by Michael Dougherty

The art of maximizing work not done

Jul 06, 2016
Agile DevelopmentCollaboration SoftwareIT Leadership

Using lean and agile principles to eliminate the largest sources of waste within your enterprise.

Most of us in the Information Technology world are busy people.  We are certainly in the age of push technology overload and minimizing wasteful work at personal, professional and corporate level is a constant goal.

From the Agile Manifesto, there are twelve principles[1] related to software delivery.  All the principles still have deep meaning 15 years after the establishment of them, but one that repeatedly resonates with me is the tenth principle: “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential”.

When I’ve asked people who have been in the IT industry for a long time, they will often question the idea of “maximizing the amount of work not done”.  Why would one maximize not doing something?  Well, the concept shouldn’t be that tricky to understand.  Let me provide a common example.

For me, context switching is a daily challenge to manage.  In my job, there are constant interruptions in the form of calls, Instant Messages, texts, emails and the old fashioned tapping on my shoulder.  I’ve had an old, rather bad habit of wanting to “keep my inbox” clean and checking my email throughout the day.  Apparently I’m not the only one since over a third of Americans follow me in this practice[2].  This is a productivity killer since I’m always switching between focused work and my emails.  This doesn’t follow the Kanban-inspired “Stop Starting, Start Finishing” mantra.

So more frequently now, I keep my email closed throughout the day and only go into it similar to spelunking into a cave.  Check it out only a few times a day.  Productivity appears to have risen since I find myself finishing more before going on to the next job.  So this is about maximize the amount of work not done.  Don’t check on email regularly since it’s a productivity killer.

Now let’s take this Lean-Agile principle to the software development world.  From Donald G. Reinertsen’s book, “Flow”[3], there is a balance between the frequency of any transition (i.e. checking your email) and the holding cost (i.e. others waiting for you to respond your email).  This balance is very tricky to meet since it is dependent on the situation.  If you get urgent emails daily that require instant attention (production system alerts, major support incident, etc.) then checking your email frequency would be necessary.

See the below overall conceptual chart of how to maximize your flow.  Sometimes, maximizing flow is clear and easy when at an individual level.  However, at the organizational and team levels it becomes far more complicated.  Only through tracking and measuring the results will you be able to determine the optimum place of maximizing the work not done.  Note sometimes the results will be surprising!

don reinertsen u curve

So take for instance Scrum ceremonies like backlog refinement, sprint planning, sprint reviews, sprint retrospectives and of course, the daily stand up.  If we consider the daily standup, many team members often find it a “waste of time”.  That may indeed be the case.  For instance, if the team is collocated and regularly talk together, they may already have this key points of a stand up known to each other.  Using tools like Jira, TFS, CA Technologies (once Rally), VersionOne, etc. will also decrease the “chatter”.  In this case, reducing the number of standups may actually be the best remedy and increase the amount of work not done.

Scrum has a set of tools with a recommended set of cadences that should be synchronized in order to simplify delivery and therefore maximize the work not done.  This recommendation should be adjusted based on the needs of the organization.  Scrum is flexible, but still organized simply at a different levels.

A diligent leader will always be seeking for these areas of waste and pointing those out to their staff to address their own organizational bottlenecks, reducing the amount of waste.  For instance, I’ve seen the Outlook calendar for a specific CTO in a large retail company where his schedule was booked pretty much 100% from usually 7am – 5pm every single day.  Akin to a freeway at 100% usage, this brings his productivity down to a minimum where working early mornings and evenings becomes necessary for daily work and less on longer term vision, innovation and growth.  He should focus on maximizing that work not done by blocking out time for completing priority work and thereby freeing up the resulting traffic jam for unexpected events.

 So when you are in the middle of your busy work day, remember to continuously seek ways to maximize that work not done.  This is a never ending process and will always demand action or otherwise decrease your enterprises’ ability to perform.