Which Obstacle Should You Tackle Today?

Summary: As a lead and manager, your job to remove obstacles that impede work is most important. But of all the obstacles you find, whether they be people's perceptions, bottlenecks in the work flow, or an ill-fitted chair or desk, which do you tackle first? Johanna Rothman has cleared countless of obstacles for numerous teams. Here she describes a technique to categorize and tackle specific types of obstacles that impede productivity.

Imagine that you're a technical lead or a manager responsible for the work of at least one team. You also have a ton of technical work you're supposed to do yourself. Your to-do list is a mile long. What's the most important thing you can do today?

As the lead or manager, your most important job is to clear the way for other people so they can do their work. In other words, you remove the obstacles that slow, impede, or halt project work.

Remove the Physical Obstacles

The first thing to do is to look around your team's workspace. What do you see? Are people crooked in their chairs? Have they cobbled together a pairing space? Do they have enough lab space? Do they have the whiteboards, desks, index cards, stickies, monitors, or network connections they need?

Many years ago, when I was a program manager, the architect came to me and said, “I need some time at the chiropractor's. I'll be out all afternoon.”

“Ok,” I said, “What's wrong?”

“My back hurts.” He paused for a few seconds. “It's that darn desk.”

“What about the desk?”

“It's too high.”

Now, under normal circumstances, I'm the one complaining about too-high surfaces. But this architect was close to six feet tall, so a too-high desk was a surprise to me. I asked if he could show me what was wrong and what he needed. We discussed it for a while, and concluded that he needed a different chair and a new desk. I told him I would work on the problem and to come back tomorrow after he saw the chiropractor.

I spent almost six hours cajoling, pleading, and fighting with the facilities people. The desk and chair this fellow needed were not justified by his pay grade. But they were what he needed. I had to use all my influence and persuasive powers, and, with the promise of brownies, the desk and chair were delivered the next day.

Now you might not think that this physical obstacle was the most important thing I could have done all day. The program had plenty of risks, other people needed help, and I was concerned about a number of the features. But we needed the insight this architect could provide. If he was unable to work, my program would have been in worse shape, not better shape. Getting him a desk and chair that worked for his needs was the most important thing I could do that day.

He returned the next day, and was delighted. “JR, how did you do this?”

“I need to make a bunch of brownies over the next few weeks.”

“I'll buy them at this bakery on my way in on Mondays.” We both were happy with that situation!

If you observe people working or ask about physical obstacles, your team will tell you what they need. Determine what you can do and what you can't. I've run afoul of the furniture police when it came to whiteboards and encountered finance people who refused to buy index cards or stickies. I was able to buy the cards and stickies out of petty cash, yet I had to wait until the furniture police had a new manager before I could deal with the whiteboard problem. But if you don't look and you don't ask, you can't remove the physical obstacles people need you to remove.

Look for Systemic Obstacles

If you're like many of the managers I know, you want to know why it takes so long for your team to finish work. The team doesn't think it takes so long, but it sure feels that way to you. Look at the flow of work (value stream) and see what are the systemic obstacles.

During an engagement, a manager asked me how long I thought a project should take. I admitted I had no idea but thought it was relatively small, say, a couple of people for not more than two weeks. He told me it took six people three months, assuming all the planets aligned and Murphy didn't visit the project. We investigated.

We learned that the build for this small system took more than six hours. That meant every time a developer wanted to try something, the developer could only build once a day. So, the developers did not integrate continuously, and all the tests were manual, through the GUI. The testers had to restart their tests every time the developers changed something.

There was nothing small about their project, and it was painful to work on. The team decided to take a two-week timebox and decrease build time and automate some of the manual tests.

As a result of that timebox, the build time decreased to less than ten minutes. And they had some system tests that could run automatically along with automated smoke tests. Now the testers had a choice about whether to restart testing or continue where they were with a new build. The six people finished that project in two months, including the two-week timebox where they removed obstacles.

Systemic obstacles make people’s lives miserable. Discover them and fix them.

Watch for “People” Obstacles

“People” obstacles often occur when people have not learned to discuss the issue in a constructive way and are stuck on position rather than discussing principles.

One manager wanted to provide a tool to a loyal customer for free. The tool would allow the customer to prepare data for the company to transform and would reduce to almost zero the custom work the company normally provided for the customer. Without that tool, the company had to spend a minimum of six person-weeks on the data before it could be transformed. With the tool, the company could spend about two person-days, the same as for other customers. The salesperson wanted to charge $2,000.

The manager and the salesperson got stuck on their positions—free versus $2000—until a senior manager, Ted, arrived. Ted asked why the manager wanted to give the tool away.

“Because it's cheaper and easier for us to give away that tool than it is for us to prepare the data.”

Ted asked why the salesperson wanted to charge for the tool. “Because it sets a bad precedent to give away our tools. What do we do about support? What if another customer wants this tool? The tool wasn't free to develop. We use it all the time. I'm concerned about a precedent.”

Each person had the best interests of the organization at heart. Ted asked if either person had another option. They hadn't yet considered other options, so Ted helped them develop some.

The salesperson decided it was okay to provide the tool for free, as long as the customer realized there was no support with the tool. And, the manager agreed to let the salesperson know if the customer wanted support.

Helping people develop options when they are stuck helps with people obstacles. Most people get stuck when they are convinced there is only One Right Way. If they can see alternatives, they remove the obstacles themselves.

Clear the Path

So, think about it. What's obstacles can you remove today? Have at it.

© 2010 Johanna Rothman. This column originally appeared on Stickyminds.com

Like this article? See the other articles. Or, look at my workshops, so you can see how to use advice like this where you work.

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