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But what will our staff do if we donҴ focus on their utilization?

Lean thinking encourages us to focus on maximizing value delivered to stakeholders rather than maximizing the utilization of the people, equipment or material resources contributing to value streams.

Two reasons for this recommendation are:

  1. Systems which are run with no free capacity will have no tolerance for any impact which causes a greater utilization of resources than was planned, resulting in delays to the value we were expecting to deliver. While we don’t expect such special cause variations when managing operational processes, with project work, Murphy’s Law is often par for the course.
  2. It is extremely rare that there is a perfect balance of the resources supporting every activity within a value stream. If we have one or more bottleneck, by insisting on maximizing the utilization of all resources contributing to the value stream we would end up overloading others or resort to unhealthy multitasking.

While managers might accept the above in principle, they might raise some concerns. If we don’t maximize the utilization of our team members, how will they be adding value when they aren’t contributing directly to the value stream or streams they are part of? After all, we are paying them for a full day’s work so shouldn’t we expect a full day’s work out of them?

While some managers might worry that their team members’ slack time will be misused for slacking off, there are multiple productive ways to use this freed up capacity including:

  • Learning new things. When the focus is maximizing utilization for “billable” activities, learning often gets pushed outside of normal working hours. With down time during the work day, staff with spare cycles might use that time to increase the depth or breadth of their skills.
  • Reducing bottlenecks. One way to reduce a knowledge bottleneck is to hire additional staff. This is a good short term fix but rarely does a company have sufficient funding to solve all of their bottlenecks that way. A better long term solution is to encourage methods for cross-training including job shadowing and non-solo work. Such approaches require that the existing staff have some free capacity.
  • Making things better. Value streams don’t improve on their own. When left unattended entropy increases within them. Staff need to have some free time to identify opportunities for improvement, explore possible solutions and run experiments.
  • Enhancing organizational assets. There is a cost to developing and enhancing templates, playbooks and other forms of codified knowledge. In previous articles, I’d written that one of the common challenges with traditional approaches to capturing lessons learned is that practitioners rarely have the time to curate and refine the “raw” lessons identified over the life of a project.

Without some free capacity, your team members might be inspired to quote Scotty from Star Trek: “I’ve giv’n her all she’s got captain, an’ I canna give her no more.“

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