Ever since I brought my team together, I’ve been on a constant quest for improvement. Optimizing our work processes, speeding up deliveries, finding ways to engage and motivate the team, just name it. It’s been a continuous journey right from the very beginning.

Over time, recognizing and addressing team productivity issues has become second nature. But, how do you reach that level of experience? What methods can help you uncover the obstacles affecting your predictability and stay focused on the most critical issues?

Today, I’d like to share the approach we use at Nave to identify team productivity issues and prioritize our improvement efforts. The best part? It only takes three steps.

How to Optimize Your Key Productivity Metrics

Let’s go back to the basics. The ultimate goal we all have is to improve time to market by reducing our cycle time.

And here is a little-known fact every head of engineering should be aware of:

The average age of WIP and cycle time are essentially the exact same thing, only cycle time is measured against completed tasks, whereas the age of a task is a measure concerning tasks that are still in progress.

The cycle time metric alone doesn’t consider your existing work in progress. Even if you maintain a consistently low average cycle time, if your tasks linger in your process, your average cycle time will increase over time. Your team productivity will gradually go down, that’s why it’s essential to watch the trends of your WIP average age and compare it regularly with your average cycle time.

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When you make sure that you manage your WIP average age and keep it consistent, you directly affect all other productivity metrics: cycle time, throughput, and flow efficiency.

What’s the Real Deal with Managing WIP Average Age?

So what does it actually mean to manage the average age of WIP?

It means that the ticket with the highest WIP age is your priority.

It means that your team commits to moving this work item through the process quickly. If it gets stuck, they investigate the cause. If it’s assigned to someone who’s unavailable or has a third-party dependency, they step in to address the issue (or escalate it if they can’t control it!).

Managing WIP average age means that if a task turns out to be more complex than expected, they break it into smaller pieces while preserving the concept of customer value. If that’s not possible, more team members join in to speed things up.

The main idea is to reduce the WIP average age by addressing tasks that are artificially aging in your workflow.

And the Aging Chart is your best friend here.

Use the Aging Chart by Nave to identify team productivity issues

There are two widgets on the Aging Chart that you’d like to pay attention to – the WIP and Average Age WIP trends.

The top-left WIP widget displays the number of tasks in progress and their trends, while the WIP Average Age widget shows the average age of those tasks.

The key here is consistency.

If your WIP and your average age of WIP remain consistent, your overall performance will go up.

3 Steps to Revealing Team Productivity Issues

Now that we’ve covered the basics, I’ll show the process we use to identify team productivity issues internally that help us continuously improve our workflows.

Step #1: Identify Significant Changes in Your Work In Progress Trends

Now, let’s burn some rubber and analyze the following example.

How to identify significant changes in your work in progress trends

By simply hovering over the WIP average age trendline, you can see the average age of WIP for each day within your chosen time frame. For example, on Aug 27th, the WIP age was 8 days, quite above the typical range. However, by Aug 29th, it returned to its usual levels, indicating the issue was addressed.

Now, what we want to know is what the problem was and what caused it in the first place.

Step #2: Single Out Work Items Leading to Deviations

We’d like to better understand what stands behind that high average age of WIP. To do that, we should go back to Aug 27th and analyze what the board looked like back then. Here’s where the “Aging replay” control proves to be quite useful.

How to single out work items leading to deviations

The “Aging replay” control is located at the top of the Controls section on the right sidebar. It allows you to set a specific date in the past as your reference point, letting you see how your work items were progressing on that date.

On Aug 27th, we noticed an item in the Development stage that spent considerably more time there than 85% of the completed items we’ve handled so far. This was a productivity issue and it has had an adverse effect on our WIP average age.

Here’s my point: When we let work linger in the process, it not only makes it harder to meet our commitments but also makes our delivery times more unpredictable. The more unpredictable our delivery times are, the less reliable our system becomes.

Step #3: Analyze the Root Cause of the Problem

Now that we’ve figured out the item causing team productivity issues, it’s time to take action to prevent a similar situation in the future.

Start by examining the work and digging deep to find out why it got delayed. You can use the “5 Whys” approach for this. Collaborate with your team to brainstorm ways to reduce the risk of future delays.

Most of the time, it’s about making minor adjustments to how you manage your work. This could involve creating new explicit process policies or updating existing ones. Whatever changes you make, ensure that everyone is on the same page and establish them as the new standard, so you don’t face this issue again.

In this specific example, we discovered that the work item was held up due to a legal team dependency, causing the delay. To tackle this, we decided to implement a dynamic reservation system to handle dependencies more efficiently.

To learn more about how to establish dynamic reservation systems and ​​explore the proven roadmap to optimize your workflows for predictability, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program!

Here is your action item: During your next retrospective, follow these three steps to identify team productivity issues and areas for improvement. Create an action plan (remember, always take it one small step at a time) and make a snapshot of your current flow metrics.

Implement your action plan and closely monitor how the changes are affecting your team’s performance. Start your next retrospective by checking the results and comparing the metrics from before and after your initiative.

If you’ve achieved your productivity goals, consider making these changes a standard practice. However, if the initiative falls short, take the time to troubleshoot and figure out what went wrong. Brainstorm alternatives, and then, repeat the process.

Remember, improvement is an ongoing journey. You’re building a system that continuously optimizes for predictability and consistent business outcomes.

That’s it for today, my friend. By following these steps, you’ll be able to quickly identify team productivity issues and take immediate action to drive positive change.

Thanks for checking in with me. I’m excited to see you again next Thursday, same time and place, for more action-packed managerial insights. Bye for now!

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