PM Articles > Geof Lory > Minimizing Work, Maximizing Energy

Minimizing Work, Maximizing Energy

by Geof Lory

As project managers, we are uniquely positioned to tap the potential energy of the team, transforming latent energy into usable energy and increasing the team's capacity for work. In last month's article on Teams and Thermodynamics I covered some of the ways energy is drained from the team. In this article we'll look at some of the principles and practices of both Agile and Lean that are designed to either conserve energy by minimizing waste or release energy by maximizing human potential.

Minimizing Waste -- the Art of Work NOT Done

While the underlying values and principles of Agile and Lean are very similar and complementary, when applied in their traditional environments (software development and manufacturing, respectively) the specific practices can be substantially different. Different enough that they are not immediately recognized as two different sides of the same coin. This is especially true in dealing with waste.

Lean uses a very broad definition of waste: anything that uses resources but does not directly produce value to the customer. This can include defects, delays, and repetition as well as things like over production and excess inventory. Since Lean is most commonly applied in an environment where processes are repeated many times, small amounts of waste in material, performance, or effort are exacerbated by the sheer volume of occurrence. Pennies become millions when you repeat the same wasteful step in a process a million times. It can be death by a million paper cuts.

Identifying waste is about striking the balance between too much and too little.

Similarly, Agile is also about maximizing the use of resources to produce the greatest business value. Any energy spent on anything else is waste. So, think about some of those things that seem so necessary, like BRDs, SRSs, FRSs, TDDs and traceability documents. Would the customer pay to have them? I doubt it: they are all waste. The customer doesn't really care about these things. From their perspective, they just don't matter. They are simply waste that drives up the cost of the product to them.

Unlike Lean, Agile is most often used in continuously changing, mostly non-repeatable and largely unpredictable environments. In this domain, identifying waste is less about streamlining processes and eking out individual small savings and more about striking the balance between too much and too little. This is where the art of maximizing the work not done comes in.

Agile uses the phrase "barely sufficient" when trying to describe this balance. Whether for process or documentation, design or testing, communication or oversight, anything more than barely sufficient is wasted energy. But the interesting part about trying to understand barely sufficient is that you don't know where the line is until right after you cross it -- assuming you even notice that you crossed the line. Up to that point, it is either not enough or too much. The only way to find that line is to continuously move toward it, from either direction, and stay awake. In Lean, this continuous movement is called kaizen. I'd call it "UN-common sense."

Releasing Potential Energy -- Creating More

If minimizing wastes conserves energy, how can we release the potential energy of the team and increase our total capacity for work? Lean actually defines underutilization of people as a form of waste: wasted potential energy. In manufacturing terms, it is equivalent to letting a machine sit idle or operate inefficiently. It's wasteful.

This is the essence of leadership: to maximize the potential of those you work with.

It may be more obvious with machines than people, largely because we don't always have a clear understanding or image of what underutilized potential versus released potential. Too often we equate action with production. We manage time, making sure everyone is busy and "fully utilized," as if that were the goal itself. We purchase resource management software to plan, track, and optimize resource utilization, as if people were machines with fixed capacities and achieving 100% capacity would inherently produce business value. Unfortunately, all it really tells us is how busy we all are. As if that's something we are not already aware of.

In reality, we (and when I say we, I really mean our customers) would be better served if we focused on increasing the total resource production capability, not the utilization of the existing resource capacity. This is why both Agile and Lean put so much emphasis on the "people over process" aspects of their approach. Improvements to processes will deliver greater production. But relatively speaking, process increases are linear and capability increases can be exponential. To me, this is the essence of leadership: to maximize the potential of those you work with. If everyone focused on this simple mindset, just think how much more value we could produce for our customers.

Several years ago I wrote the Manifesto for Agile Parenting. In that, the second value is:

Release of Human Potential over Conformity to Preconceived Outcomes

Unfortunately, an inordinate amount of our time as parents and managers is focused on managing our children and employees and not enough time and energy is directed toward leadership behaviors that release their human potential. We all say our people are our greatest asset (it sells well in the market), but if we fail to allow our greatest assets to achieve their potential, their value will depreciate. Maybe we are locked in a limiting paradigm. Maybe our managers have been poor examples. Maybe we are just not used to looking for potential. The reality is, in the continuing trend to get more done with less (less people and less time), we are going to have to focus on unlocking latent potential. Process improvements eventually hit a point of diminishing returns.

Knowing Inhibits Becoming

As a parent and a Project Manager, I try to look for the potential in my daughters and teams. I try very hard not to have preconceived notions of what they can or can't do. But it is easy to get fixated on the past or lost in the present and block out the possibilities of the future. What I think I know often gets in the way of what can be. It is scary to let go and trust in others when your neck is on the line. There is no guarantee of what you will get. The best cure is practice.

The end of last year, my oldest daughter, Jenna (she's the theatre arts major) told me she wanted to get into doing contract project management. She has no experience or even formal education in project management but I had to remember that neither did I when I started 35 years ago. My degree from Michigan State is in Forestry. Not exactly applicable to IT project management.

None of that deterred her, and I'm happy to say that she wrapped up her first assignment a few weeks back and starts on her second client in a couple weeks. In the interim she has had a chance to go through our agile simulation training and even helped with the latest revision of the curriculum, in addition to completely redoing our web site. These were all capabilities and skills I was not aware she had, but I sure am happy she was given the opportunity to develop them.

It is very rewarding to be a part of releasing someone's potential. Even better when that person is your daughter. Maybe someday, in the not too distant future, Jenna will write one of these articles with her experiences. That would be fun!

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