A couple of weeks ago my wife and I were returning to Atlanta from Virginia where we’d spent the holidays with family. As we got close to Atlanta, we noticed what looked to be a major accident on I-85 heading north out of town (judging from the number of lights we saw). It was confirmed when we saw the traffic stopped for miles.
NOBODY was moving. Every lane was completely gridlocked.
As we approached the end of the backup, we saw cars slowing down and my wife observed that these cars had just missed turning off. They were now committed to waiting without any recourse. I couldn’t help but think “I bet you folks wished you’d known about the backup sooner!”
Always Look for Leading Indicators
The drivers stuck on the other side of I-85 either lacked (or ignored) the signals around the stoppage. They may have seen the slow down on their navigation app and continued or even ignored a redirect. They may have not noticed the stoppage in time to decide to exit the highway and move to surface streets. Whatever was the cause, they didn’t put themselves in a position to take another course of action other than to be stuck in traffic on I-85.
Being stuck in traffic means that they had to dedicate more time to the drive (longer lead time). It also means that less time is available for something else you’d find valuable (lower capacity or throughput of value).
Missed early warning signs (or worse, lacking those indications that could allow you to choose a different course of action) can result in getting stuck at the end of a “standstill” and thinking “I wish I’d seen this sooner because I could have …!!”
This is true on the highway and even more true in business as you try to make and meet commitments.
Tighten the Feedback Loop
At the Delivery Team level, this comes with clear Acceptance Criteria and delivering Stories throughout the Sprint. At the Product (Program) Team Level it’s about having a clear understanding of the hypothesis and how you will prove/disprove it before significant time and/or effort is invested.
Developing a “performant organization” requires that the system is constantly looking for ways to “know sooner” to improve predictability and not waste time or resources. Leading indicators are an effective tool to help you get the performance metrics you desire.
Performant organizations who see things coming have the option to continue down the route they’re on, decide to take a different route, or turn around and go home.
Therefore, be sensitive in your own context to those situations that cause you to think “I wish I’d known that sooner!”. Seek to change processes, communications, or decision-making that would provide feedback sooner. This will give you more leeway to take effective action. The latter is a critical aspect. Early warning is one thing, having that feedback in time to create and implement options is the key capability to develop.
Also, Stop Firefighting
Additionally, look for situations in your organization where “expediting” is occurring. Often “expediting” is a result of mismanaged expectations (slow or inappropriate feedback loops). Expediting (aka “firefighting”) is a reactive mode and a great indicator that your system is relying too heavily on heroics to accomplish work.
It isn’t sustainable in the long run. Conversations and prioritization decisions made earlier prevent last-minute crisis pivots. Better leading indicators will go a long way to dampening out the “firefighting”.