How to Reduce Cycle Times to Boost Customer Satisfaction and Build a More Productive Workforce
The cycle times of your workflow is the period required for a product team to develop and deliver a valuable outcome to a customer. There are two things that are important here – how quickly the customer needs the results to be ready, and how much time it takes your product team to develop and deliver them. To that end, it refers to the synchronization between the requirements of the customer and what your internal processes can achieve.
Although product quality should always come first, reducing cycle times remains a key priority for manufacturers, software developers, and other organizations. Not only are customers setting ever-stricter deadlines – but there’s also the internal need to optimize efficiency and, therefore, maximize profitability. Shorter cycle times lead to faster innovation, greater customer satisfaction, and substantial savings.
To reduce cycle times, teams need a system that maximizes productivity and delivers value quickly without leading to burnout. Using the Kanban method, you’ll be able to streamline workflows. As a visual collaboration platform that gives teams perspective on projects, Trello is great to implement Kanban. With the addition of data-driven analytics, you can use Trello to communicate and coordinate your projects more effectively.
Set Clear Goals with Well Defined User Stories
User stories aren’t about product specifications – they’re outlines of the desired outcome, expressed from the user’s perspective. It’s a continuous process of research, discovery, delivery, communication, and testing. Since the number-one priority for product teams is to deliver value to the customer in as little time as possible, they need to have a thorough understanding of what the customer wants to achieve. If your user stories are vague or overly generalized, they’ll be open to misinterpretation, which will lead to miscommunication and, thus increase cycle times. Instead, product teams need to have a good understanding of what they should be focussing on.
With clearly defined user stories, teams can better identify the fastest way to deliver and minimize the risk of miscommunication. To that end, a user story should specify the type of user, what they want to achieve, and the reason they want to achieve it. However, for more complex scenarios, the overall user story might be too complicated for a team to complete in one go, in which case, you’ll want to break it down into smaller and more specific stories. For example, a customer might want to be able to execute payments through your mobile app. Perhaps, then, the first cycle could focus on the goal of integrating credit card payments with the app. That way, your customer ends up with a viable solution before you start working on integrating more payment methods. This helps teams define clear goals and maintain their focus, thus reducing cycle times.
Prevent Overburden by Introducing a Pull System
A combination of backlogs, tight deadlines, and a lack of limits on work in progress is a sure-fire way to stifle productivity and morale. Team burnout can ultimately lead to compromises in product quality and wastage of resources. Preventing overburden is a key priority in any solid project-management routine. A Kanban pull system lets you implement techniques that increase productivity and speed up task-delivery by ensuring that the team only takes on work when they have the capacity to do so.
A Kanban pull system is a simple yet effective mechanism that controls the flow of work through the system. This is the opposite of a push system, in which project managers are constantly pushing work onto the team without considering their capacity. When using Kanban, you’ll define workflow steps based on each product-development stage. While these vary depending on the project or industry, a software-development process might define the following steps:
- To do
- Code review
Tasks move from the backlog or to-do list at the left-most side of the board before going through each stage until it reaches the ‘done’ stage at the right-most column. The Kanban Method enables a pull system for preventing overburden, cycle times become shorter and more predictable.
Enable Self-Managed Teams with Process Policies
While Trello is great for Kanban projects, the true secret to successful implementation is adding process policies. This lets your team determine which is the most effective way to maintain the workflow. It’s not just about defining the procedures either – it also considers how people interact with one another and work as a team. Using the first-come-first-served approach, product teams pull tasks from the top of the work-in-progress columns on the board so that they always end up working on the tasks that arrive first in every process state. Every new task that arrives should go at the bottom of each state so that the oldest task remains on top and, therefore, gets processed first. This helps ensure that teams follow the order of the tasks, instead of just choosing the easiest or quickest tasks.
Process policies help reduce flow debt, which is having tasks delivered faster at one point, but at the cost of slower cycle times later. By minimizing flow debt, teams can reduce waiting times in their processes and boost the overall cycle times.
Eliminate Multitasking by Applying Limits to Work in Progress
One of the most powerful things about the Kanban system is that it requires you to limit work in progress by having teams focus on one task at a time. By contrast, multitasking leads to reduced productivity and output quality. In fact, a study by the University of London found that regular multitasking can substantially reduce a person’s cognitive ability. While it might sound counterintuitive, multitasking actually increases cycle times.
By using an Aging chart for Trello, you can track current tasks in progress. It will help you identify tasks that are taking longer than average to complete. Too much work in progress will be easily identifiable by clusters of dots in the chart, while longer cycle times are characterized by those crossing higher percentile lines. Using analytics to keep track of cycle times lets you define more realistic WIP limits that eliminate multitasking and reduce the time required to provide valuable output to your customers.
Stop Starting and Start Finishing by Maintaining a Stable System
Any successful project-management process is largely defined by its ability to avoid bottlenecks. In other words, you want to have tasks entering the workflow at around the same speed as they leave it. You can use the Cumulative Flow Diagram to measure the arrival and departure rates in your workflow. The goal here is ultimately to avoid starting more work than you finish or, as the popular quote goes ‘stop starting and start finishing’.
Equal arrival and departure times are a prerequisite for the queuing theory called Little’s Law. In Kanban, it is expressed by WIP = Cycle Time * Throughput. This formula will balance out since a change to work in progress will cause cycle times to change and keep obeying the law. By maintaining a consistent workflow and preventing bottlenecks, project teams will be better equipped to avoid unexpected increases in cycle times.
Apply, Evaluate and Improve
You can’t expect to reduce cycle times overnight – it’s part of an ongoing process of continuous improvement. By reviewing the results and implementing lessons learned through regular Kanban meetings (also known as cadences), your team will be better equipped to learn from past failures and make positive, incremental changes.
Using the Cycle Time Scatterplot lets you easily spot tasks being left idle and estimate the time it takes for a single task to be completed. If, for example, there are tasks that took too long to complete, they’ll appear higher up the chart as outliers clearly distinguishable from the rest.
You can use the Cycle Time Histogram to assess your team’s performance by observing average cycle times and how trends build over time. If the values are going up, then you might need to reevaluate your work-in-progress limits and/or alter your process policies. Regular reviewing and reevaluating your process will help you continuously improve your cycle times.
Ultimately, that’s what the Kanban Method is all about – helping teams achieve continuous improvement and reduce cycle times through well-managed workflows. The result? More productive employees and happier customers.
Are long cycle times holding your business back? By following these tips and integrating data-driven analytics into your process, you will be able to deliver value to your customers faster.
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.
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