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What are you Optimizing for?

There has been a lot of talk lately about collaboration as the key to high productivity. While collaboration is important, the reason that super-productive models like Agile work so well is because they are based on solid optimization models, most notably short cycles and throttling work. I think of Optimization models as the engine behind Lean-Agile, and collaboration as the grease that makes it run smoothly.

Business schools diligently teach optimization models, but I rarely see them being used in the business world. Why is it that no one is tapping into these improvements? Is there an optimization that can launch your team into hyper-productivity?

Optimization is not always intuitive. We live in a world where intuition often wins over truth. If people can’t understand how the optimization works, they won’t participate. For example, when I talk about limiting Work in Progress people recoil in horror. “We are very busy, we can’t stop working on anything!” Even if you can get more done in the same period of time and meet the existing deadlines? Yes, they agree with the model and the evidence, they don’t “feel” like it will work for them.

Why is it so difficult for optimizations to take hold?

Conflicting Goals. While visiting my sister-in-law recently, she expressed frustration with the circuitous routes her husband chose to take while driving through town. His explanation was always something like "well I wanted to stop by and go on the swings!" or "I thought we could see the bridge better this way!" My brother-in-law optimizes for fun. My sister-in-law optimizes for time.

Does your organization have conflicting optimizations at play? One common optimization conflict is between quality and speed to market. Of course, we all want both, but there are times when these goals are mutually exclusive. Another conflict is between local and global optimization. We'll explore that more in a future post.

An Optimal solution may conflict with closely held beliefs. Most Americans believe in individualism. “We can each make a difference. If we each do our best, the whole organization will succeed.” When we show that optimizing for the team is more effective than optimizing for the individual, that flies in the face of what we’ve been told our whole lives.

If there are policies that support individual efficiency, improving optimization will be impossible until those policies change. In the example above, if each team is measured on how quickly they can finish features, no one will optimize for faster customer delivery.

Optimization may take the Power away from the individual. We like to believe that our success is a result of our genius and hard work. Optimization models show that success is mostly due to the system and people are the “grease” that make the model work. W. Edwards Deming famously demonstrated that people are at the mercy of their system.

A bad system will beat a good person every time.

— W. Edwards Deming

What can we do to overcome these obstacles?

  1. Illustrate optimizations in story format. History has taught us that when stories resonate and enter the collective consciousness, change happens. People are much more likely to push for WIP limits by referencing a story than repeating a mathematical formula. (much to my dismay) Create folklore that follows the story based on results.

  2. Run Experiments. Getting agreement on big optimizations is hard. Running small optimizations is easier. If you can’t get your entire organization to implement WIP Limits, try doing it just on your team, or just on your own work. Then when you are successful you can use that opportunity to explain the optimization model behind your experiment.

  3. Use a Trade-off Matrix. A trade-off matrix is a decision-making tool that aligns the team on which drivers are fixed, firm and flexible. You may have one fixed, one firm and everything else is flexible. The team then proceeds to optimize for the "fixed" driver. These discussions can get messy, but it's better to have them early rather than rehashing the same arguments each time it comes up. Having a discussion early about what you optimizing for is key.

What have you done to optimize your organization? Please let us know in the comments!


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