Don’t follow the ball, look at the whole pitch

I was recalling a discussion in one of my Kanban System Design classes where we were talking about lead times and task estimates and it reminded me of when I was coaching young kids football (soccer). You’ve probably all seen this kind of thing before – where a pack of kids is always following the ball and ignores the rest of the pitch and the space it has. It’s only when the kids realise that there is a whole pitch around them and when they start to play with the whole pitch in mind, rather than following the ball, that their football really progresses.

Have you ever been involved in work where the project manager / program manager or other delivery leader is constantly asking for estimates for all of the tasks / activities that’s involved? I think we’ve all been here at some point in our career – sometimes as the person asking for the estimate, sometimes as the person giving the estimate. Don’t get me wrong, estimates can be useful in certain contexts, but oftentimes in knowledge work they have little to do with when an item could possibly be delivered. However, in a number of cases these estimates form a basis for making commitments for delivery. This reminded me of the kids following the football.

As the kids eventually found out, the pitch was so much bigger and there’s so much space all around. Once they knew how the whole thing worked together, they could really get far better outcomes and score more often. This is similar to your system of work – there are spaces and gaps everywhere, oftentimes people don’t even understand it in detail. There can be queues, delays, bottlenecks, blockers – a large array of things that are creating that space in your system. It’s not until you understand these parts that you can actually start to play to win.

All of these kinds of things will often make up more of your lead time than the effort that goes into the tasks. Furthermore, in systems that are misunderstood and / or not continually improved, you’ll find that there’s also a lot of task switching overhead that isn’t taken into account in estimates. What you really should be doing is looking to the overall lead time to help make your commitments. This describes the “whole pitch” and what is really going on – sometimes you’ll need to pause, stand back and really take a deep look to see what’s actually going on.

Perhaps your system of work is unstable or constantly changing. Imaging playing football on a pitch where the goalposts and sidelines are always moving. It’s going to make it pretty hard to win in these kinds of conditions. Make sure you’ve got clear system of work boundaries and you know where the goalposts actually are – running a basic STATIK exercise can help you with this. Start to track lead time so that you understand how your system is actually performing. That’s another key difference between estimates and lead times – estimates are how long, or more commonly how much effort, we think something will take, whereas lead times (in distribution form) tell us how the system is actually behaving.

So, be like the kids who learned how to play better football – see the whole pitch and the spaces that it contains. Understand your system and how it performs overall when making your commitments. Otherwise, your competitors and going to be running rings around your team and they’ll be the ones that are winning.