Lean into the stressor

In my early days in agile, I remember statements from folks like Martin Fowler who would talk about continuous integration and his approach that “if something’s is hard to do, do it more often”. Through this continuous integration was developed, by folks who leaned into a stressor on the system of work. Later, based on the same kind of idea, this proved to be the foundation for other advances like continuous deployment / delivery.

Stressors on the system of work often appear – you may not notice them at first for what they are, but they’re often an opportunity to improve the system of work. Indeed in these examples, by leaning into the stressor teams have been able to unlock new opportunities previously unheard of. You can choose to listen to the stressors in the system of work or avoid them – the maturity of your system of work will reflect your group’s ability to deal with stress on the system.

Another example of a stressor that I often see on systems of work are WiP limits. Teams that are new to this often need some time to adjust. It can be hard not to follow old habits like continually pulling new work into the system without first clearing those that are in progress. Often systems are setup to reward / recognise those who are “busy”, but not necessarily those who have created a sustainable, reliable flow. Particularly, I’ve seen teams go over their WiP limits and have had to work with them to reinforce the need to do so. Those that can manage to lean into the stress often see benefits to the systemic improvements and can move onto next level problems like ensuring they really are being fit for their customers purpose.

There are many other examples, such as “backflow” (items that are rejected, move backwards in the flow), other quality issues, discovering and dealing with fat tailed lead times, cultural issues such as heroism and rockstars as well as dealing with things that are blocking flow. All of these can create stress on the system of work and often the people in it.

In all of these cases it’s important to be able to detect the stressor. Often visualisation systems help with this, but what’s also important is the supporting cadences and feedback loops. Equally important is to have an inspection mechanism / point where you can more deeply understand what is happening to the system and why, so that you can take a more logical, reasoned response to the causes. Many people respond to these stressful situations emotionally as they too are under stress, but if you focus on the system of work you can help relieve the people in it.

I would hearten you to have courage when facing into these stressors, it’s not going to be easy, but if you handle it correctly the ultimate system will improve and relieve stress on the system of work and the people within it. Remember our Continuous Integration example above – it would have taken quite some work to go from no CI, to a working CI practice but the benefits are clearly there. Sometimes it will be difficult and require patience, but don’t back away from it because that will only hide or exacerbate the problem.

Leaning into the stressor in a system of work is difficult, but often very beneficial. You will uncover better ways of working through doing it and improve your ability to service your customers and your market. To do so effectively you’ll need to set yourself to be able to start, being able to see / visualise the problems, having a feedback mechanism to understand causes and catalyse action and it often requires a little slack in your system to be able to allocate capacity to create the improvement. The good news is, you can start putting these things in place today!