Tame the Flow

I picked up Steve Tendon and Wolfram Muller's Tame the Flow: Hyper-Productive Knowledge-Work Management shortly after the TOCICO conference in June, and every time I pick it up I glean a different take on the embedded ideas.  I enjoyed the thinking here, particularly since I am seeing more and more project management that is all about managing the flow of knowledge work.  

The aspect that was new for me was their description of a way to combine approaches that make the best of several worlds.  Use ideas borrowed from Critical Chain to monitor the overall health of a delivery project. Use the ideas of Kanban or Scrum to manage the flow of work around stories or story points (within software development - I see application outside software too). Use ideas of Drum Buffer Rope to think about improving the flow of a Kanban board.  And throw in a healthy dose of other approaches and thinking to help think about what is happening in an organization.  

Other approaches?  A good chunk of the book is devoted to summarizing related research around organizational design and the idea of the hyper-productive organization - so much so that I kept wondering when the authors were going to get to the application of the concepts.  Along with the specific methods, they bring in several other ideas from Theory of Constraints (Throughput Accounting and the Thinking Processes). They talked about and referenced many times in the discussions the concept of Design Patterns, with which I am only lightly familiar. I made mental connections to the reinforcing loops that Senge talks about. Their discussion of hyper-productive organizations had me thinking of organizational network analysis There was also a good dose of thinking around organization learning and Chris Argyris' single- and double-loop learning ideas.  And along with the learning stuff, I heard a lot about knowledge management and the importance that all of the continuous improvement approaches place on learning from experience to improve the system.  These topics were woven throughout the book, sometimes very clearly, and sometimes the ideas jumped out and made connections in my mind when they weren't explicitly worked into the book.  I think the idea of introducing all these concepts is that they all have a play in thinking about creating, building and improving on the hyper-productive organization.  There were certainly a lot of elements that have me thinning about my own practice.  

One topic that resonated for me was the involvement of the whole organization in an improvement effort.  While many improvement techniques generate benefit, you can find discussions among experts that complain the improvements could not be sustained or that the improvement curve flat-lined. It's clear that everyone needs to be involved - top management, middle management and the people doing the work. The authors talk about it conceptually in the early sections (trust!), and then they talk about how their suggested approach helps draw in everyone from the planning level (what should we build) to the execution level - using buffer charts and variations on the burn-down chart to provide a common, graphical description of what is happening in the project.

Knowledge work is inherently messy, and approaches that try to be overly-prescriptive on managing the work tend to run into trouble.  While the overall process needs some control, too much control limits the ability of the system to flex - and for people to think about how the system is working and learn. Interestingly, they quote Chris Argyris as saying that organizational learning is about detecting and correcting errors - and that errors are linked to inhibition of learning.  

Now I need to ponder this myself and with some of my colleagues to see if I can take some new ideas into my own practices.  I really think that Critical Chain Project Management can be enhanced by these thoughts around Kanban and DBR - even outside of the software development arena. 

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