Limit Work to Capacity

Hard work does not pay off. At least not if your ultimate goal is to improve at what you do. And not if what you do is quality product development.

In that case you need to build in slack for learning into the system. You want everyone to have time for sharing, improving and learning continuously, and you want to be able to come home from work with energy to pursue your goals for personal skill development even further.

It’s great fun to be good at what you choose to spend your life doing.

Since the primary raw materials in software product development are skills and intellect, rapid learning is the prime goal and the capital for product development. Fail to invest in raw materials for your business, and you’ll soon run out of stock. Don’t allow for time to learn, rather, require it.

Running a system at 100% yields all sorts of problems.

Symptoms include

  • You stop talking to each other. “Sorry, can’t help, have to go do this thing that is  really urgent”
  • You start building technical debt. “If I just skip to write that test (it’s really hard to write), then I can save 2 hours today to get to the next thing I have to do.”
  • Shallow bug-fixing. “Need to fix this bug real fast, in order to get the other 4 bugs done, too! No time for digging further” Root cause analysis and regression testing get skimped on.
  • Useful, although sometimes inconclusive and somewhat directionless, discussions plainly stops happening.
  • Stress activates your lizard brain, which numbs the rational being. You are in survival mode.
  • Work gets less inspiring and fun, which slows things down. Inspiration is high-octane fuel.
  • People get exhausted, and energy-level is low during, and after work hours. You need to “relax” on Facebook at work and in front of the TV at home, instead of doing inspirational learning.

(Picture from Wikimedia commons)

If you have trouble grasping the concept, picture a congested highway. If you remove a small percentage of the cars, you get a magnitude of improvement in throughput and speed. This is a fact.

Did you ever try to squeeze a washing machine 100% full? No clothes get cleaned. Remove 10 or 20% of the clothes, and you have a winner.

Don’t maximize utilization.
Build in time for learning, improving and sharing.

If you, as we have been, find yourself in this mess. There are several ways to get out of it.

  1. Say no. If you never say no, you don’t have a strategy — say no to the least important stuff. Saying no is hard, scary and extremely useful.
  2. If you work for a consultancy firm, give up. Incentives for maximizing utilization is too high in consultancy companies, as they get paid for “productive hours” only. Quit your job, and go to work in a product development company, or a skilled in-house team. Anything but most consultancy firms, they will cannibalize you.
  3. Scale up capacity to meet demand. What can I say, we are hiring.

Quantified

This is no science, but if I would be forced to put some numbers on this, I’d say that:

  • Build in approximately 20% learning/sharing time during normal work hours. Yes, that’s one whole day a week. We use it for our monday school, impulsive discussions, reading, friday meeting (our arena for general discussions on processes) and blogging, to mention some activities.
  • If you want, you can probably “work” 60 hours a week or more without any danger of burning out, but only as long as that time is spent balanced and having fun, learning and improving/being productive — and only if personal situation allows for it without sacrificing time spent on other important values, like your kids.
  • Don’t build overtime into your standard operating procedures. Required overtime doing “productive” work should be the rare exception, not the default.

Find a sustainable pace where you are balancing learning, improving, being productive and all of the time having fun. That’s an important ingredient in the recipe for success.

By the way, did I mention that we’re hiring or that we’re hiring?