All organizations are open flow systems that have inputs, outputs, and boundaries. Within them there is a shape and structure that facilitates the flow of work/ideas across a landscape filled with impediments/resistance. These systems are often called value streams. They take ideas or requests and turn them into downstream value for the customer.
The work/ideas in flow systems or in value streams have two fundamental properties:
- Pulse – waves or fluctuation in capacity
- Pressure – accumulation of work due to resistance
Even in the most healthy/alive organizations work is delivered in pulses or waves. These waves or pulses may be large or small. They may be regularly paced or erratic in their timing. They may be fast or slow. In any case, a healthy pulse is tuned to the demands of the environment. We can use concepts like rate of customer demand or takt time to determine a healthy pulse for an organization. We can use the rhythm of the pace (smooth, even, or spiky) to also assess the health of the organization. Likewise, we can use the accumulation of work to measure the pressure within the system (release, relieve, resolve). Large backlogs create more pressure or resistance in a system than small backlogs. By comparing backlog size to the velocity of a value stream we can express the relative pressure within the system. High pressure and low pressure can then be assessed along with the consequences.
Where we find high pressure, we should expect to find turbulence within an organization. Therefore, we can have the simplest possible method to assess the organizational/business agility or aliveness of the system. Based on this kind of assessment, we should be able to make reasonable predictive statements about the health of the organization i.e. the pulse is fast, slow or irregular. The pressure is too high, or perhaps too low and we can make prescriptions/recommendations or further tests to better understand the problem.
Within organizations, while the flow of work or ideas may play a primary role, like blood, there are other flows to consider such as the flow of funding and other resources that provide important food or energy for the system. These additional flows can be measured and should have their own pulse, peristalsis and pressure.
Like a Doctor, I may initially check your pulse and blood pressure and then based on what I find, begin to ask questions about your diet or habits. If the system manifests unhealthy attributes, then we can test it using more refined tools like value stream mapping in order to create a more detailed picture of how the work flows through the system or subsystems.
As we map the topology of the organization, we can use different tests to help uncover resistance and turbulence in the system. For example, a dependency map of the teams along with a relative measure of the connection strength and quality between teams can help us to find hot spots or bottlenecks that create fiction and reduce flow.
We also need to understand the product families and their relative backlog health and velocity in order to understand where the pressure lies in the system. Where there is high pressure, we need to improve the vascularity or flow in the system.
We can use time/motion studies to assess the impact of the physical environment. Understanding the distance between teams can reveal important information about temporal delays in the system.
Finally, these systems are based on human beings who are motivated and driven by feelings. As such, we can use interviews to assess questions of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in order to understand the emotional/cultural personality of the organization. We can also use subjective assessments/surveys to gather and understand the polarity of feelings across different groups (NPS score, etc.).
You wouldn’t try to prescribe all of these tests at once (although it might be tempting). Instead, I would begin with pulse/pressure in different places (arms, legs, Business Units). Based on what I find, then I might move to more specific tests (like value stream mapping and team dependency assessment).
Alternatively, we could structure an assessment with phases:
- Overview – high level assessment of primary indicators like overall pulse and pressure. -indication of key pacemakers
- Workflow for suspect areas (pulse) – using value stream mapping – team dependencies – emotional topography
- Product Family Analysis (pressure) – Backlog and Velocity/Product – Market health
- Environment Assessment (structure) – Team structure – location in time and space study
We can see the improvement in flow of a system by the evolution of its design. Large chunks of work called requirements can be broken down into initiatives, features, stories and tasks. This breakdown is optimized for the fastest transportation of information across the organization as characterized by large initiatives. In order for that work to move to the smaller cells (or teams) of the organization, it is broken down or vascularized into smaller features and ultimately into stories. These units, in combination with an arbitrary planning cadence, provide the necessary elements for understanding measuring the pulse of the organization.
Likewise, the structure and attachment of the work muscles or teams has an architecture that encourages flow. It is fractal in nature starting with the teams, and then aggregating to teams of teams and perhaps even larger. Like cells in the body, these teams are self-organizing. This provides the most “alive” design that can reconfigure itself according to the stimuli provided by the ecosystem. The design of the team matches the design of the work flowing through the system with teams processing stories, teams of teams processing features and the whole organization processing initiatives.
This also gives us a clue into how funding should be designed. It should match the design of the work, the structure of the teams and the planning cadences in order to provide the energy for the system to flow smoothly.