Unplanned Work: The Silent Enemy of Your Digital Transformation

Oct 15, 2019

Too many organizations, in their haste to achieve their digital transformation goals, find themselves burdened by inertia — the silent, unseen enemy of change and progress. It takes cover in the day-to-day bustle, tricking us into thinking we’re getting things done when, in reality, we may simply be running in circles working on the wrong things and extending the time required to get the crucial tasks accomplished.

In manufacturing — or any system with high variability of the type of work carried out — there is an exponential impact on lead time when utilization passes an 80% threshold.

One of the predominant factors impacting the utilization of your most prized resources is unplanned work. This work comes in many forms — a pet project, a system outage, an acquisition, a divestiture, any number of things. Consistently, the planned work will take a back seat to the unplanned work, and within the planned work, business-led project work often trumps anything related to paying down technical debt or improving your operational efficiency.

Layering your new digital transformation program into the queue will almost always require participation from your most highly valued resources, which are also your constraints, and once again, you are now adding to the wait time to get any work completed.

As your ability to get planned work done erodes, your people will be overwhelmed, be it with workload and expectation. The challenge here, however, is not just having enough of the right people able to spend enough time on the right activities — it is about managing the number of undertakings you are asking the system to process.

One book that really resonates with me is The Phoenix Project: A Novel About IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by authors Gene Kim, Kevin Behr and George Spafford. I’ve read it several times since it was published and find it particularly useful in framing solutions to the common process and organizational challenges that IT departments face.

I appreciate the authors’ perspective — it’s tried-and-true management theories that have been applied to manufacturing lines for decades, and have now been adapted for IT. Can IT really be optimized in a way that production lines can be? The point is that it can.

There’s a fitting quote from the book: “Any improvements made anywhere besides the bottleneck are an illusion.”

You need to take a hard look at your organization and assess how you currently operate. Look for your bottlenecks in the areas where your resources are consistently engaged and understand the role that they play in impeding progress. If you as a leader don’t understand it, how do you get your people to follow it and move past where you are?

Few organizations are ready to deal with the impact of inertia on the transformation agenda. If left unattended over some time, the consequences might prove to be dire. The good news is that there are shifts you can make. You can change the design of your organization, how you develop and mentor talent, how you align your resources to specific goals, and how you approach engagement with the business. All these come together to reduce the risk of constraints that prevent you from fulfilling what you want to achieve.

Driving value for the business can’t be done if you are always working on unplanned issues. The ideal situation is resource utilization that ensures your most highly skilled resources are being leveraged effectively, as they are the one thing that determines the entire speed of the system.

The following series of questions will help you tease out a resolution.

  1. Do you have a sense of the sources of unplanned work in your organization?
  2. Do you have visibility on what is creating the unplanned work? If yes, do you have a plan to address it?
  3. What have been your most significant unplanned outages in the past quarter or year? Were the disruptions related to technology, implementation or training? Did you uncover any potential issues in the instance of that unplanned work?
  4. Have you identified the bottlenecks (constraints)? Start by thinking of the people who are always required to solve a technical, operational or organizational challenge.
  5. Are the constraints or bottlenecks being consumed by unplanned work? Are the people engaged in the unplanned work the same set of resources you intended to implement and execute your transformation initiatives?
  6. Are there times when your team has been able to address the causes or source of unplanned work successfully? If so, how?
  7. Are you willing to take a stand on the work you commit to, to challenge your peers to allow you to address systemic issues within your system such as technical debt? (Go slow to go fast!)
  8. Are you effectively leveraging partners to address issues or is your team using them as a crutch?

Rethink Your Approach

An adjustment of the mindset is a good way to start boosting your chance of success. Try and look at inertia as a constant in organizational normalcy. It’s going to show up, but if you can anticipate where it might occur and establish an approach to it, your organization will grow to be more adaptive over time.


This article was originally published on Forbes.com on Sept 13, 2019. Doug Smith is a member of the Forbes Technology Council.

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