The 100% Utilization Paradox: How to Achieve Optimal Workflow Efficiency All While Relieving Team Overburden
Avoiding a 100% utilization of your employees’ time is the only way to achieve 100% workflow utilization.
Your delivery speed and the predictability of your systems depend on how efficiently you’re managing the flow of work. Even though it sounds counterintuitive, achieving maximum utilization of the time your work spends in your process all boils down to enabling individuals’ idle time.
When the motivation is to keep workers busy, we actually tend to get very close to reaching that goal. The problem with it is that, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing we’re optimizing for – busy people.
We don’t get paid for being 100% utilized. We get paid for delivering results and realizing business outcomes. So, we need to be striving for efficient delivery workflows.
What’s the problem with aiming to have both? You might wonder, doesn’t 100% of individuals’ utilization actually lead to a 100% workflow utilization?
It doesn’t. In fact, utilizing every minute of your individuals’ time will land you in some hot water. Here’s why.
Utilization Of 100% Of Individuals’ Time Contradicts the Optimization of Your Workflow Efficiency
When your workers are busy all the time, they start more new work. Starting more work takes the focus away from finishing outstanding work. It leads to multitasking, context switching, excessive demand, stress, overburden and delayed deliveries, just to name a few.
Delivering results is a collaborative effort. Individual contribution is not what matters. The cornerstone of reaching optimal workflow utilization is to work on as many items as the team, as a whole, is capable of handling at any one time. Introducing WIP limits in your workflow is crucial for maintaining the balance between demand and capacity.
Once the WIP limit is reached, no new work should be pulled in to preserve the efficiency of your delivery system. This means that there will, inevitably, be people that will stay idle until an outstanding work item is delivered.
How to Overcome the Need for a 100% Utilization of Your Employees’ Time
So, how can we get around the vicious practice of utilizing 100% of our workers’ time, to be able to optimize our workflow efficiency? The trick is to shift the perspective.
Embrace the Concept of Individuals’ Idle Time
You need your team members to have idle time, in order to make small long-term improvements and achieve an efficient workflow. Remember, you shouldn’t manage workers, you should manage the flow of work.
Idle time is the time that’s necessary to reduce stress levels and decrease the chance of burning out. Let your team learn new skills and try out new tools. Personal growth sparks motivation. And motivated teams will be more dedicated to your company. As time passes, and one small improvement leads to another, your team will become more efficient, self-managed and engaged.
All of your management practices have to be made explicit. This approach will not only provide a blueprint of how the team should handle different scenarios as they’re making progress, but it also sets a foundation to improve upon. As you optimize your workflows, your explicit policies evolve as well, and everyone is on the same page about how the work should move through their process. Idle time’s policies don’t make an exception.
Introduce explicit policies outlining what idle team members should do. Enabling individuals’ idle time doesn’t mean that you extend 4-hour lunch breaks or you enable social media browsing all day long. Idle time isn’t really idle.
To sparkle some creative ideas, I highly encourage you to explore our strategies of leveraging idle time, which will help you increase your business capabilities and enable an environment of continuous improvement.
Strive for a 100% Workflow Utilization
Aim to achieve optimal workflow utilization. Your team is most efficient when the demand is aligned with their capability. And the easiest way to maintain that balance is to keep your WIP consistent. This is where the Cumulative Flow Diagram comes in handy.
The top line of the Cumulative Flow Diagram represents the arrival rate of tasks, while the bottom line shows their departures. The vertical distance between the top and the bottom lines indicates all work in progress.
If WIP is decreasing, the distance between the lines will start shrinking. This means work is being completed faster than it arrives. It’s a signal that you have the capacity to handle more work.
If WIP is increasing, then the distance between the lines will expand. This means that the arrival rate is higher than the departure rate, and so it denotes excessive demand. Your team is struggling with the workload and their delivery speed is slowing down.
To maintain the balance between demand and capacity, strive to keep your WIP
as consistent as possible. If the WIP is consistent, your arrival rate and departure rate
lines will grow in sync. When the distance between the lines stays equal, this means that your workflow is fully utilized and operates at an optimal level. This is the state in which you’re making the most out of your investment.
Furthermore, as long as WIP is consistent and the average age of WIP is consistent, you are maintaining a stable system. The more stable your system is, the more predictable it becomes.
If you’re striving to build a stable delivery system and achieve consistent predictable business outcomes, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program.
100% utilization of our employee’s time comes with a high price. Enabling idle time for our teammates is the ultimate approach to delivering results faster, improving the quality of our work and making the most out of our investment.
Switch your focus to managing the work and let your teams self-organize around it. Use the Cumulative Flow Diagram to evaluate the utilization of your workflow and strive to sustain consistent work in progress.
Businesses that empower autonomous teams are much more successful than those that try to utilize individuals’ every minute. That’s exactly the sort of mindset that leaders need to inspire their teams and ultimately build a culture of success, in which business outcomes are constantly improving.
Meet the Author
Sonya Siderova is a passionate product manager and a driving force behind Nave, a Kanban analytics suite that helps teams improve their delivery speed through data-driven decision making. When she's not catering to her two little ones, you might find Sonya absorbed in a good heavyweight boxing match or behind a screen crafting a new blog post.