How to Start Thinking in Flow Efficiency for Better Teamwork & Throughput


Fred, a client, asked how I could help him get more work out of his resources. I asked if he meant people. He said yes. So I asked if he focused more on what each person did or if he focused on the team's work.

“Each person.”

I smiled and said, “I have a deal for you.” I started to explain flow efficiency and how that works for better teamwork and throughput.

“What about cost accounting?” he asked.

I explained how he could use cost accounting to report the organization's status, but he could use lean ideas to manage the organization.

Cost accounting asks us to divide and conquer work, especially by person. Agile approaches—and business agility—asks us to work as teams. While team members might feel the tension between resource and flow efficiency, managers struggle the most with it. That's because managers contribute to several teams as part of their job.

How can we move our focus from the individual to a team? Especially when our accounting requirements ask us to focus on individuals?

We start by changing our language. When we change our language, we can change the way we think.

While we might think we can easily change our language, that's not the case for most of my clients.

Why Change Language?

We often use the term “resource.” Worse, we use that exact term for items that depreciate in value—and for people who can learn.

We should depreciate desks, monitors, computers, and other tools the organization buys. That's because we have to replace them in the future. Using the word resource for these tools and materials makes total sense.

But the same word for people? While cost accounting might treat people as resources, people are quite different from desks:

  • The more experience people have with the organization's products, services, and customers, the more valuable those people are.
  • People who “fail” on one team might thrive on another, even if the person performs the same role. That's because the overall team makeup matters.
  • People who learn as they work become more valuable over time.

Desks and other depreciable materials can't do any of that.

People are not interchangeable. When we use the term “resource” for people, we lump them into the “desk” category.

That doesn't work for anyone—not even the accounting people.

However, we have an option. We can focus on teams.

Focus on Teams

When we focus on the team, we can optimize for the team's work. Not one individual's work.

That change of focus from the individual to the team allows us to think in flow efficiency:

  • When we manage the project portfolio, we ask a team to take on specific problems and outcomes. We stop individual assignments. Even better, we eliminate multitasking.
  • Teams can measure their cycle time and see what causes their delays.
  • Armed with this data, the team can act to work better together and to increase their throughput.

Those are the benefits of changing our language. It's not easy to change.

You Can Start the Change

You are part of a system, a culture. If your culture uses the word “resource” to refer to people, you might need to gain some agreement from others.

I start with this question: “I'm curious. Do you mean people when you say resource?”

If the other person says yes, I can then say, “I've found it better to focus on the team's work, not the individual. That way we don't create multitasking problems and we have greater throughput.”

I use throughput, so others realize I focus on business results. Now we can have a different discussion.

If you want better teamwork and throughput, change your focus from individuals to teams. And if you can change your language from cost accounting terms when you refer to humans, you might create an even better environment for teams to do their best job. We can report in cost accounting terms. We don't have to manage with cost accounting.

(This newsletter touches on topics in Manage Your Project Portfolio, and Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization.)


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© 2022 Johanna Rothman

Pragmatic Manager: Vol 19, #7, ISSN: 2164-1196

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