Integrated work management and systems thinking are two sides of the same coin. Since constraints govern the rate at which systems deliver value, the imperative, if maximising value is your goal, is to know the whole – that is, the system – but focus on the constraint.
This is Part 2 in the series on Work Management | Read Part 1: Work is Work
[ Read online | Listen to audio version, read by David Hodes]
You cannot know the whole if you are not constantly integrating the parts which contribute to system performance. This knowing includes all work within your span of control as well as that within your sphere of influence. Even the most powerful CEO, with a span of control across the enterprise, has to face a range of stakeholders they must influence, including their board of directors, the regulators, critical suppliers and, of course, the customers.
The primary challenge is knowing where to place your attention. You might have a reasonable idea based on experience and intuition. But trusting your intuition has its limits. We need to be far more empirical, and empiricism depends on data.
But, is data enough?
What is data anyway, other than an often vast collection of records, usually stored on a computer that in and of itself has no discernible value. Data becomes interesting and of value when we use it to provide answers to powerful questions. The results we get from the answers to these questions we call information. From the right information we get to develop understanding and ultimately act in ways that are wise.
In the world of integrated work management, you would expect to see a range of tools and technologies facilitating the systems view. Large ERP systems, mapped-out processes, readily available quick reference guides (QRGs), integration of data sources through APIs (application programming interfaces) and automated ETL (extract, transform and load) routines.
The more mature the organisation, the more its leaders will invest in learning programs to develop competency in the use of its theories, methods, and tools. New starters will be properly inducted into the systems-oriented operating philosophy, including ways of working contained in a well-thought-out calendar of rhythms and routines.
Performance measurement and management will ensure everyone knows how their part contributes to the whole. They are trained in how to use the power of information to support effective sense- and decision-making. Reporting is available in real time and mobile applications take timely and relevant information all the way to and from every work front.
There is clear visibility of status and constraints across enterprise functions, which empowers managers to troubleshoot situations in real time. For example, challenges in production will lead to a decrease in the required volume of processing, transportation, and shipping work over the next month. Resources from those areas are prospectively planned to assist in resolving the production issue and hence mitigate variance to the committed production forecasts.
Likewise, in the world of projects, there is a clear line of sight from pre-feasibility all the way through to commissioning and handover. High-level integrated workplans provide visibility into progress towards critical milestones, whereas detailed, decomposed executable schedules provide the means by which the work is managed to deliver high confidence due-date performance.
Vendors usually play a critical part in the universe of work undertaken by any enterprise. Thus, to get closer to the ideal of integrated work management, you would expect to see increasing levels of interaction and automation between the owner and vendor systems for work planning and control. For example, vendors could be empowered to populate assignments directly into the owner’s systems and manage requisitions for variation orders on labour plans. Providing the resource types are normalised between the vendor and the owner, there would be an increasing capability to measure load against capacity and find the constraints.
With the advent of ubiquitous mobile devices, people (employees, vendors and contractors) can use those devices to tap on and tap off (TOTO) at the work front with their supervisors. This application of integrated mobile apps creates clear visibility into who is working on a particular project at a particular time—including their qualifications, safety, and security clearances.
In such a world, anyone can move seamlessly between work fronts without the usual friction of justifying and recording the move from one cost centre to another. Time and costs are easily allocated to multiple cost centres spanning any of the different functions of the enterprise. People can be deployed to where they are needed in response to emergent circumstances. Supervisor handovers for safety and cost accountability are frictionless.
“People can be deployed to where they are needed in response to emergent circumstances”
By way of example, you may have a contractor with expired qualifications who turns up to do a piece of work. The supervisor is accountable for upholding the safety regime. If there is an incident, they will carry the can. In the world of integrated work management, the contractor’s credentials are fed from the learning management system (LMS) and they are prevented from working there and then by the supervisor, reducing risk for them and those around them.
Such a world of integrated work management allows the owner to generate what we would call a reverse service entry sheet. That is, they don’t wait for the vendors to submit a claim, but instead guarantee that they will pay what is on their auto-generated service entry sheet since they are the custodians of a single source of truth for all work completed—by person, charge rate, time, and place.
Such integration allows for an immediate reconciliation of absenteeism on the day of operation, which in turn allows for instantaneous reprioritisation of people who are present. Everything I have written of above is in service of much-enhanced tactical agility. That is, given real-time information about the supply of and demand for resources, they can be rapidly assigned to where they will make the most difference for the day’s safety, costs, and volume.
If we think about the longer horizon, we concern ourselves with portfolio selection and the release of projects into the execution pipeline. Portfolio selection is predicated on available capacity. Release into the execution pipeline is governed by the quantitatively established constraint and the contribution of the given project per unit of consumption of that constraint (project octane). Using structured data to integrate the capacity we have in our resource pool with the demand articulated in our work schedules gives us the crucial ability to optimise the value of our portfolio.
In the integrated work management paradigm, information is ubiquitous and good enough to support effective sense- and decision-making. There is a well-defined resource taxonomy, with structured master data on both the supply and demand sides. Finite schedules are developed to an enterprise standard, accounting for duration, common cause variation, dependencies, and resource requirements. Having both the demand and supply sides of the work articulated in a standardised way allows for the rapid, data-driven identification, optimisation and elevation of bottlenecks.
Decision-making is distributed and stratified. Position assignments put named people into budgeted positions, matching resource type and other role conditions such as H&S certifications. Managers can use the integrated systems to readily compute load versus capacity for people and resource types over time and in places, enabling the identification of the system constraint.
The posture of such an organisation is highly responsive to the organisational context. Enablers such as tap on and tap off to the supervisor, at the work front, means that we can instantly generate insight into the prioritisation of work at the portfolio, program, project or operational levels. Indeed, one can readily run alternate scenarios and model the business impact to support intelligent and wise decisions.
“The system we currently have is perfectly designed to give us the results we currently get”
In the world of integrated work management, the trend is your friend. Revenue, margins, speed to market, due date dependability and quality will be on the upward trajectory. Lead times will be reduced, as will inventory, work in process, rework, OPEX and unit costs.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, systems thinking and integration are two sides of the same coin. Thus, to deliver on the promise of integrated work management, there is a demand on the senior leaders, as custodians of the system, to craft the story of why it is important for everyone to do the work of better integrating their system of work. After all, the system we currently have is perfectly designed to give us the results we currently get. And, if those results do a disservice to our naturally endowed potential, our sense of the brevity of life and our limited opportunities to make it better should act as a motivator for us to individually and collectively engage in the change-up to a better way to do better work.
A foundational idea of systems thinking is that if you are not part of the problem, you cannot be part of the solution. After all, we do not exist outside of the system in which our intervention will make a difference. A compelling narrative that aligns our personal sense of purpose with the mission of the organisation can act as inspiration for undertaking the hard work required to follow the path of relentlessly integrating the people, processes and technologies that turn our highest and most noble intentions into reality sooner rather than later.
The change to using Theory of Constraints (TOC) as an underlying operating system is both profound and exhilarating. We’ve developed the Systems Thinker Course to bring the ideas into your organisation.
[Background image: Network, Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash]
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