PM Articles > Geof Lory > Are You Ready for Speed?

Are You Ready for Speed?

by Geof Lory

Over the winter I cleared out some boxes of the girls' childhood toys. There, among the American Doll paraphernalia and Beanie Babies, I found a small model police car with the words "Speed Kills" written on the side. It was a gift from their Uncle John, a policeman in a small town in northern Michigan.

I had to smile at the irony; in addition to being a policeman, John is a speed junkie. (Cars, motorcycles and dragsters, not drugs.) I love speed too, but without the legal outlet of cars and bikes, I do other things fast. I talk fast, walk fast (I used to run fast) and even swing fast in golf. But the driver for me it is not so much the need for speed as it is my inherent impatience: my sense of urgency, which often looks and behaves a lot like "speed." Speed can be good. Speed gets things done, sometimes. Speed also has prerequisites. Ignore them and speed can kill.

On projects and in my role as a project manager, my impatience and sense of urgency can be an energizing factor for the team. It can also increase the risks and consequences. Understanding the requirements for putting the team's collective pedal to the metal can help you leverage valuable energy while avoiding the potential risks and negative consequences of pushing a team that is not yet ready for speed. Maintaining this fine balance requires continuous testing to assess speed readiness. But with a little forewarning of the factors needed before you up the RPMs, you may avoid the inadvertent and undesirable crash and burn.

Speed accentuates imperfections. It will put the mechanics of your team under the microscope. Every rough edge or bad seam has the potential to cause friction and instability that can be detrimental. Speed will naturally apply increased pressure and reveal weaknesses. Additionally, sudden speed can be a jolt to the system as it works overcome the natural inertia of the status quo. Just expecting or wishing for speed will not affect this inertia. A steady increase in velocity (acceleration) with continual examination of the impact to the team will be more effective and less risky, especially if you know what to look for as you accelerate.

This series of articles will explore the factors that can impact a team's readiness for speed. We'll begin the readiness journey with the ability to maintain a sustainable pace of production. Future articles will continue with other factors, including environment, purpose, team cognition, enabling tools, and more. The series will wrap up with a readiness assessment tool/checklist that will help you gauge the probability of speed success—or at least advise on areas to smooth for speed.

Factor #1 – Focus on Sustainable Pace of Production

Stepping on the gas will almost invariably produce activity, but activity should never be mistaken for progress. Progress is what comes out of the end of the pipe; activity is what happens inside the pipe. If the goal is to get the most out of the pipe with the least activity in the shortest timeframe, we have to think less about action and more about sustainable production.

I had a client once who could not stand to see anyone idle. He believed that if everyone was working at a feverish pace, good things would happen. Unfortunately, his focus on activity rather than production created more confusion than progress. Everyone was busy, but less and less was coming out of the end of the pipe. He missed the boat on the first speed readiness factor by measuring and rewarding activity instead of production.

As his company grew and the methods of production got more complicated and interdependent, pure activity without focus and direction created chaos and frustration. Failure to focus on production at a sustainable pace resulted in "repair service" behaviors that looked productive but were merely heroic attempts to fix the problems created by their earlier frenetic efforts. Eventually, his employees and clients both left him. Crash and burn.

Continuous high speed is not sustainable. There is a reason the volume dial can be changed from low to high. The same is true with teams. High speed demands such intense focus and such a high state of readiness that your mind and body are continuously taxed. It may be exhilarating for a period of time, but it also drains your emotional and physical reserves. In projects, there are times when it is necessary to step on the gas and get things done to meet a deadline. But that activity takes a toll on the team, which eventually hurts production.

Speed is not so much the villain here as is urgency. Urgency creates a singularity of focus in the moment. Creating a sense of urgency can be used effectively to overcome roadblocks or to reach a short-term, hopefully well-defined goal. But the focus required shuts down our ability to see beyond the moment. As your speed increases, things come at you faster. To deal with this, your vision naturally becomes narrower and more myopic. So if you want to move at high speed, everyone needs a common understanding of where you're headed and what lies directly in front of you. On projects, these are short-term goals or deliverables. Making sure these are positive, specific, clear, simple and explicit will provide the team with the comfort that they can speed up because they know what lies ahead.

In agile, this is enabled through the use of iterations or sprints. Establishing a set of clear and specific work the team commits to and the customer/product owner can expect (the sprint backlog) provides the clarity that can enable sustainable production. Setting the pace that optimizes production (referred to as team velocity) is essential to the sustainable pace of the sprints and setting production expectations.

Sprints also buffer the team from the "tyranny of the urgent" that seeks to interrupt sustainable production. To maintain a rhythm of production it is critical to avoid continual stops and starts. Removing interference from these outside agencies, often called impediments, helps maintain the steady flow. Unfortunately, most projects aren't a series of sprints, but rather a marathon attempted at the pace of a sprint. You don't have to be a runner to know that just doesn't work.

Sustainable pace and speed should not be confused with the story of the tortoise and the hare. This isn't about slowing down; it is about speeding up effectively. You can achieve fast and steady, but only if your team is ready for speed. Maintaining a focus on a sustainable pace of production is a first step to set the foundation for sustainable speed. Evidence of sustainable pace is measured in throughput. Impediments to throughput are in the pipe itself, the environment.

In the next article we'll look at environmental factors (the narrow spots and rough edges in the pipe) that can limit the potential speed if they are not opened up, smoothed out and optimized. We'll also begin creating the assessment tool by identifying specific items in the environment to consider, assess, and measure to determine the team's readiness for an increased pace of production.

Related Links
Agile Techniques for Estimating, like Planning Poker, help determine the team's velocity—their sustainable pace—which is then fed into their iteration planning techniques. Columnist Kent McDonald made extensive overtime, and for sustainable pace, in 2009. Some things can be done quickly if you plan for them, like fast ramp-up of new team members.

Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Great article. Your points about “sustainable production” remind me of a favorite saying from the Pennsylvania Dutch, i.e., "The hurrier I go, the behinder I get". Hurry implies rushing, and rushing almost always involves a singular focus on the final objective without much thought for the steps necessary to reach it. It also invariably includes wasted effort, which is inefficient, costly disruptive and frustrating. I have found that applying the principles of lean manufacturing to the standard work/procedures in my department have had very positive – and sustainable - results. Not only is waste eliminated, but objectives are reached sooner with less wasted energy. I also appreciated the example you gave of a client that measured activity rather than productivity. That speaks very well to the importance of metrics as a management tool. It’s true that “a job measured is a job that gets done”, but inherent in that truism is the fact that the right jobs need to be created, implemented, measured and optimized. Thanks for your insight. I look forward to the rest of your articles in this series.

In an interesting coincidence, I just spent the past week with 26 Six Sigma Black Belts in Singapore. They echoed your comments. Thanks.

Post a comment

(Not displayed with comment.)

©Copyright 2000-2017 Emprend, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
About us   Site Map   View current sponsorship opportunities (PDF)
Contact us for more information or e-mail
Terms of Service and Privacy Policy

Stay Connected
Get our latest content delivered to your inbox, every other week. New case studies, articles, templates, online courses, and more. Check out our Newsletter Archive for past issues. Sign Up Now

Got a Question?
Drop us an email or call us toll free:
7am-5pm Pacific
Monday - Friday
We'd love to talk to you.

Learn more about ProjectConnections and who writes our content. Want to learn more? Compare our membership levels.