How Managers Can Use Flow to Plan to Create More Management Ease and Better Results, Part 3

I started this series by realizing managers have (too) many decisions to make. The longer it takes managers to make any single decision, the longer it might take to make all the decisions. That's Little's Law, applied to decisions.

In Part 1, I recommended that managers start with their oldest possible decision and decide what to do about that. Then, the next oldest decision, and so on. In many cases, those decisions are organization-wide (or department-wide) periodic decisions. If the decisions are no longer necessary, eliminate them and move to the next decision.

In Part 2, I suggested that managers create shorter plans and use rolling wave planning for those periodic decisions. I suggested a relatively short wave, of anywhere from four to six weeks. That shorter time helps managers contain the scope and time of their decisions. Because they're planning for less work, the planning time should be less. (Not a guarantee, but with fewer items under consideration, the planning should take less time.) Yes, this is similar to how product or feature teams plan.

That takes care of periodic decisions. But not all decisions are periodic. In fact, many important decisions managers make are not periodic at all. Those decisions tend to be facilitative and strategic.

Managers Make Facilitative and Strategic Decisions

If you're like many of the managers I know, you have a ton of Important decisions to make. And, you do other things during the day, because while you know those decisions are important, they are not (yet) urgent. The urgent issues consume your days.

The image on the left is my rendering of the image in Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. (I have a paper book from 1989.)

Facilitative decisions tend to involve “people” issues, not product issues. For example, imagine a senior person unhappy with his or her career prospects. The person might raise dissatisfaction with the current career ladder both for career advancement and salary bands. As managers, we might have anticipated that potential problem and marked it “important but not urgent.” It was important last week. It's urgent today.

Urgent decisions often mean the manager has several interdependent decisions to make:

  • What and when to discuss the career ladder and salary bands with HR or senior leadership.
  • How to let the person know the manager is working on this, and what to offer for status as the issue wends its way through the organization.

Salary bands and career ladder changes often take a while to organize and then change. What timeline does this manager have with the unhappy person?

Then, there are the strategic organizational decisions. You might think you have until next year to start or revisit your strategic thinking. But, one day, your largest customer stops buying from you. Or,  you encounter a security problem that puts all your products and data at risk. Or, the market changed—seemingly overnight—and your organization needs to change everything.

The management team now has urgent decisions. You might need layoffs to save money. Or, you might need a different portfolio of products and services.

Your important decisions all just became urgent. And you need to decide about each of them now!

That's because urgent problems rarely occur alone. I often see apparently unrelated urgent problems all appear at one time. But we can't predict anything about urgent problems—how many and when they arrive. All we know is that we need to solve these urgent problems asap.

That's where management flow might allow us to create more management ease.

Decide in Flow to Reduce WIP

Managers deliver decisions to other people in the organization. That's why Management Decision Time matters to everyone. Important decisions enable other people to create products that deliver customer value. Urgent decisions often prevent people from doing good work. That's why managers need to make decisions as fast as possible, for both Important and Urgent decisions.

That's why managers can monitor their Important decisions aging and WIP, to prevent those decisions from becoming Urgent.

When managers maintain a lower WIP, especially for their Important decisions, they reduce the pressure on everyone in the organization. Fewer of those Important decisions escalate to the Urgent column.

What Would Have to Be True for Managers to Work in Flow?

Back in How I Manage My Product Development: Ease with Continuous Flow (Day 1), I offered three key ideas:

  • Always leave unfinished work clean, to easily pick it up again.
  • Look for the highest Costs of Delay to do the work that matters most.
  • Work in short timeboxes with breaks to stay fresh.

I use a kanban board to manage my current and upcoming WIP. Managers can do the same. I offered a possible kanban board here.

And since I'm just one person, I work in a single-piece flow, one item at a time. I don't always finish that item, but I get it to a point where it's clean and ready for me to pick it up again. Managers can do that, too. With one big assumption: they make the next viable decision. They don't wait or postpone for more information. They decide to maintain progress on this decision.

I recommend a shared kanban board so everyone can see the decisions in flight. And, so everyone can see who needs to collaborate to complete these decisions.

We need managers to collaborate because I don't know of any facilitative or strategic decision that a single manager can make alone. (I don't know of any periodic decisions either, but I'm willing to extend the benefit of the doubt for those decisions. See Create Your Peer Management Team for Fun and Profit (and to Solve Problems) for more information.

What Might Prevent Management Flow?

The idea of resource efficiency instead of flow efficiency pervades management, too. Too many senior leadership teams don't recognize that they need to reward management teams, not just individual managers.

Don't try to change the system first. Instead, consider these behaviors and inform your management:

  • Create a shared kanban board with all the Important work. Include the aging information, so everyone can see what you might be able to address first.
  • Consider adding a column that shows when the Important turned to Urgent. I'm not talking about a separate Expedited lane. No, this is a change of urgency, so that would be a separate column.

The more transparency the managers have with each other and their bosses, the more likely the senior leadership team will start to realize that managers need to collaborate, to work in flow efficiency.

In parallel, as the managers complete their work, they can calculate their cycle time for both the Important and Urgent work. How long does something hang around in Important before it becomes urgent? Does that change how everyone thinks about aging and management cycle time?

A great board can help managers know when their decision cycle time is too long for the kinds of decisions they need to make. And, when the management team is overloaded with decisions.

I haven't wrapped everything up yet for ease and better business results, so I clearly have another post coming.

The Series

Managers can create more ease in their work by exposing their Important and Urgent decisions. They can assess their cycle time, and manage which decisions to start and finish when. For periodic decisions, see if you can address fewer decisions more often. (I recommended rolling wave planning.) And measure your cycle time to understand your decisions.

%d bloggers like this: