More often than not, it’s well-meaning – teams analyze their processes to identify their next improvement initiative. They set a goal and put a metric as a threshold to achieve that goal.

More often than not though, they become so focused on hitting the target on that one metric that they lose sight of the big picture.

And while, yes, they’re making strides in making progress on their goal – often those boosts are happening at the expense of other even more important indicators.

That’s the challenge with taking a narrow focus on individual Kanban metrics. While one may improve, it’s often at the expense of others.

In this article, we’ll dive into the challenges of narrow focus, including strategies for avoiding falling into this trap. By zooming out to the big picture, you’ll be better equipped to think holistically, communicate, and constantly improve.

Putting the Pieces – And the Metrics – Together

I remember teaching my back in the day 3-year old son how to put together a puzzle. We started with the perimeter, and I showed him how to find and connect pieces with straight edges. It seemed like a good beginner strategy.

As he started to collect and connect pieces, I realized he was following my instruction to a fault – in attempting to build out the frame of the puzzle, he was so narrow-focused, completely ignoring the colors, patterns, and shapes of the pieces. He was just looking for straight edges and trying to force the pieces to come together.

Of course, it wasn’t long before frustration set in. He was discouraged and ready to tear apart the few sections he had successfully assembled. So we paused and took a step back to look at the bigger picture – not just the edges but everything that went into putting this puzzle together.

We’ve all been there. And it’s something I often see when teams are just getting started with Kanban metrics.

The Problem with Narrow Focus

Often people focus so narrowly on individual Kanban metrics that they overlook that 50,000-foot view.

To get the most out of Kanban it’s essential to understand not just how individual metrics connect but how each ladders back to your overall objective. No metric should be tracked in isolation.

Way too often we fall into this less-than-productive pattern. Let’s say that your teams get very narrow focused and only consider improving throughput and their goal is to complete as many tasks as possible.

While productivity is important, when you’re narrowly focused on quantity it’s very likely the quality of your work will start to suffer. As you rush through tasks just to hit your quota, it’s hard to maintain the same standards and attention to detail as when you’re deeply focused.

In this case, as you’re producing more work, your narrow focus is actually hurting your progress rather than helping it. You’re not considering the quality of your work or how each task impacts your customer’s goals. Instead, you’re only concerned with hitting a specific threshold.

That said, increasing your throughput is a great goal – I’m definitely not discouraging you or your team from boosting your throughput. But I am saying you need to consider that goal in context.

  • Are you completing tasks that are truly important?
  • Do those tasks contribute to your customers’ success?
  • Are you sacrificing quality for quantity?

It’s important not to become too narrowly focused on the numbers. Instead, take a step back and consider how each metric relates to the larger picture, and adjust your approach accordingly.

3 Strategies for Avoiding Falling into the Narrow-Focus Trap

Let’s reveal three strategies that will help you make progress towards your objectives.

#1 Consider the Bigger Picture

Instead of focusing solely on individual Kanban metrics, take a step back and look at the larger process. Consider how each metric impacts the others and how they all work together.

Doing things right doesn’t mean you’re doing the right things. Tracking throughput is great but if it turns out the features you’re releasing aren’t being utilized by your customers as much as anticipated, you need to take a beat and zoom out.

Your team may want to analyze end-user feedback and conduct user acceptance testing to understand what your clients really want. Even if this means tweaking your existing prioritization mechanism.

And if that change results in lower throughput and longer cycle times in the short term, that’s okay because it ultimately leads to a better outcome.

#2 Communicate Effectively

Let’s say that your team is focused on increasing the throughput metric. They’re working to complete as many tasks as possible in a short amount of time until – spoiler alert! – their narrow focus sets them back.

Yes, until that point the team was making progress. However, they quickly realized that, while the number of tasks completed increased, the cycle time did not decrease as expected.

Your team will only be able to dig into the actual problem through effective communication and collaboration – and when they do, they’ll likely discover certain tasks are being prioritized at the expense of others. This almost always leads to delays in overall delivery speed.

This is a perfect example of flow debt. Any shift in priorities, deviation in the management focus, or other mid-process interruption can generate flow debt.

Delaying work is, often, the less costly effect of flow debt. More crucial? Flow debt can have a negative impact on the predictability of your delivery workflow and makes your forecasts less accurate.

Once the team has identified the root cause of the problem, they can experiment with different approaches to improve their predictability, for example introducing explicit policies on how items of different priorities should move through their delivery system.

Communication and collaboration are key to any successful team. Sharing information, discussing problems, and working together to find opportunities for improvement will ultimately help them head towards the same goal.

#3 Continuously Improve

Let’s say your team is solely focused on improving throughput and, as a result, they’ve been steadily increasing the number of tasks completed each week. However, their cycle time has also increased. Perhaps the team even realizes their prioritization process needs improvement, or they need to re-evaluate the way they manage their work once it’s already in progress.

By simply being aware of these facts, teams are broadening their focus beyond just throughput and considering the impact of their actions on metrics.

Over time, as the team continues to use Kanban and identify areas for improvement, they can make small evolutionary changes to their process that drive a better overall outcome.

Encourage teams to experiment to identify what works and what doesn’t. Metrics are important but they should not be the sole focus. Use them as a guide to help you make more reliable, more informed decisions.

Here is today’s action item: Now that you understand the importance of a big-picture view, I want to hear from you. Let me know which metrics you track. Send me DM on Linkedin. I’ll be personally following up with each and everyone so, once you message, keep an eye on your inbox.

Thanks for spending time with me today and be sure to share this article if you find it valuable. I’m excited to tune in with you on Thursday, same time and place, for more action-packed managerial insights. Bye for now!

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