How to Build Your Performance Capabilities from the Inside Out

Posted August 22, 2019 in Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence
Peeling the Onion

We’re all familiar with the analogy of peeling an onion to find out what’s going on in the center. If what we want is to create and sustain a high-performance operation, then we already know what’s at the center. We just have to figure out what’s required to get there.

Once we answer the question, “How do we know we’re performing well?” we can work backwards — unpeeling the onion — to add the most visible and readily accessible attributes that would lead us from the center back to the external world.

Find Your Center

In the case of high-performance operations, the answer to “What’s at the center?” is fairly simple, and metrics of results against goals are our primary gauge. If metrics, results, and goals are our focus, then the question becomes, “What do we need to do to turn them into everyday decision-making intelligence?” We need confidence in our measures, to find meaning in the results, and have realism in our goals.

High performance requires more than being content with the status quo. A high-performance operation demands more predictability, not just instantaneous readings in the green and hindsight victories. The central gears in the machinery of high-performance operations are baseline performance data and performance prediction models.

You’re Doing It Wrong and What to Do About It

Scalability, maturity, agility, and lean are all full of practices and philosophies, but at base, they’re all really about the speed at which we get results. But we can’t know results if we don’t measure progress, and we can’t measure progress if we don’t know we’re done. And we only know when we’re done when we get feedback telling us so. So, the need for speed is about getting the feedback to allow us to make decisions about what to do next.

But speed is not possible without increasing predictability and reducing uncertainty, which brings us to flow. When considering flow, it’s important to realize that flow goes hand in hand with slack, and managing slack does the following:

  • Improves quality through reduced variation

  • Increases efficiency and productivity

  • Is counterintuitive

  • Is necessary to get anything done

  • Drives continuous improvement

  • Is a sign of true maturity

A lack of slack is one of many causes of cycle time variation (CTV). CTV causes lag, and lag is the true enemy of progress, affecting workflow, decision making, information, and innovation. The more CTV, the greater the uncertainty. Uncertainty leads to a lack of confidence in making decisions. It also means decisions take longer and require more attention to work details, which gives us less freedom to make progress. The goal is to eliminate sources of variation and to dampen the impacts of variation when they occur. If you eliminate the lag, you eliminate the variation.

Unpeeling the Onion: Leveraging Flow to Create and Sustain a High-Performance Operation webinar

Unpeeling the Onion: Leveraging Flow to Create and Sustain a High-Performance Operation

This on demand webinar presented by Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Hillel Glazer demonstrates how to determine what's "in your center" to ensure your organization is a high-performance operation. Watch it now.

In reality, the traditional approach in which decisions about product development are made are sophistry. We start with a false premise that our data is good, then fill the premise with a delusionally optimistic view of how effective our analysis is. Each step takes us further from a good decision, further from certainty, and adds to variation. We need a simple way to start with steps that eliminate lag and promote flow.

To begin, everyone must have the authority, autonomy, and empowerment to:

  • Observe

  • Analyze

  • Adjust

  • Attack impediments to quality

  • Prioritize work by greatest overall value

  • Group similar work together

Managers must have the discipline to:

  • Broaden individual worker horizons

  • Push authority to the edge

  • Limit work in progress

  • Embrace slack

The operation must be tuned to:

  • Increase visibility through greater delivery frequency

  • Reduce “transaction costs” (lag)

  • Boost the signal, i.e., reduce noise (lag)

  • Shorten response times (lag)

To begin a shift toward better flow, you must stop starting and start finishing. Visualize your workflow to identify all the work, and measure how long it actually takes to get work done. Don’t start something if there’s no room for it downstream and don’t let something move until you know it’s right. Then write down what it took to make it right. Identify the efforts with the most variation (the sources of lag), and identify the work that you know can do the job and that you can control, measure, and stabilize. Use models of this work to forecast performance and feed decisions. See where all the work is and note where the work is piling up. Get rid of the piles starting from the end of the workflow.

Use the Right Tools

While discussions of baselines and models may sound terrifying at first, we have a relatively straightforward tool to obtain baseline performance data and craft performance prediction models: Kanban. Based on principles of flow, Kanban gives us everything we need to back out of the onion and work at being a high-performance operation by dealing with natural, everyday, ordinary work.

Kanban utilizes straightforward tools to help sustain ongoing high-performance behaviors simply by doing the basic tenets of Kanban activities. Beyond visualization, Kanban provides a simple yet powerful means of pursuing and realizing high-performance results.

This is not about changing how you work; it’s about gaining insight into it. Start where you are. What you see may compel you to make changes. Improved visibility, lower WIP, and more slack provide direct line-of-sight from the peel of the onion to the heart by reducing uncertainty through lower variation and less lag.

About The Author
Hillel Glazer
Hillel Glazer is a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium’s Business Agility & Software Engineering Excellence practice and CEO of Entinex, Inc. He is a career-long pathfinder who has been reframing how organizations perform. Mr. Glazer counsels executives in the technical, organizational, and operational integrations necessary to bring about the capability to dynamically respond to shifting demands. Mr. Glazer is the consummate pragmatic… Read More