Epiphanies for Everybody

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Busyness vs Productivity

February 15, 20222 min read

Busyness vs Productivity

Today’s assumption: Busyness = productivity

“Avoid the mistake of having a goal to keep people busy all the time when the goal should be to generate value for the business.” -Dominica DeGrandis

Another gem in Making Work Visible.

Unfortunately, if you speak to most businesses, they will tell you that their goal is to generate value for the business, which is why people are busy all the time. The problem isn’t that people have the wrong goal. It’s that they have the wrong assumptions. The quote, while great, compares a theory-in-use (how we actually behave) to an espoused theory (how we believe and rationalise our behavior).

Almost all businesses will tell you their goal is to generate value for the business. However, many of them have hidden assumptions. In this case, the hidden assumption comes straight from cost accounting.

Cost accounting tells us that the way to make machinery as cheap as possible is to reduce its per unit price. That means that over the course of its lifetime, it would produce as many widgets as possible, because the cost of the machine is spread out over every unit it produces. Regardless of whether a customer uses the widget, generating more makes the numbers look better. The flaw in this thinking is that it doesn’t matter how many widgets are made; it only matters how many are bought. Your machinery cost doesn’t depends on units made; it depends on units sold. When units are part of a complex production line, maximising the widgets created by one machine makes the unit costs go down, which cost accounting like, but it doesn’t make more widgets get finished, so it doesn’t result in additional revenue.

The assumptions that underpin cost accounting were lifted wholesale from manufacturing, and applied to software development and technology. And surprise, what doesn’t work in manufacturing also doesn’t work in tech.

Maximising busyness lowers your per unit costs. That’s still true. But unit cost carry no inherent value. Only widgets (features) in the hands of customers have actual value. By focusing on the unit cost, we destroy our ability to focus on the throughput of widgets through the organisation and into the hands of customers. That’s the contradiction that has to be exposed, discussed, and discarded, before progress can be made by company leadership towards faster delivery of value.

The implicit connection between busyness and value needs to be brought into the light, where it’s obvious falseness can be exposed, and the connection broken. Then the organisation can start to heal.

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