Optimizing individuals’ idle time contradicts the optimization of the flow of work.

The cornerstone of achieving predictable delivery systems is aligning teams’ capability with business demand. The most efficient way to get things done is to only start as much work as the team is capable of handling at any one time.

Delivering results in a predictable manner is a team effort, not an individual’s effort. There are a lot of moving parts and effective collaboration is crucial. What this means is that, in order to minimize the overall idle time in their workflow, some team members will have to remain idle.

Essentially, when our system operates at full capacity, we don’t want to start new work, even if there are individuals who are available to do so. Now, we get that this might sound counterintuitive.

In fact, if we do, we will overload the system and delay everything that has already been started. Remember, it’s a team effort. Everyone in the team is dependent on each other, and if one team member is free and starts new work, this directly results in overburdening the rest of the team. Hence, we will artificially delay the delivery of the remaining work in progress.

Much like a highway, an individuals’ idle time is a vital part of ensuring a smoothly flowing, efficient system. What is the effect of a traffic jam? It causes a long line of bumper-to-bumper cars with nowhere to go. During times of high traffic congestion, would it make sense to put more cars on the road?

Managers often feel like it’s necessary to fill individuals’ idle time with more work. However, that action creates a traffic jam of work items in progress. Eventually, the system becomes clogged with work that has been started, but not finished.

Individuals’ idle time is needed to keep the focus on finishing incomplete work rather than starting new work.

Idle Hands Are Anxiety’s Playthings?

Enabling individuals’ idle time definitely feels uncomfortable at first. As managers, we want to make sure that we are making the most out of our investment. On the other hand, workers fear idle time as well. If they are not busy all the time, does this mean their job is at risk?

Let me tell you what idle time isn’t. Idle time isn’t browsing through social media all morning. Idle time isn’t having a 3-hour lunch break. Idle time isn’t really idle.

If leveraged appropriately, it has the potential to improve your delivery speed even further and become a strong engagement booster.

How to Bring Purpose to Individuals’ Idle Time

The worst thing your teammates can do when they’re idle is to start new work. Setting and managing WIP limits on your system should prevent that behavior.

In order to make the most out of idle time, you must define explicit policies on what people should do when they are not able to pull a new work item into the delivery workflow. These policies need to benefit both your workers and your business.

Let’s explore a few approaches that will enable you to improve the flow of work, spark team motivation and build dedication.

Use Idle Time to Increase Your Delivery Speed

The first and most important thing an idle teammate has to do when the WIP limits have been reached is to go through the cards on the Kanban board, starting from right to left.

They should look for items that are not assigned to anyone, any issues that need to be fixed (even if they are not assigned to them), anything that’s waiting for code review or implement feedback from code review. Blocked work items or items with a high age of work in progress should have top priority, so they don’t get delayed any further.

Is it possible to pair up with someone else to finish outstanding work faster? Pair programming has huge benefits in terms of collaboration and knowledge sharing and usually results in high-quality deliverables.

Use Idle Time to Enable Opportunities for Improvement and Innovation

If there is literally nothing that can be handled, in our company, the main activities that team members do are related to either learning and growth, process improvement or innovative thinking. Let’s explore each of them in more detail.

Learning & Growth

Providing opportunities for learning and growth is the core of our organizational culture. Here at Nave, we keep a library of shared resources, which are contextually related to what we’re doing as a business.

When idle team members are not able to work on the outstanding tasks, they dig into the shared resources and either read an article from the Nave’s blog, watch a webinar, listen to a podcast, or attend a digital course. We’ve covered topics related to Kanban, Product Management, Leadership, and Metrics & Analytics, just to name a few.

Providing opportunities to improve development skills and expertise is a strong motivational booster.

Process Improvement

Each and every person spends their entire day within their process and they know the ins and outs of the activities that the team performs. As such, they are the people who know best what works and what doesn’t work.

As time passes, teams change the way they collaborate with each other, they spot the impediments they have to deal with, and so they are in the best position to suggest opportunities for improvement. We use individuals’ idle time to collect a handful of ideas to optimize our workflows and define actions to make sure we improve in a continuous manner.

Innovative Thinking

Developers love to create! Apart from cranking out code for our customer’s ideas, we enable them to share their own suggestions on how to develop our product further. We have a pool of ideas on how to improve the system and what features would fit nicely within our strategy. During our Replenishment meetings, we reserve slots in our To-Do list and pull from these ideas.

Last but not least, idle time can be used for R&D. Developers are passionate about exploring new technologies. Often, even if an idea might not initially seem relevant, it turns out to become a breakthrough for the company. Let your team experiment!

That way, we bring the expertise of the entire company together to shape the direction of our business. Furthermore, this practice has proved to be an extremely successful retention approach.

Enable individual’s idle time to improve your delivery speed and preserve the predictability of your workflow. By leveraging the benefits idle time provides, you can effectively build an environment of continuous improvement, in which motivation, engagement and dedication thrive.

If you’re interested in learning more about the principles and practices of achieving sustainable delivery of customer value, I’d be thrilled to welcome you to our Sustainable Predictability program.

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