The Kanban Guide talks about optimizing the workflow for three different attributes: effectiveness, efficiency, and predictability. It talks about the fact that any optimizations we perform will be a balance across these three and that over-optimizing on one may make the others worse.

Counter-intuitively, it’s very common for companies to optimize for the busyness of the people rather than any specific attribute of the workflow and this makes everything worse.

Busyness is the state of having or being involved in many activities1. It’s often thought of as a proxy for effectiveness and yet that’s been proven incorrect many times. The cost of context switching is high and it can be shown that high work in progress (WIP) is correlated with lower effectiveness. Despite this, there are still many misconceptions about busyness and many managers will overload staff with work, incorrectly thinking that they’re improving the system.

Etymology of the word business: “Early 19th century: from busy + -ness. The word business was used in the sense ‘the state of being busy’ from Middle English down to the 18th century, but is now differentiated as busyness.”1

While I’ve not seen any studies to show this conclusively, I’ve also observed a correlation between busyness and quality. The busier we are, the poorer quality becomes.

What reasons might we have for keeping people busy? There are many and this is just a sampling.

Reason: Competing priorities from misaligned personal and group goals

Although the company may seem like a single thing, it’s make up of individuals and smaller groups that each have their own goals and objectives. Even when the company has a clear strategic direction, each of those smaller groups will have their own objectives or goals that will be important to them and that will take their attention.

People will optimize their behaviour based on how they’re measured and counter-intuitively, our measurements are often not aligned with our goals.

For example, many companies will expect people to work in teams and display effective teamwork and yet they’re measured by individual accomplishment, which drives the opposite behaviour. Trying to satisfy multiple competing goals will certainly make us busier but not more effective.

“People don’t do what you expect but what you inspect.” - Louis V. Gerstner, Jr.

Measuring the wrong things will drive the wrong behaviours. We need to be very cautious about how we measure people. If the only way to get that promotion is to hit a specific date then we’ll hit that date, regardless of the consequences to the larger system.

“People with targets and jobs dependent upon meeting them will probably meet the targets - even if they have to destroy the enterprise to do it.” - W. Edwards Deming

Code coverage metrics are an excellent example of measurements driving busyness. When teams think that their managers are looking at this metric, they will spend time improving the metric without actually making the system more effective or efficient. See code coverage as a perverse incentive.

Reason: Unclear strategic direction

As mentioned above, we tend to be unfocused even when the company has very clear goals. The reality is that very few companies do have really clear goals and that makes everything even worse. Even when the goals are clear, there are usually too many of them and people are forced to try to prioritize across multiple, often competing, targets.

Reason: A belief that maintaining specialization is desirable

When we have only one person with a specific skill then there is a tendency to have that person be “fractional” (30% on team A and 70% on team B) so that we aren’t having them sit idle. This isn’t to imply that specialization is necessarily bad - everyone on your team will have certain areas that they’ve specialized in and that’s good. What’s bad is optimizing our workflow for that specialization at the expense of other things. Fractional people are never as effective as they could be if they weren’t split.

Reason: Inability to say “no” or “not now”

We are often unable to unwilling to say no to new requests. Sometimes that’s to maintain relationships with others or merely to appear helpful. What we fail to recognize is that every time we say yes to one thing, we’ve just implicitly said no to other things we could have done.

We often find ourselves in the situation of starting a lot of work purely so that we can tell the requestor that it’s started. It allows us to appear that we are more responsive to others, even though we’ve actually made everything slower. Perception can be more important than reality at times and can influence our decisions in negative ways.

Reason: A mistaken belief that higher utilization always results in higher effectiveness

Consider a highway. At low utilization (few cars on the highway), adding more cars will result in more cars to their destination. As we continue to add cars, we will reach a point where adding more cars will actually slow down the entire system and the rate at which cars arrive at their destination will drop. At 100% utilization, no cars are getting to their destination.

This tipping point, where becoming busier (increased utilization) helps only to a certain point and then makes things worse, can be found in any queuing system from a highway to a call centre to a development team.

If we were infinitely busy, nothing would get done.

“Since high capacity utilization simultaneously raises efficiency and increases delay cost, we need to look at the combined impact of these two factors. We can only do so if we express both factors in the same unit of measure, life-cycle profits. If we do this, we will always conclude that operating a product development process near full utilization is an economic disaster.” - Donald G. Reinertsen2

Correspondingly when people are kept busy, the work itself tends to sit idle and this is a massive source of waste.

“In product development, our greatest waste is not unproductive engineers, but work products sitting idle in process queues.” - Donald G. Reinertsen2

Reason: A mistaken belief that we’re really good at context switching

We all tend to overestimate our own ability to multitask, thinking that we can work on many things at once with no real penalty. The science strongly disagrees with that.

In conclusion, while we advocate for changes to the workflow to optimize for effectiveness, efficiency, and predictability, many times those changes will be done in a way that make all three of those worse. We need to be aware of that so that we can compensate for it.

While this article is very focused on the effectiveness of our workflow, it’s worth calling out that keeping people too busy for too long will result in burnout, lowered psychological safety and a variety of health concerns. It’s bad for so many reasons.

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