In our time-conscious world, we’re used to thinking in terms of dates. What’s my calendar for today? When is the meeting, the doctor’s appointment, the television program? We rush to meet our deadlines.
Sometimes we think in terms of how long things will take or how much work there is, but that’s usually in order to figure out when they’ll be done so we can schedule other things. Mowing the lawn will take about two hours, so if I start at 1:30 I may still have time for a beer before the football game. I may leave a few minutes extra to get to my doctor’s appointment or plane flight, expecting I can bring my laptop or reading and get some work done if I have extra time. The main thing is not to miss those dates.
This conditioning naturally extends to the workplace. We’re tempted to nail down tasks and projects to dates. And people want those commitments from us, because dates and budgets – especially improbable ones – are easy to measure and lend a wonderful sense of urgency. Meetings, with their invincible timings – even in companies where everyone knows to arrive fifteen minutes late – lend a comforting air of firm accomplishment to the unpredictability of actual work.
Date-driven cultures don’t start out that way; they evolve. Imagine a startup company with only one or two new products. There are small teams and good communication; everyone has a strong sense of urgency to get the products out the door. There is great focus and little multitasking. The company is nimble.
Success drives the demand for new products, which require more and more people to develop and support. Demand grows for certain key people and functions, and those people spread themselves thinner and thinner. Meanwhile, the bigger the company, the more people there are with a vested interest in getting commitments. Investors want accurate forecasts of dates, expenses, earnings, and functionality.
This cycle drives more measurement based on hard commitments, so it’s not surprising that more mature organizations almost inevitably move towards a date focus and a “don’t be late” mentality. Ironically, those hard commitments and the “discipline” they seem to promote actually serve to make companies less nimble and less disciplined. Here’s why.
The more emphasis there is on hard commitments, including dates, the more people have to give safe commitments. Those safe commitments, like the extra time at the doctor’s office, cause gaps that need to be filled, which is why we might keep a computer or smart phone handy. We multitask. As an individual juggles multiple simultaneous commitments, the complexity and multitasking make everything more and more unpredictable. This syndrome gets much worse when you spread it across a whole organization and consider the interactions required to develop a new product. The only way to protect against this chaos is apparently to add some combination of more time, money, and emphasis to the commitments. And that perpetuates the cycle.
All this waste is hidden by the lack of transparency of the typical date-driven planning process: we see the dates, not the work. That lack of transparency is also self-sustaining. The less visibility you have, the more competing priorities develop, the more you have to buckle down and focus on the dates, and the less people can tease out the real time required for each task and project.
The cycle can be broken. It takes a combination of a monkey wrench, usually in the form of competitive pressure; and a methodology that can address the waste, like critical chain project management with buffer management.
One way to find out how much waste there is in your organization is to ask some key people, people on whom project timing often depends, how many important things they have on their plates at any given moment. Then imagine how much more quickly and efficiently they might work if they had only one important thing to focus on at a time. You might be surprised.
- On December 28, 2010