What do an old school children’s puzzle and modern software delivery have in common? Both require space to move. We explain.
Is your software engineers’ time 100 percent full? If so, you may be slowing the delivery and diminishing the quality of your modern software solutions. That’s not good, especially in today’s world.
Recently, I heard about an encounter between a discount store manager and her boss that illustrates this problem. The boss complained he had seen the manager’s employees looking at their smartphones and talking with each other instead of stocking shelves.
“Are the shelves full and orderly?” the manager asked. The manager sheepishly responded they were.
“Then don’t worry about my employees,” the manager replied. “They are doing what they need to do.”
This story reminds me of the old, hierarchical, waterfall approach to software development. According to that model, if people are not busy all the time — if they are not 100 percent utilized — they are not doing their jobs. In my 10 years as an Agile coach, I have seen what actually happens when people are working at 100 percent capacity. Frankly, things don’t get done.
Why not? The mistake that companies and people make is thinking that the higher someone is utilized, the more value you will get from them. So, leaders worry about whether employees have their heads down at their desks all the time rather than whether they are delivering value. However, even though it seems counterintuitive, less utilization means more throughput, not less.
Leaving Space to Move
I can illustrate this idea with a popular child’s toy, the slide puzzle. The value a slide puzzle provides is the satisfaction of solving the puzzle — in other words, getting the letters in the right order. Leaving an open square in the puzzle is critical to achieving that value. The space on that puzzle is not 100 percent full, allowing you to solve the puzzle—though with some effort.
Let’s look at some different scenarios illustrating how value delivery changes based on varying levels of utilization. Below, the value of the puzzle remains the same, but the puzzle’s space is 100 percent used. How long will it take you to achieve the value? The answer, of course, is “you will never achieve it,” because you can’t move any of the tiles.
Now, consider the next example. The value of the puzzle is similar, but the space is now only about 50 percent used. How long will it take you to complete it and achieve value? In this case, you will likely be able to solve the puzzle quickly because you have more space to move the tiles.
How Does This Apply to Me?
Now, you might be thinking, “Oh, come on, everyone knows how a slide puzzle works!” So, let’s look at a more real-life example — a traffic gridlock.
The value of a freeway is to allow cars to move from one point to another, hopefully in a reasonable time. The freeway works well when it is not full. Traffic flows at a steady rate, and people can enter and exit the freeway in a timely manner.
But then rush hour happens. That phrase “rush hour” always makes me laugh because we are rushing nowhere. It is more like “snail hour” due to the 100 percent usage of the freeway. During the time most people go to work and go home, the freeway no longer has a steady flow. It is stop-and-go traffic until you get to a point where usage drops as people exit the freeway.
In other words, when utilization of the freeway goes up, flow — or throughput — goes down, leading to slower value delivery.
Working at 100 percent capacity affects people in the same way. When a person is working on multiple things to achieve “full utilization,” the flow of work is much slower, as they are splitting their time between multiple things. In other words, the “freeway of their mind” is running at rush-hour levels and not optimal levels. The lower the level of utilization, the faster delivery of value will happen.
However, sometimes low utilization can lead to too much downtime. The trick is to find the sweet spot and let employees stay there. Keep in mind that the sweet spot may differ from person to person and from team to team, so don’t be afraid to try multiple configurations of work until you find the optimal flow of value. Your goal is to deliver value when they can use it — not too early, and never too late.
While my professional framework is applying Agile principles in a modern software delivery context, the idea of stressing value over utilization works in many life situations. After all, in today’s world of hybrid work, employees are already thinking this way, and they expect to be treated accordingly.
When employers use Agile principles and allow people to work at a sustainable pace, employees, customers and the business are all happier. Everyone gets what they need when they need it, and no one is stressed about 100 percent utilization.