Author: Berriprocess Agility

Process Improvement: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

The concept “process Improvement” consists of two words, “process” and “improvement”. Therefore, its correct interpretation involves two aspects: (1) how we perform the work and (2) whether we improve in the direction defined by the organization.
Both aspects are equally important, nowadays increasingly more important.

Yesterday: ‘Big-bang’ approach

“Yesterday”, in the sense of “in the recent past”, we could distinguish three major types of companies.

  • Process-oriented (traditional): those who were more interested in establishing stable, homogeneous, people-independent, controllable processes; they were adopting plan-driven methods.
  • Adaptability-oriented (agile): those, who were relying mainly on highly motivated and qualified, self-organizing teams; they were adopting agile methods.
  • Mixed ones: Those, not so many in total, that combine both types of methods.

No matter what type an organization was, the approach to process improvement was more or less the same, a ‘big-bang’ one:

– A management decision about the path to take
– massive training on the corresponding methodology (CMMI, SCRUM, PMBoK, other),
– long months of planned practice adoption,
– relevant tools acquisition,
– checking the compliance to the method in a more rigorous way (SCAMPI  appraisals) or a lighter one (recognising that they do Scrumbut ;) ).

The change that was occurring in an organization could be described like this:

J-curve BigBang Eng

An important effort is made to achieve the desired state and afterwards, it is expected to enjoy the fruits of the accomplishment for quite some time.

Today: Defining the approach for tomorrow

Nowadays we are moving to, rather living in a dynamic business and market context, in which customers are gained and retained only by the capacity to develop differentiated products and services that satisfy their particular needs quickly, faster and better than the competitors could do it. Therefore, most (perhaps all) of the companies are interested in

shortening delivery time,
– increasing their capability to manage changing priorities,
reduce or eliminate waste in processes,
– increase productivity,
align software development and service management with business management,
– get better and continuous visibility  in the projects and the operations.

And, if possible, achieve all these objectives quickly and with lasting results.

Both, traditional and agile organizations meet difficulties in adapting their way of work to this context. The former struggle with defining lighter processes and modifying the strong departmental structures, responsibilities and dependencies. The latter, even if they have efficient islands within the organization, suffer the difficulties of spreading their experience to other teams.

I could not find a good summary of the difficulties plan-driven organization meet on their adaptation path. I can only share with you the problems that the organizations I have been working with meet. Here I have resumed them.

With respect to barriers and the organizational issues agile organizations face, you can turn on p. 7-8 of the 7th Annual State of Agile Development Survey by Version One.

Obviously, we need a different approach to process improvement that allows the organizations to continuously drive their initiatives towards their business goals. Thus, in my opinion, if a company really wants to achieve significant improvements in its business environment, they should first agree to pursue evolutionary improvements and then, really do it. (Kanban 1st fundamental principle).

“A journey of thousands miles begins with one step”. (Japanese proverb)

Tomorrow: Evolutionary, Lean Kanban approach

The organizations are complex systems and factors such as how the organization thinks, prioritises and makes decisions, the types and complexity of the developed products, the technologies used, the “most painful” problems currently faced, etc are important in defining the right approach to process improvement. The question is not which method we should apply, but what objective do we want to achieve and what we need to do to get it.

EstadoActual-Vision Eng

Lean and Kanban provide powerful means that boost organizations, step by step toward their vision.

The most fundamental change for organizations used to large scope, long-term projects, and drastic organizational modifications is that Lean and Kanban limit the scope of a process improvement  initiative to a  level that is easy to define, understand and see, reduce the time line, and do not prescribe roles and responsibilities changes until the organization itself identifies them as necessary. At the same time they pay strong attention to rapidly incorporating the gained experience in the processes.

J-curve Lean Eng

Briefly speaking:

  1. We pursue a concrete business objective (Lean, Kanban)
  2. We start where we are without drastically disrupting processes, roles and organizational structures (Lean, Kanban)
  3. We go in smaller steps, i.e. instead of conducting 40-50 (to put some numbers as an example) action points in several processes in parallel, we focus the attention on few activities that resolve a concrete problem acting over the root causes for it, and validating and demonstrating the effect in a relatively short time.
    Later on, we define the next improvement step taking into account the actual organizational context (that has changed after the previous improvement step) and the actual business objectives.(Lean, Six Sigma)
  4. We apply simpler means to spot impediments in the processes, e.g. a kanban system, in order to be able to resolve them as soon as possible. (Lean, Kanban)
  5. We keep focus on the workflow (Lean, Kanban)

As for the practices we use, they could come from Lean, as well as from any collection of best practices, agile methods, ITIL, CMMI, etc.

No Involvement No Success

According to the latest Maturity Profile of CMMI Institute, from September-2013, in Spain there are currently nearly 300 CMMI certified organizations. We are on the fourth position in the world in number of CMMI certifications after the United States, China and India. Despite this, many organizations express the opinion that they expected more tangible results from their process improvement projects based on this model.

In The Focus and The Involvement, Key Elements In Improving Processes I introduce a manner of organizing an improvement initiative that I have been using the past two years to help organizations solve their operational problems and obtain CMMI certification.

An important aspect related to defining processes is the way this work is carried out. It will sound strange, but as a consultant my advice is not to let an external consultant define your processes isolated by the people who use them to perform their jobs.

Getting good results and avoiding resistance to change is only possible by putting together  company personnel’s knowledge of the organizational context and consultant’s experience in integrating relevant practices (regardless of their origin) in an adequate solution for the company.

The outcome I have seen as result of this approach is the following:

  • Process improvement effort that brings real benefits to the organization in terms of better project performance and management
  • People understand the reasons behind these actions, the purpose of the processes, and as they have been involved in their definition and fine tuning, they apply the practices with less or no resistance. This shortens the institutionalization time and makes processes last.
  • The certificate that confirms the achievement.

I strongly recommend this approach to process improvement to any organization that is interested in getting more tangible results than a mere CMMI accreditation, and especially to those that are looking for lightweight CMMI implementation.

Forward this post to your Quality Manager and colleagues, if you think it can help getting better results from your process improvement initiative.  

Are you engaged in a process improvement initiative? Tell me about your situation and I will share my experience with you.

Related posts:

The Focus And The Involvement, Key Elements In Improving Processes

Past week Kirk Botula, CMMI Institute CEO,  announced that “a record number of appraisals was reached in 2013”.

Spain is the 4th country in the world in number of CMMI certifications, after United States, China, and India. We should expect lots of success stories communicated.

However, what I hear in my courses and in other meetings with companies that use model is that “processes have their proper life, parallel to the real work”, “people do not see value in applying the processes”, “extra hours have to be dedicated to prepare all the documentation needed for complying to the defined processes” etc.

The experiment

To find out the reasons for the misalignment between the expected and the actual opinion, I made the following experiment in my classes. In addition to asking the audience what they expected from the course, I also asked them about what kind of problems concerning their work they hope to resolve through the CMMI model practices.

The typical answers to “What are your expectations from the course?” question are

  • Understand the CMMI concepts
  • Know how to apply these concepts to my work
  • Understand what we have to do to achieve a maturity level X.

While when asked “What problems in your everyday work do you expect to resolve by means of CMMI?” people usually respond

  • Reduce time and effort for planning and re-planning
  • Improve team’s capability to manage changing requirements and varying demand
  • Improve the coordination between different functions and areas
  • Manage resource assignments and work load
  • Manage priorities, etc.

Here you can see a couple of photos with the answers to the latter question (in Spanish).

Problems-CMMI-DEV small


Problems-CMMI-SVC small

As you can see the answers depend on where one puts the focus of the question.

The same happens with the process improvement initiatives. If they are mainly focussed on filling in the gap between the initial state and the desired one, characterised by the practices in the corresponding process areas, some real problems remain unaddressed. This leads to the unpleasant conclusion that the introduction of the new/updated processes does not bring to the organization the value they are expected to – a problem which, in my opinion, does not lie in the model itself, but in the form it is implemented.

Solution through a new approach

Over the past two years, in order to demonstrate that our process improvement effort brings real benefits to the company, I have been trying a new approach. Its premises are as follows:

  1. Identify the real organization needs
  2. Select one or two of the most painful points to tackle.Unless explicitly wanted by the organization, avoid doing large scope initial appraisals (e.g. SCAMPI B). Once the first improvements are on place, the organization situation will be different and we will have to act according to the new circumstances, not the ones identified several months ago. In this way we save significant time and effort for making the appraisal, preparing the initial process improvement plan and the subsequent re-plannings.
  3. Focus the improvement actions on the selected problem.Use the CMMI practices as guidelines, not a must. Use practices from other methods to create the best solution for the organization. These could be Kanban, Lean, Lean Six Sigma, Theory Of Constraints (TOC), Agile methods.
  4. Work with the people that use the processes.
  5. Track the problem resolution and the model coverage
  6. Once resolved the current problem, go to 1

I have used this approach in two occasions already. Interestingly, one of the organizations evolved from “If we have to do Peer Review, we will not go to ML3” to “Peer reviews are very useful, we have to do more of them”.

As for the other organization, we identified the problems and they chose to resolve those that were allowing them to obtain improvements in both the development and the services area.

How to you see this approach?
Feel like giving it a try? Tell me about your situation and I will share my experience with you.

No involvement no success is about my experiences on how to carry out an improvement initiative focused on the real organization’s objectives and the benefits that can be obtained.

Related posts:

Kanban and CMMI

This post is oriented to organizations that have used CMMI as model for process definition and improvement, have (or not) achieved some maturity level, and are interested in evolving their processes to more agile, lighter and Lean-er ones. It is also oriented to Agile organizations that need to refine y formalize their processes, and/or obtain a CMMI certification.

Before going into details, it is important to understand what CMMI and Kanban are.

CMMI is “a model that contains the essential elements of effective processes for one or more areas of interest and describes an evolutionary improvement path from ad hoc, immature processes to disciplined, mature processes with improved quality and effectiveness” . [CMMI-DEV v1.3 Glossary]  It is a collection of best practices that organizations could adopt in order to establish disciplined and homogenous processes applied in the projects.

Kanban is “the evolutionary change method that utilizes a kanban (small k) pull system, visualization, and other tools to catalize the introduction of Lean ideas into technology development and IT operations” . [D. J Anderson, Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business]

So how do they fit together?

Yuval Yeret, in “Mashing up Kanban & CMMI – A potential love story?” matches the Kanban practices to the CMMI maturity levels.

I believe that CMMI-companies would be interested in some more details; therefore I try to go a bit deeper in this topic.

CMMI organizations take the following advantage of Kanban:

  • CMMI lacks a process area about managing organizational changes. However, the capability to drive the change smoothly towards the organizational objectives is a key for the success of the initiative. Kanban facilitates the change programs making the solutions evolve and be adopted without radical changes in processes, job titles and responsibilities that provoke resistance. David J Anderson has a good post on Developing change management capability in the CMMI context.
  • The purpose of the Organizational Process Focus process area is to perform the process improvement activities based on thorough understanding of the strengths and weaknesses in the current processes. To my understanding the primary objective of an organization is not simply to have effective processes, rather to have them integrated in an efficient workflow which allows the organization to meet customers’ needs, be competitive and profitable. In this sense, applying Kanban to orient the process improvement activities towards better workflow performance will amplify the results and the benefits from the initiative.
  • Project management processes are probably the ones that take most advantage from using Kanban.  All the practices related to monitoring project progress, stakeholder involvement, project issues, collaboration and coordination issues are visualised on the Kanban board. This facilitates significantly (even eliminates the need to look for data for) the report preparation and the issue resolution. In addition, ‘Manage flow’ elegantly focusses the attention and the effort of the whole team, not only the project manager, on delivering on time and with good quality.As a consequence, the project pace accelerates, project delays and cost overruns go down, and the effort dedicated to project management decreases.The usage of real data of lead time and delivery rate facilitates a lot the estimations and the predictability.Is not this a good reason to start with Kanban?
  • Process and product quality assurance: The Kanban practice ‘Make process policies explicit’ directly supports a sound implementation of this process area.
  • For High Maturity organizations, the process performance baselines are easily established and continuously used for project management. In fact organizations at ML2&3 also take advantage of knowing quantitatively the workflow performance.
  • Causal analysis and resolution practices are applied at any level, not only at ML5.

Kanban organizations take advantage of CMMI in the following ways:

  • Kanban provides a means for identification of problems in certain processes in the workflow, but it does not provide solutions for all of them. The best practices from CMMI will guide process refinement and formalization.
  • The Organizational Process Performancepractices, especially if implemented following the Six Sigma approach, will lead to better understanding of process variation, studying both the special and the common causes for it, and identifying the vital few influencing factors. Understanding process variation as well as stabilizing process performance is important for achieving predictability.In addition, developing process performance models would enable making dynamic decisions related to project objectives.
  • CMMI extends the scope of improvements at organizational level with the processes areas of Organizational Process Definition, Organizational Training, Measurement and Analysis, Configuration management, Decision Analysis and Resolution, Organizational Performance Management.
  • For organizations that need a formal recognition of their maturity based on a CMMI model, a SCAMPI A appraisal is the corresponding way to obtain it.
    Related to this, you could see Hillel Glaser post Short-Cut to CMMI: Lean First

In summary,

  • If you are CMMI company, you can start using Kanban, if you are interested in speeding up your projects and/or services, reducing project delays and cost overruns and focussing the development/ operation activities on what your customers value.
  • If you already apply the Lean-Kanban principles and practices and need to formalise and refine your processes with effective practices, as well as obtain an official certification, CMMI is the right model for you together with SCAMPI, the standard appraisal method for it.

Why should I care about Lean Kanban?

Have a look back to the near past.

How many times did you restructure your organization or redefine your roles and responsibilities?

Why did you do it?

To adapt to the new business environment, isn’t it? To become more agile. To reduce bureaucracy and costs. To be able to respond more quickly to customer needs. To …

Nowadays, companies, both more and less agile, are looking for effective means to manage changing priorities, increase productivity, improve visibility in ongoing work, improve team morale, get faster time-to-market, become more lean.

However, a study by Towers Watson shows that only 25% of change management initiatives are successful over the long term.

According to the 8th Version One Report about the State of Agile,  53% of the companies suffer from inability to change the organizational culture, 42%  admit they experience resistance to change, 35% say that the barrier for them is the attempt to fit agile elements into non-agile framework.

In XXI century revolutions lead to resistance rather than improvements

Organizational change has always been hard. However, adopting a drastically different approach to work nowadays is bound to meet a resistance, active and passive, and fail.

Kanban is a method for managing organizational changes. It helps organizations improve gradually by means of focus on flow and delivering customer value. The first two Kanban principles are:

Start from what you are doing now
Pursue incremental and evolutionary changes.

Changes occur when the majority of the people in an organization want them happen.

“Kanban is like water”. [D. J. Anderson; adapted from Bruce Lee’s “Be like water”] It does not prescribe particular practices or roles, because implied routines create resistance. Instead, it enables the development of the most adequate solutions through transparency and shared visibility of where problems, waste, and bottlenecks appear in the workflow.

If you cannot see it, you can hardly control it

The greatest concerns about the adopting agile are the Lack of up-front planning (30%), Loss of management control (30%), and Management opposition (28%) .

Managing a variety of projects and services bases on abstract numeric information requires extraordinary mental skills and deep context understanding.  When correct decisions have to be taken quickly, there is not a better ally for the brain than a visual Kanban board that shows you at a glance the state and the urgency of each undertaken work, the resources occupation, and the blockages in the workflow. In addition, the same information is available in real time for management, team and other stakeholders that can contribute to defining the right approach.

Transparency and visibility are essential to Kanban. They are crucial for quickly spotting workflow problems and redundant work, as well as for achieving positive effects like shared vision of the work, collaboration, self-organization, and result-orientation.

Moreover, combining visual control and transparency with the fifth Kanban core practice Implement feedback loops, helps organizations take advantage from their own experience, become learning organizations.

Feel the power of your real data

Your customer needs a quick estimate to make a Go/No Go decision for an order; a project has to estimate budget and time to get a Carte Blanche for development.

Estimation takes time, and is (always) wrong.

Kanban suggests taking advantage of your real data. More precisely, know the delivery time (lead time) distribution of your types of work and classes of services, as well as the capacity of your team. Then use them in a combination with the particular context for a reliable planning and sustainable business.

The cumulative flow diagram is an essential real-time management tool for any team, warning of potential delays, accumulation of unfinished work, and unsteady flow.

Kanban metrics are pragmatic, focused on the fitness of the work for its purpose :

  • From customer perspective: on time delivery, predictability, service quality
  • From organizational perspective: meeting due dates, resource utilization, performance
  • From business perspective: efficiency, sustainability, adaptability


Balance demand and capacity

Limiting the work in progress in a kanban system ensures that the undertaken work does not exceed team capacity, avoiding in this way people over-burdening and unbalanced workload.

On the other side, defining classes of service delineates the type of demand, the priorities and the rules for treating each type in accord with the business objectives.

Putting it all together facilitates serving the different types of demand  with the available team capacity.

Stop starting, start finishing!

Multitaskers experience 40% drop of productivity, and make up to 50% more errors” .

Kanban Core Practice Limit Work in Progress (WIP) directly addresses the multitasking problem. Limiting WIP for the entire kanban system ensures a smooth flow, improves the overall performance and the product or service quality.

The focus on the Minimal Marketable Feature (MMF) makes breaking down the work into smaller components. Successfully finishing features that add value to the customer, increases customer satisfaction, and brings valuable feedback to the ongoing work, which helps completing it well on time.

Kanban is your means to Lean

The need of new working and management methods is well recognised by technology organizations. Therefore, we read and speak about Modern Management Methods, 2nd Generation Agile, Lean-Scrum, Lean Product Development, etc.

Kanban is a Lean approach to improving work.  The Kanban system is a pull system that visualises the value stream, the work in progress, the work types and the risks.

The Kanban core practices Limit Work in Progress, Manage Flow and Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally  are about maintaining continuous flow that delivers value to the customer and its continuous improvement.

Is Kanban appropriate for my organization?

Speaking about methods, we, consultants, usually give answers like “It depends. If your organization is of type A, your projects of type B and C, your  client expects  D, then the appropriate methods for your context are M and N“.

With respect to Kanban, the answer is a lot simpler: if you want to gain the benefits of Kanban, start applying it. It works well in both small and large teams, CMMI and agile companies, development projects and operations.

To wrap up, leading an organization to a better state requires proper management of the organizational change, developing the capability to successfully manage changing demand, keeping a sustainable pace of work, learning from experience and evolving gradually.

Kanban addresses all these aspects and and works well in any context provided that evolutionary improvements are sought.

What is Kanban?

What exactly is Kanban?

What is the difference between Scrum and Kanban?

I see it at project level. Is it also applicable at organizational level?

What do I get from implementing Kanban?

These are some of the questions about Kanban that I am asked by people who consider getting started with Kanban in their teams.

Here I try to summarize my understanding of the Kanban method.

Let’s start from the context to which the method applies,  an organization. Typically it is an organization that develops software products or IT services.

The organization is a system. The operation of this system depends on the characteristics of its customers/ the market it works for, the established processes and policies, the people doing the work, their skills and knowledge levels, as well as the technologies and the tools used. Therefore, we represent these factors as inputs to the system.

KanbanContext Organization Eng

On the other hand, the outcomes of the system are the products and services developed, together with the defects and other waste (paperwork, coordination meetings with no results achieved, etc.) created. We try to keep the latter to a minimum. One way to measure the level of performance and agility of a system is through the indicators of efficiency and performance.

Both, the deliverable results and the level of system performance depend on the proper management of input factors. Naturally, we want to increase the positive results and reduce the negative ones for the business to be profitable, sustainable and continuously improving.

The proper management of a system requires a good understanding of its components and a set of principles and values to guide the decision making.

Kanban is the toolbox necessary for the successful evolution of an ICT organization.

Organization-KanbanToolbox Eng

The “tools” included in the Kanban Toolbox allow understanding the context and the functioning of the organization by analyzing its system- and data aspects (in Six Sigma known as System Door and Data Door). Also, as every good toolkit, it provides the guidelines for handling the work on the system.

More precisely, in the “suitcase”, we have the practices and the principles of Kanban that facilitate driving an organization towards its goals of better efficiency and performance.

KanbanToolbox Eng

With respect to Kanban values, I recommend you Mike Burrows’ post  “Introducing Kanban through its values”.

Now I hope it is easier to see that

  • Kanban works on the processes of the organization, but in itself it is not a process.
  • Kanban is a method that facilitates the management of organizational change
  • Kanban enables achieving higher levels of performance and efficiency through incremental improvements
  • Kanban helps developing an agile and lean business.


Stop arranging processes! Look at the entire workflow

“Our processes are too heavy, too bureaucratic”,

“We copy the same information in several systems because it goes to different reports”,

“Following the defined process is like having a parallel life of the daily work. Therefore we create all the paper work before the audits”,

“We need lighter processes”, etc, etc.

Does any of these phrases sound familiar?

How do you resolve the dilemma of having processes that comply with a particular model or standard, and at the same time keep them fit?

I would be happy to hear your experience. Meanwhile I will share mine with you.
Lots of process improvement consultants will tell you that implementing or improving CMMI, SPICE or ISO should be done process by process, namely focussing on a particular group of practices (activities, procedures) and deciding how they should look like. Implement the changes and stepping to the next process.

I was also doing so years ago. Although this is not too bad, it is a local, partial improvement that not necessarily has to demonstrate a positive improvement of the entire workflow. In fact, this is one of the main reasons for loading processes with too much extra work.

Adding some extra work to a single process is not a problem. However, summing up the extra work for all the processes turns to an obstacle for performing the work well and quickly.


Therefore I follow a different approach, a Lean one.

First I try to understand the entire workflow from beginning to end, both value-producing steps and information management ones. Together with the team of people from the company, for each group of practices, we draw a SIPOC diagram showing the steps to follow (P), the input (I) necessary for executing them and the outcome (O) obtained. We check that the input is available, either from another process or a supplier (S) and that the output is necessary for another process or a stakeholder, customer (C).


This ensures that the processes produce only needed outcomes, i.e. no over-processing.

By focussing on and performing only work that is required, we save effort of the staff, other resources and delivery time. In addition, it leads to higher efficiency as employees are concentrated on value adding tasks that the customer is willing to get and pay for. Moreover, people are not frustrated with developing an obsolete outcome.

The other important check is making sure that all processes involved in the workflow are perfectly integrated, i.e. the very initial input flows smoothly through them, being gradually transformed into a final outcome.

Integrated Processes

Improving the workflow consists of making the transformation paths shorter (less transportation and motion) and faster (less waiting).

Last, but not least, to make sure that we do not produce obsolete paper, we fill in the following table that summarizes the inputs and outcomes for each process. Only, if an outcome is a paper document, we include the name of the respective template. Location is the place or the system where either the document or the data is stored.

ProcessSummary En

What we thoroughly check at this point is that there is no duplicate information among the documents and the systems used. Also, where it makes sense, we merge the documents to prevent having too many pieces of documentation spread across different places. Undoubtedly, automation is always helpful.

The meaningful indicators of whether we have achieved real improvement are, of course, (1) the opinion of team who uses the processes and (2) the performance of the entire workflow.
Therefore I carefully listen to them two.

How do you see it? What is your experience?

Related posts:

Esteban, the bottleneck (real case)

With this post I try to help Esteban, a real and concrete person. However, I also believe that the ideas could be helpful to others in similar situations.

Esteban is in the software development branch. Projects for different clients, all with their particular requirements, critical issues and urgent matters to resolve. Nothing surprising for a person of the IT world. What is interesting is the situation in which Esteban is:

  • He leads 5 projects and is involved in other 8 projects as Technical Lead, responsible for designing the solution.
  • All projects use technologies that are new for the IT domain as well as for the team members.
  • In addition to making his own work, Esteban gives training in new the technologies to the people involved in the projects, helps them with any questions at their work, fixes the mistakes they cannot correct, speaks with clients clarifying features (both implemented and new or modified )
  • More precisely, this means that every day dedicates time to some 20-25 colleagues, discussing different issues, when they arise, without any order or schedule, and spending about 10-15 min with each one of them takes him about 5-6 working hours daily.  Between the conversations he tries to restart his interrupted work …. until the next interruption. The result is the following:
    • Esteban’s incomplete work accumulates,
    • the queue of those waiting for their responses is increasing,
    • Customers of different projects are getting unhappy, because of the slow resolution of their problems
    • Esteban’s Boss is unhappy because has Esteban has become a “bottleneck” and does not “manage to handle” all the tasks.

Does this situation sound familiar to you?

What would do you to resolve it?

I see three options and will try to explain them and demonstrate them here.

Look at this bottle.


It contains the work that must pass through the bottleneck, i.e. the work that Esteban has to do.

  1. The first option is “do nothing” or leave the colleagues to find their way to getting the work done, just pushing the work pass as quick as possible through the bottleneck. In this case it takes some 11:07 seconds to empty the bottle (complete work). Air bubbles enter the bottle irregularly and help the water pours, yet you can see that the flow is not smooth.
  2. The second option is to put some order, for example, define a period of time in the day when Esteban will respond to the doubts of his colleagues, establish some rules about what types of questions will be addressed to  Esteban, and how to deal with truly urgent matters that cannot wait until the hour of questions.Let us visualize this option:

    The timer also shows improvement. The water takes 7:93 seconds to get out of the bottle. 28% reduction of the delivery time
  3. The third option is as follows (we first demonstrate it)

The same amount of work passes through the same bottleneck in 5:60 seconds only! Additional reduction of the delivery time by 29%. Or 49% quicker comparing to the first case.

How is it possible?

The air entering through the straw makes the water flow smoothly and permanently, without stops and re-starts (caused by air bubbles, as in the first option).

In Esteban’s case what would be equivalent to air entering through the straw?

Well, the answer to this question can be found only with those directly involved in the situation. What I can just suggest is the following:

  • Visualize the ongoing work in the projects so that all involved can discuss, prioritize and agree what to do to achieve a smooth and constant flow of results. Not ensuring that everyone is busy, but making sure that the results that provide value to customers are being developed.
  • The bottleneck is a valuable resource and at the same time it limits the flow of the water. Therefore we have to use it smart, not waste it. That is Esteban has to be always engaged in tasks that require his knowledge level and skills, and does not waste time on other work which only slows down the workflow.
  • Find a way to elevate the bottleneck, making it possible that other team members be able to help with the specific jobs. (this requires most time and effort)

How do you see it?

Related posts:

Thank you for reading my blog.

The effects of the variation

Variation is “the act, process, or result of varying” or “a change in the form, position, condition, or amount of something”. [Merriam-Webster dictionary]

Variation is inherent in any process. Going to work every day takes different time although we go the same way and approximately at the same time. Preparing a routine report also takes different time every time we make it. Two developers asked to implement the same simple functionality in the same environment will need different time as well.

The variation in our performance affects the time of project or service completion, the quality of the outcomes, the internal organization of the team activities, the workload of the individuals, etc. I am sure you can add a lot more examples to this list.

It is important to recognise the nature of variation to be able to address it correctly.

Causes of variation

The causes of variation can be different:

  • Resources: an error in an application could cause a routine procedure to take longer than usual, different personal skill levels make the service delivery time vary, handing over a task to another person usually alters  both the time and the quality of the work completion.
  • Processing unit: the complexity of a customer request affects the development/response time, different tools need different installation and setup time, defects require different fixing time and effort depending on their characteristics.
  • Other factors: errors in the income tax submission application occur in the ‘season’ of tax declaration submitting, most of the printer-support calls occur during the working hours, a change or an unavailability of a team member affects the team performance, delay in receiving some information or materials affects a service delivery, the arrival rate of phone calls/incidents impacts the response quality and the customer satisfaction.

People, independently on whether they are involved in a process as a processing unit (e.g. patient, customer) or as resource – actor, introduce natural variation in the process, which is practically impossible to avoid.

In the services area response time and predictability are key to customer satisfaction. Thus it is important to keep the process variation relatively low and even reducing it to become more competitive.

Speaking about delivery time, what is interesting is that waiting time is frequently the largest component of the elapsed process time. E.g. in a travel from Yerevan to Bilbao the flights take 52% of the total travelling time, the rest is waiting; in a doctor visit, the value-adding time is about 15 min (the visit in itself) within e.g. 6 hours between calling for the appointment and leaving the clinic, i.e   96% of the time is waiting.

Make yourself an experiment. Measure the effective time of doing something (the time you really work on it), for instance, fixing a bug. And measure the time from staring to finishing it. What is the ratio between the two measures?

To understand the effects of the variation and how to cope with them, have a look at the following simplified picture of your organization:


Fig. 1 Queuing system (simplified)

In this case we represent your organization as a queuing system: “customers arrive for a given service, wait if the service cannot start immediately and leave after being served” or “customer asks for implementing a requirement,  waits for the implementation to start and pays when the requirement is delivered”

Sir John Kingman’s formulae links the factors that determine the time a customer will have to wait until her request is served. Therefore sometimes it is called the law of the variation effects. The formulae says that

Average Waiting Time = f(Arrival Variation, Resource Utilization,
Effective Process time)


More precisely,  for a simplest queuing system the average waiting time spent in queue, depends on the Variation of request arrival, the Resource Utilization, and the time a request is Processed.


Fig 2. Trade-off between Waiting time, Resource Utilization and Arrival Variation

The effects of the variation

The two effects of the process variation can be described as follows:

  • Looking at one curve only: When the resource utilization is close to 100% a small increase in the work load causes an exponential increase of the time to finish the job.
  • Comparing the two curves: Assuming that the resource utilization is the same, the higher the process variation, the longer it takes to complete a job.

Practical take-aways for a project or service manager

  • The higher the resource utilization, the stronger variability affects the time of completing a service or a piece of work. If utilization is low (~50% or less), variation in the request arrival and process variation will have a small impact on performance. Something very important for organizations aiming at ensuring that their resources are always busy.
  • In software development and IT services people are the main resource. Therefore, utilization is strongly affected by errors which generate failure demand or rework. Thus, reducing resource utilization is more critical than reducing time variation.
  • The longer the average process time, the larger the time requests will spend waiting and hence, the larger the queue length. Therefore decomposing a job into smaller pieces that take less time to complete reduces the overall processing time. Developing several small services/tasks produces less variation than one big one.

Said this, how to reduce customer/request waiting time?

  • Reducing the incident/request arrival rate, for instance by  improving user documentation, providing better web-based support, making user interfaces more intuitive, offering training, etc.
  • Reducing service time (effective processing time) by improving technical staff training, automating the process, etc.
  • Reducing process variability by analysing and eliminating the causes for very long duration services, introducing policies that facilitate service prioritization and fulfilment.
  • The smoother a request passes through the process (with less stops, restarts and bottlenecks), the shorter the process time and hence the waiting time and the queue length. Hence removing bottlenecks and other impediments in the workflow reduces waiting time and the elapsed processing time.
  • Reuse reduces variability in completion time. Therefore wherever possible and makes sense work outcome and knowledge have to be reused. I say “make sense”. Some time ago I was working with a company that admitted they were suffering the “Until In Stock” virus. They were reusing old hardware components until available on stock and that was causing them high cost of defect fixing.

Variability is not necessary a bad thing. Achieving high predictability and service level completion is nice, however repeating always the same results also means that nothing new is created. It is not by chance that Henry  Ford said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
If Apple were only doing the usual job, they would not have envisioned the iPhone either.

More about the positive side of variability will come in another post.

Related posts:


[1] Queueing Theory
[2] Wallace J. Hopp, Single Server Queueing Models
[3] Kingman’s formula
[4] N. Modig, P. Anström, This is Lean