Don’t Push Yourself

October 17, 2012

A fundamental change with lean and agile thinking is the concept of pulling work versus pushing it through a work system, whether that system is that system of you or a work environment comprised of many individuals. All too often we subscribe to notion that we must “push ourselves” to produce, to hit a pre-defined target. This sets us up for failure, particularly with complex knowledge work.

Problem #1 in using a push mindset is that we make a commitment to an up-front guess (estimate). We should be committing to the work that needs to be performed, not the estimate. The estimate is simply a gauge to inform us about the approximate size of an effort, but it doesn’t anticipate the inevitable extra work that inevitably shows up. A common countermeasure is to anticipate by buffering the estimate, which can lead to the next problem.

Problem #2 occurs when managers review the estimates. All too often they start assessing the size of the work should be – based on what is known – balancing that work with the perceived capacity and what they feel a good utilization rate should be (which tends to be on the high, optimistic side). After some “negotiation,” estimates are trimmed and the team is asked to commit to “their” estimates and the target date. (You can do this to yourself if you misjudge your own capacity and plan for too high of a personal utilization rate.)

Problem #3 is that extra, unanticipated work will find its way into those predefined tasks. This will cause tasks to go long, and the schedule will become challenged. Capacity problems are revealed! Work piles up, and managers (or yourself as the manager of you) typically counter by demanding overtime, effectively punishing the team for not meeting their “commitments.” Overtime and the negative connotations about the team failing to meet its commitments builds a contentious , us versus them relationship that can in turn lead to other undesirable behaviors, such as cutting corners so that the team can get a project “back on schedule,” despite the fact that these actions will have serious, long-term repercussions.

How do we address these issues? By quite literally going with the flow.

A pull system of working makes the work visible and operates by people taking on work only when they have the capacity to do so. We can still estimate, but the primary focus is on actual rates of completion, with the system tuned to the capacity of the team (or yourself, using something like Personal Kanban). Work flows through a pull system in a very visible way, allowing everyone to see where constraints exist that affect the flow of work.

If you as a manager don’t like the rate of flow through the system, you need to work with your organization (in a harmonious way, not a contentious one) to identify and overcome constraints within the system and/or to determine how to create more capacity to generate a greater flow of work. A benefit is that you waste less time guessing with a pull system, the actual rate of processing work is crystal clear.

Pushing piles up work and often diverts attention from the important to the urgent, creating negative feelings in the process. Pulling is a more harmonious, rewarding experience that allows us to monitor and tune – in real time – the flow of work so that we are more productive in the long run.