The value of having a Single Pipeline of work

The Problem

Organisations often have extremely high demand that they try to service simultaneously.

This picture might give you a sense of the problem organisations typically deal with. When the freeway is full of traffic we don’t get much flow, things slow down to near gridlock. Think about your journey to work, when the freeway is full how long does it take to get to your destination?

The drive to meet demand (starting things early), increases the number of items we work on, and that slows us down.

Additionally, with more cars on the freeway – the ‘solution’ is often to allocate many work items to individuals (often expressed as a percentage of their capacity). This ignores the very real cost of context switching, further exasperating the problem.

Organisations tend to focus on resource efficiency instead of flow efficiency – to their detriment as the cost of work not moving is higher than having spare capacity (which should be used to drive continuous improvement, which is a multiplier as it increases flow for all).

How does the Single Pipeline help?

The Single Pipeline allows an organisation to better manage the flow of traffic on the freeway much like Perth’s new Smart Freeway. Limiting work to the highest value cars on the freeway based on optimal capacity will ensure the highest value cars get to their destinations faster and allow for a steady flow of new cars to merge from the on-ramp.

Recently we helped a client develop their single pipeline. For their system, it has three levels:

  1. Portfolio: Large Boulders (aka Epics / Enablers) – things over 10 weeks effort
  2. Program: Stones (aka Features) – things between 2 to 10 weeks effort
  3. Team: Pebbles (aka Stories) – things less than 2 weeks effort

Where are we at?

For this system, we have currently implemented the Single Pipeline Portfolio level and we are in the process of rolling out the Program level; some teams are already advancing the Team level!!

This system follows the Kanban method. The practices we need to implement as part of this Pipeline are:

1. Visualise the work – See what is actually happening in a single source of truth, bring it to the surface

2. Limit work in progress – Like the smart freeway, protect flow of highest value work

3. Manage the flow – Collaborate to protect the flow so work reaches its destination sooner

4. Make process policies explicit – Everyone understands the rules of the game (e.g. how work gets prioritised)

5. Feedback loops – Metrics to know how we are going, get real data to see what’s happening

6. Improve and Evolve – Continuously improve and evolve the system of work

Currently we have started to implement practices 1, 4, 5 and 6 at the Portfolio level. This has initiated important conversations that will lead us to further implement practices 2 and 3.

For a great video that visually demonstrates the value in optimising for flow first, then for utilisation – see the Resource Utilisation Trap: