  Show Me the Money