One of the key practices supporting continuous improvement is making your work, and how you do the work, visible. This starts by tracking the progress of that work in a highly visual way, often by using a kanban board. Once that work is being tracked we can begin to gather that data and start to gain insights into where our biggest opportunities for improvement are, often by using the metrics defined in The Three Flow Metrics (Plus One).

When these metrics are first introduced to teams they often begin to focus on improving the metrics rather than on improving the work. Teams exist within an organization in order to create value for that organization, not shuffle cards across a board. When the data stops reflecting the reality of the flow of work that data stops being useful to make decisions around how to improve. This can happen in a few ways.

Missing the Forest for the Trees

This happens when the team focuses solely on making the work items moving across their board smaller. They often reach a point that the work items are reduced to tasks rather than customer outcomes. When a team begins visualizing only the tasks that they have to complete they optimize for the wrong thing, being busy, rather than optimizing for delivering customer value.

Ignoring Dependencies

This often happens to teams that are not able to deliver value independently. When these teams begin to inspect their cycle times they start to see that work often gets stuck in their process waiting on others to do things. I was working with a team recently who said that if they marked all of the work that was waiting on others outside of their team as blocked then all of their work would be blocked. They were completely missing the point that making that situation visible was the first step towards fixing it!

It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

Another common situation is when the team can’t deliver the work item without someone outside of their team taking some action. This may be a customer review, a security review, a deployment, or any number of other actions. These teams often want to call work Done when it reaches that step of waiting on another team. Once again, these teams are artificially improving their metrics and allowing a major step in their workflow to be hidden, and therefore preventing any opportunities to improve it.

Get Dirty And Fix Things!

When a team focuses too heavily on improving the metrics without considering what the metrics mean for the real value they are delivering they miss out on valuable opportunities for improvement. These anti-patterns often show up in areas that are outside of the teams direct control. It’s a key responsibility of leaders to help the team solve these problems. Sometimes that help can simply be in the form of protecting the team as they experiment. More often that help must include being courageous themselves in challenging the organizational inertia creating the situation. By helping to truly solve these problems leaders can prevent the team from falling into these traps.

What other anti-patterns have you seen teams follow when trying to improve?

Originally posted at kevin.sivic.me