Picture a river valley in the spring. When the ice first melts away the river is likely running high with spring runoff. At first there isn’t an issue as the river bed can handle the increased flow of water. Then one of those spring rain storms moves in. The type where it pours buckets of rain for several days. As all of this water makes it’s way into the watershed large scale flooding starts. In the most extreme cases the floods spread for miles beyond the river and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere fast.
Our working world doesn’t differ much from this analogy. Teams are formed around the basis for work needing to be done. Likely the flow of work into and out of their team is reasonable and consistent at first. Then new things come along and I commonly see the behaviour where the work is assigned to the team, even though they don’t have capacity. At first the team seems to handle these additional items without much degradation to the service they provide. Then it starts to rain harder as an increasing amount of extra work arrives.
Over time the team will start looking like a flood ravaged region. Lots and lots of work to be seen everywhere, but not enough of it seems to be moving. Morale might be slipping as people work ever increasing hours and rarely have a sense of accomplishment. Your customers might become dissatisfied as you keep accepting more work from them but deliver finished product far less frequently.
Dams are put along rivers in strategic places to hold the backlog of water and then release it into the river in a manageable flow. Likewise your team needs mechanisms to manage the flow into your system. You will deliver more, with higher quality, your teams morale will be higher, and most important your customer will like what is being delivered.
The answer of slowing down is easy for me to say, but I know from experience difficult to make happen.
The ideal thing to do is to adopt methodologies & approaches such as Scrum and Kanban. When these methodologies are implemented properly they work like a dam to manage the flow of work. However, I know it’s not possible for everyone to jump straight there.
Waterfall is not an ideal methodology and tends to lend itself to overloading people. Despite this you can create improvements that will increase the likelihood of success. Here’s a few thoughts which may help get you started even if you’re stuck standing under a waterfall:
- Stop starting more work, and start finishing the work you have — your customers are happy when you deliver something, not when you start something. So place the greatest amount of focus on finishing what you have rather than starting something new.
- Stop trying to ‘fully utilize’ your people — allocating people to several projects just so your spreadsheet says they’re allocated 100% will leave the team switching between tasks and slowing down. (don’t worry if they run out of work one afternoon, they can spend a little time helping someone else or learning)
- Minimize task switching — I don’t find it practical to have only one thing on the desk at a time. The key is to focus on the highest priority until finished (or blocked) before moving to the next item
- Beware of the end runs — I’ve seen many organizations where management frequently goes straight to people working on a project and asks for something different. Help them see the impact this has on your team. Provide a channel for urgent items to get into your workflow (some of these really do need urgent attention)
- Retrospectives — if you adopt only one Agile practice make it retrospectives. Get input from those who know the work best how to manage the flow of work through your team
Just one point of clarification (because I’m sure someone will call me on it). I am not advocating waterfall as an efficient methodology. It works, it’s still very popular, but that doesn’t make it very efficient. Many of us find ourselves standing in a waterfall and it’s very difficult to switch from this. While you continue to work on this shift, a great place to start is by improving your practices and move in the right direction. If nothing else by creating some improvements you just might inspire something bigger.