The lack of transparency in business these days is astonishing. People are managed by objectives and meaningless proxy metrics so aggressively that a big picture view of value delivery seems impossible. People’s jobs quickly become about pleasing their bosses and performing to expectations in order to receive a favorable performance review at the end of the year. This can lead to politics that are very destructive to the well being of employees and ultimately a business’ bottom line.
Of course there are many useful tools to help create an environment where people are effective and happily delivering on business and customer goals but without visibility there’s little impetus to seek them out. I’d like to share an hypothetical example of why visualizing work can be a powerful tool for continual improvement.
The current state of work:
Silos hide system interdependencies by delineating “clear” roles and responsibilities. People can find comfort by putting work into the following 2 buckets:
1. My job.
2. Someone else’s job.
By doing this people will often prioritize by throwing everything in column 2 out and then cherry picking out of column 1 those tasks that are most likely to make their boss think highly of them. Once we create clear roles and responsibilities and put people in boxes we create a zero sum system. Doing work that fits in box 2 might actually be the best use of my time but I’ll never know because it’s “not my job”.
This lack of visibility has more negative impacts than just misalignment with business goals. It also hides from us the costs of doing business. When somebody is working on things in bucket 1 that feed bottlenecks that are in bucket 2 they create queues. Queues on the critical path cause expensive delays and can have far-reaching negative implications to a business. This system which lacks visibility is usually akin to a tinderbox in dry brush. Eventually it sparks small fires that need to be put out. Expediting fires is not elective work and further disrupts the flow of value to the business and customers.
The people who put out those fires become heroes. Soon bucket 1 is full of firefighting work only and nothing useful is being created. Put out one fire and another one crops up elsewhere. The firefighters become the heroes of the business and get promoted to leadership positions where they mentor hire and train more future firefighters.
When you make the work visible and map that work to value delivery a lot of things change. People can now see the [previously] invisible pain points. Queues become obvious and feeding them seems silly. We can start to see how much actual value is being delivered and identify areas where fires are being set. The value of fire prevention becomes obvious. People can start asking questions like “What’s the most important thing for us as a business to deliver?”
This can be a scary question because often the answer is “we’re not sure,” or more often “It’s all important!” A visual workflow allows those questions to surface and other great questions such as:
-What is value?
-How do we know we’re investing in the right priorities as a business?
-How can we as a group help each other achieve these goals?
The first step to navigating difficult terrain is seeing it. Once we can see where we’re going we’re less likely to fall off a cliff. At least if we do leap off that cliff we’re more likely to have a parachute in hand.