If you are thinking about scaling your flow, or if you feel like your team is just not operating at a sustainable pace, maybe it’s time to do some effort estimating.
Who doesn’t like a little SWAG in their bag? Of course SWAG meaning Scientific Wild Ass Guess. But here is the secret, you do not have to settle for SWAG, and you do not need to spend 100’s of hours collecting and analyzing data.
Before you jump in and start filling up time tracking spreadsheets with data or hiring an expensive statistician to run extensive workflow modeling analytics, I suggest you take the following approach to get a reasonable picture of how you are cooking what you’re cooking.
What we’re going to embark on here is a flavor of activity based costing or project task effort estimation. Both of which have entire post graduate degrees in managerial accounting and consulting industries to support some very sophisticated and heavy work. (Smarter planet, anyone?)
Before you go and search these down on the Google, stick with me here and we will provide what you really need to know for your small team. The secret we are letting you in on, is that you can get better than 80% of what you really need to know in a few simple steps and can avoid some cash and sleep sucking alternatives.
Pick your sandbox
Before you start collecting any kind of data, you need to decide what it is your going to scale and the depth in which you are going to analyze it.
If you are reading this, I know you are a high performing leader or small business owner with a strong desire to change the world. Here is where We are going to pump our brakes. You need a sandbox, not a beach. Now that’s not to say, we connect together multiple sandboxes, but if you plan on surveying the entire beach you will not finish our little exercise.
If your goal is to increase the number of gift boxes you sell via your online specialty store, pick the spot in your overall flow that you feel will fall behind. Maybe your garage is always packed to the rafters with pre-assembled inventory, and you are consistently back ordered sitting on 100 orders of gift boxes. You can love logistics, but what sense is it at this point to worry about what the UPS guy is doing? Trust me, your gut knows where the constraint is, so follow it first.
Collected data vs Expert testimonial
The experts all agree that either approach is perfectly imperfect with a blended approach being the one that supplies the richest dataset to analyze. The best ones in the business are good at balancing certainty vs good enough to make a decision.
When working with individuals or groups that are in the business of creating things, I like to start with the expert testimonial and if required, follow up with a bit of collected low cost high value observation data to fill in any gaps. Although your front end goal here is to figure out where your pinch points are and plan scaling, you can gather all kinds of extra intel from sitting with your experts that are working hard on creating the next big thing.
Now if you have a mountain of historical process data at your disposal, and all you need to do is mine it, by all means dig into it as your starting point. Just remember to come back around to those experts, because you will certainly find perspectives and intel that is almost always lost in the data.
Are you ready to get started?
The coffee shop exercise
So your workflow comes in fits and starts while juggling multiple projects simultaneously. If you start with the question, “how long does it take to do create that thing there?”, you might get an answer back of either A) it depends on how many other things I have going on or B) usually some # of days, weeks, or months.
All very valuable information, but these are all durations and you are trying to get at how many dedicated hours of effort someone is investing in holding a tool sculpting their David. I like to paint a mental picture for my experts during the interview through what I like to call the “coffee shop method”.
Imagine for a moment that you were dialed into whatever you were working on at the coffee shop. No phones, no e-mails, no one coming to your desk asking you about last night’s baseball game. 100% unadulterated time to crank out the work. Now, in that mental happy place of uninterrupted outpouring of creation, how much time does it take to do the work? If the answer is, it depends…then dig deeper and find out what it depends on. Seek to get a min, max, and average amount of time based on all of those “it depends” scenarios.
Rinse and repeat through each of the steps in your process.
On a side note: It depends are great invitations to find out about all kinds of issues that you just might be able to solve to increase flow irrespective of our exercise here.
Sum of the parts
Now that you have collected all of the little pieces to the puzzle, it’s time to see if it fits together into a total that makes sense, bring all of the components together into sums of subtotals and totals. Change the volume of work coming in and going out. Does it make sense?
Take two steps back from the board and look for the following:
- Do you have a set of totals that is larger than what you experience on an everyday basis? For example, you have one person on your team doing the work today, and the total hours are greater than 24×7.
- Do you have a set of totals that is far smaller than what you experience on an everyday basis? This could be an indication that you need to capture more steps in your data collection.
- If you have collected information from two experts, look for wildly different results when comparing like process steps. People are variable by nature, and no two people operate at the same speed or have the same bias when describing their work, which leads us to the Knight and the Craftsman
The Knight and the Craftsman
There are two typical traps that will potentially impact the scalability of your expert testimonial. These represent 2 ends of the estimate spectrum…in one case the estimates will be under average, and the other will be over average.
The knight is the expert that will provide a very noble number to you. He or she has a level of confidence (and competence) that will provide a number that can be in some cases half of what the average would provide. During your interview process be mindful of themes such as: its not too difficult, I can do that faster/better, I have a special process, etc.
The craftsman on the other hand, takes great pride in producing incredibly beautiful and well-constructed objects. In many cases, the craftsman will double-triple check their work, add special non-essential features, and carries a deep internal pride in the craftsmanship of the work.
Having a knight and a craftsman on your team is really a great luxury, but their expert testimonial makes for skewed results when considering your scaling requirements.
Connective Tissue and Providing Room to Breath
If you are in the business of creation and scaling creation, you know that you work in a space of ambiguity. Requirements are never as cut and dry as 2+2=4, and in the best of circumstances you have access to the end user to ask important questions along the creation journey. In many cases, it might require some level of continuous conversation and idea sharing among your team and your customer.
Knowledge workers typically require a minimum of 10% of their time to be available for general communication and idea sharing. Some high performance teams can be clocked at 40% of their time allocated in the pursuit of conversation around the water cooler and the serendipity of two minds bouncing together at the right time. There is no absolute target % here, so go forward and find your happy place through experimentation.
The target you absolutely need to avoid is the 0% target, as it will result in missed deadlines, rework, and off target client outcomes. The best teams need room to ask questions, communicate, and stay connected.