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Going for Lead-Time

Note: This topic of this post was heavily inspired by The Phoenix Project and the succeeding tome of reference, The DevOps Handbook.

There are many metrics out there that can guide you to improve your business, but in the upside-down world of Internet business, many of these can be plain wrong, or at least they do not serve well as guides for what you should be doing. If you measure success by measuring profit, for instance, you'll run out of good will with your users or partners very quickly.

Then there are a load of more noble but fuzzy numbers that you can measure by surveying employees or users. Think employee-happiness, etc. While these are definitely useful, they are easy to get wrong, and it's easy to over-do it, causing survey fatigue. They're also hard to trace from cause to effect. It's hard to say which particular company decision lead to some satisfaction rating going down.

Take the SWOT analysis as a particular one of these surveys. It will give you a great map of what the employees of the company are feeling about a variety of things, and while this will certainly be helpful, it does not even attempt any root-cause connection, so it ends up being a collection of subjective opinions, which may or may not be pointing at the underlying issues.

When it comes to getting real deep understanding of the issues of an organization, I'm personally a fan of the good old retrospective. Getting in a room or call with a smaller group of people who can genuinely build a common understanding of what is going wrong and right is golden, especially if done so on a repeated basis (as long as the resulting commitments and impediments are actually tended to). They don't scale so well, although I'm sure there are clever ways like open-space, or "scaling agile" techniques to help with that.

But neither SWOTs nor retrospectives give you proper metrics. They're not fast. They're not objective. They're not automatic.

So what number can we measure in an automatic way that actually gives us valuable input on how the organization is working? What number can we aim to change when changing the organization? What number can we ask about in every retrospective? The answer is lead-time.




An example of "lead" from idea to change in the world. I left out waiting times, execution times, rework/failure rates, etc.
Armed with lead-time, the Theory of Constraints, Little's Law and value stream mapping, you can go into any organization and start improving the system (yes, this is in a simplified sense what Lean is about). You'll still need retrospectives and the like to explore how to improve the system, but lead-time trend over time will tell you how bad/good it is. Shorter lead-times is a near no-brainer for improving company performance. While shorter lead-time does directly equal higher velocity or more performance, it does mean you have much more opportunity to navigate tactically and strategically, and improve velocity and performance more often.

After I joined eyeo and saw the dangers of increasing silofication, I started working for turning the ephemeral cross-functional teams into sustained, first-class organizational units. A lot of people who had been at the company for longer didn't see why this was necessary, so they asked me why.

At first, I'd be stumped, thinking this was an obvious thing to do. Then I'd think more about the happy ways of working in a team like that, and how it's just good. Also, being able to point out all the explicit teams in some map would be really handy for new-hires to navigate with. However, arguing like that didn't get me very far. People had more important things to take care of, naturally.

So I changed my line of argument: I looked at the current issues: projects seem to take a long time. Requests spend a lot of time hanging in free air before landing at the right desk. I then started building a case for optimizing our structure for lead-time:

  • If any task that needs doing can bounce between the necessary experts within the border of a team that works tightly together, lead-time will go down.
  • If a domain of related tasks will always go to the same team, their ability to deal with these types of tasks will improve and lead-time will go down.
  • Related, if the inventory of related work-in-process is oriented around a fixed team, they can increase their focus and reduce the amount of concurrent tasks, making lead-time go down.
  • If an incoming project can be take on by an existing team of people who already are able to work and deliver together, yup, you got it, lead-time will go down.
Once people started seeing that my ideas were actually about fixing their biggest issues, seeing that their biggest issues could usually be expressed as length of lead-time, the tone changed quite a bit, and soon after that we got busy organizing the introduction of these new kinds of teams.

How to turn lead-time into an actual metric then? That's for another blog-post.

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