How to Move Fast at Scale, part 2: Focus

Introduction

Speed and the challenges of scaling

The inevitable challenge that all successful start-ups face is the need to scale effectively. There are many elements to this, one of which is how to stay agile at scale. In a small company of 10, 20, 30 people, agility comes naturally. It gets much harder to maintain this speed as your company grows.

But, why does speed matter?

  1. Speed enables you to realise value sooner
  2. Speed reduces the time it takes to learn how to meet your customers’ needs; this reduces investment in products and services your customers don’t want. This means you can maximise the time and effort spent on delivering the products and services your customers do want, thereby increasing your ROI.

So how do you maintain speed as your business grows? There are 3 key elements to remaining agile at scale:

  • Alignment
  • Focus
  • Autonomy

In this short series of articles I’ll cover each of these areas separately. This instalment will explore how focus increases speed. You can find part 1 on Alignment here, and part 3 on Autonomy here.

The power of focus

Focus is the superpower that all businesses possess but few deploy. It is a superpower because it enables you to move faster. Put simply, focus means doing fewer things simultaneously. The more initiatives you run in parallel, the longer each takes.

Consider this simple scenario. You have two objectives, A and B, and a team of six people to achieve them. You could decide to split the team across both objectives and pursue them simultaneously.

Alternatively you could tackle them sequentially with the entire team focusing on completing objective A before moving to objective B.

In the first option both objectives take long to achieve as each has fewer people to work on it.

In the second option, the first objective is achieved sooner. This increases the speed of delivery and realises value sooner. What’s more, this release of value continues to accumulate as you tackle objective B.

The impact of delays

The scenario above demonstrates the benefit of focus in its simplest terms. The less visible impact of focus is in reducing delays. Delays occur when too many initiatives are in flight and effort and attention is divided between them.

In Lean Enterprise, O’Reilly, Molesky and Humble refer to an example from Maersk. In this case a feature that took just 82 hours to complete took a total of 46 weeks to deliver end to end.

Impact of delays on end to end delivery time

As you can see, the man hours involved were relatively low, but the delays dramatically increased the delivery time.

So why did the delays occur? One possibility is that people simply sat idle for weeks at a time. The more likely explanation is that the delays occurred because multiple features were in play, and time and effort continually switched between them. Delays were introduced as attention shifted from one feature to another.

Limiting work in progress (WIP)

Delays increase the time it takes to deliver. Limiting work in progress (WIP) aims to reduce these delays by ensuring effort can be focused on completing one initiative before undertaking another. The aim is to stop starting and start finishing. WIP limits help to keep delivery time as close as possible to the actual man hours involved, reducing delays to a minimum.

The concept of limiting work in progress comes from the Toyota Production System (TPS) which in turn has heavily influenced both the principles of lean manufacturing and lean software development. Toyota sought to optimise for flow efficiency (speed) over resource efficiency (being busy). They recognised that optimising for resource efficiency created bottlenecks which resulted in delays and these delays reduced speed.

Optimising for speed by limiting WIP was one measure of the TPS that enabled Toyota to produce better quality cars faster and cheaper than rival General Motors. GM’s cars took 50% more time to develop, required 3 times as many engineering hours, were substantially lower quality and more expensive to produce.

Limiting WIP is a counterintuitive concept, but as Toyota proved, it has a dramatic effect on speed.

Conclusion

Focus increases the speed at which you deliver products and services by concentrating efforts on a minimal number of priorities and reducing delays.

Achieving focus requires the discipline to ruthlessly prioritise. There will always be more things to do than there are people to do them. Developing a robust process to prioritise will always be valuable and ensure effort is focused where it is most valuable.

Understanding your capacity will also help you to avoid initiative overload. This is where aligning teams around missions can help — the act of defining missions forces the need to identify priorities. Defining the teams that will achieve these missions will surface bottlenecks by exposing areas where capacity is low.

Are you looking to scale your business? I am a Business Agility Coach & Consultant helping organisations to grow, scale and deliver value fast.

Find out more at betterfasterhappier.com

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Amanda Colpoys

Amanda Colpoys

Business Agility Coach & Consultant supporting organisations to grow, innovate and deliver value quickly at scale.