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How to scale improvement: Beyond bottlenecks and boiling the ocean


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Continuous improvement is the real engine of success, but scaling it is tricky.

The Theory of Constraints teaches us that at any given time there is one system bottleneck in a value stream and that improvement efforts away from the bottleneck will not improve overall system performance, and may well make it worse.

In almost complete contrast, the various approaches to scaling Agile typically mandate that all teams reflect on and improve their practice, not just those situated at the system bottleneck. This advice seems superficially in contradiction to a key lesson of The Theory of Constraints: don’t boil the ocean, focus your improvement efforts.

In this talk I will resolve this apparent paradox, showing how both sides have part of the truth, and also how by going a little deeper we can give sage advice on improvement to both people working on the overarching system of work and to those working on front line teams, as well as everyone in between.

Join me on a journey through the very practical theory of distributed improvement, culminating in the immodestly titled Prager's Law: "The last thing you should do after making an improvement, is more work".

Published in: Leadership & Management

How to scale improvement: Beyond bottlenecks and boiling the ocean

  1. 1. How to Scale Improvement Beyond Bottlenecks and Boiling the Ocean Daniel Prager, PhD
  2. 2. Daniel Prager, PhD Agile Consultant & Coach @agilejitsu Coming soon, Working paper: Prager’s Law “After you make an improvement, the last thing you should do is more work."
  3. 3. Why this talk? “Since the strength of the chain is determined by the weakest link, the first step to improve an organization must be to identify the weakest link.” ― Eliyahu Goldratt (right) But when coaching in a large organization, I almost certainly do not have access to or even visibility of the weakest link. Thanks for the crisis of confidence, Dr Goldratt!
  4. 4. But first, an intuitive interlude ...
  5. 5. Q: If you get a decent amount of work done in the morning, what do you do in the afternoon? A. More work B. Go to the beach C. Help others D. Learn something new E. Change the world
  6. 6. What would Einstein do? In 1905, while working as a patent clerk ... Mornings: Albert quickly completed his allotted work Afternoons: 1. Finished his doctorate, and 2. Wrote four! revolutionary scientific papers Not more patent work
  7. 7. A Two Person Team Let’s say you can paddle faster than your partner ● Should you? ● What could you do instead?
  8. 8. Applying the metaphor In a canoe you can see! ● Where you’re going ● What your partner is doing ● Dangers, e.g. that waterfall up ahead How well do people, teams, and larger parts of your organisation see and coördinate? Engineering Sales
  9. 9. Two Conflicting Approaches to Continuous Improvement The Theory of Constraints vs Agile at Scale
  10. 10. The Theory of Constraints in a nutshell ● Only improvement at the global bottleneck improves total throughput ● Improvements elsewhere are at best useless, often counter-productive
  11. 11. Goldratt’s Five Focussing Steps Awesomely efficient, but inhumane at scale
  12. 12. The Theory of Constraints Pro ● This is the royal road to rapid, compounding improvement Cons (at Scale) ● Only those with a god’s eye view get to make improvements ● The rest get treated like cogs in the machine, so morale suffers ● Improvement “muscles” atrophy in people and teams
  13. 13. Agile at Scale ● Each team makes its own local improvements ● Teams share and learn from each other via coördinating groups Example: Scrum at Scale* SoS = Scrum of Scrums SoSoS = Scrum of Scrums of Scrums * Similar considerations apply to other scaling frameworks. E.g. SAFe, LeSS, Nexus
  14. 14. Scaled Agility Pros ● Humane: everyone gets involved in improvement efforts, and makes a difference locally ● Scalable (sort of): no god’s eye view required Cons ● Trying to improve everywhere is tantamount to boiling the ocean ● Insufficient focus on the global bottleneck ● Improvements in one place often interfere elsewhere
  15. 15. Q: Can we have our cake and eat it too? 1. Focussed, efficient improvement 2. Global involvement in improvement efforts plus raised morale A: Yes! But first we need to make a correction to the Theory of Constraints
  16. 16. A Thought Experiment (part 1) A team (not working at the global bottleneck) makes an improvement to their work process and finishes their usual five days worth of work in four days. On day five they go to the beach. What effect does this have on the overall system?
  17. 17. A Thought Experiment (part 2) In this case: ● Global output is unchanged ● Morale increases We can have everyone improve all the time (not just at the global bottleneck) as long as we are smart about how we spend the improvement dividends.
  18. 18. Prager’s Law After you make an improvement, the last thing you should do is more work. Instead: focus on freeing up available time, which can be used for a variety of intelligent purposes.
  19. 19. What should you do, before more work? 1. Celebrate! 2. Reserve capacity for more learning and improvement 3. Contribute! Help others ... a. Share insights and learnings b. Take some work away from the next-level bottleneck Only do more of your usual work if you are slowing others down. In this way we can drive capacity and improvement to where it is most needed.
  20. 20. CSIC: An Agile Scaling meta-framework 1. Create Slack: find ways to free up local capacity to start improving, e.g. by finding the biggest local bottleneck and slowing down the rest of the local system to match speed 2. Improve: apply Agile, Lean, and/or the Theory of Constraints locally, but remember Prager’s Law, and don’t boost output unless you confirm that your area is a bottleneck for the next level 3. Instead, Contribute! Celebrate, re-invest in learning and improvement, offer help at the next level up, share ideas, take load off the next-level bottleneck
  21. 21. Conclusion ● Start where you are! Improvement can start anywhere (and everywhere) in a large system ● Together, we can optimise for performance and happiness, but big mindset changes are needed Stop focussing on lifting local output Start freeing up time, improving, and contributing at the next level
  22. 22. Final thought There’s always a larger system! Applying these ideas seriously will free up enormous creative capacity What will your contribution be?
  23. 23. Daniel Prager, PhD Agile Consultant & Coach @agilejitsu Coming soon, Working paper: Prager’s Law “After you make an improvement, the last thing you should do is more work."