Queuing and Hot Dogs – the Product Development Bottleneck

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Waiting queues

In some of our blog posts we implicitly covered the topic of chaos and entropy in Product Development, e.g. in „The way out of the enterprise jungle“ or in „Bigger, faster, more … yesterday“.

One symptom we observe over and over again is that queues in front of PD are completely out of control, not even slightly managed. Possibly, they are not even registered, like in a bad super market. (It is not by chance, btw, that Kanban is also known as super market in the lean literature). You can notice a certain chaos, fidgetiness and disorientation. Everyone is busy, one timeline is chasing the other (waiting on each other?), serving a gantt chart rather than a purpose, but … nothing’s actually happening. Nothing. Nothing positive, nothing negative. Things feel irrelevant and insignificant. Cynicism is king in this environment. (Why not!?)

Looking into the other departments, sheer, blank horror about our performance dominates – possibly even open resentment and discrimination. We ourselves are unhappy, as we (have to?) start a thousand things a day and don’t deliver anything. What we deliver is not in time, and none is in the quality we would expect from ourselves.

Our PD department is a hot dog stand at Brandenburg gate, which can serve 3 hot dogs every 10 minutes. But, in fact, we have a queue waiting from here to the Reichstag (several 100 meters). We advertise ourselves as “Best Hot Dogs in town, always fresh and super fast!” No wonder, people expect something from us – and are queuing up. Especially in the middle of town. So here they are, hundreds of clients, voraciously expecting the fat, juicy hot dog we promised them. And all of them think it won’t take long. But the twentieth guy in the queue will already wait an hour.

Juicy Hot Dog

Juicy Hot Dog (*)

But, of course, we’re neither blind nor dumb and realize things quick and apt. To serve more people, we don’t sell hot dogs anymore. We slice them and sell slices to the masses. More people will be served, capacity goes up. Great idea on Powerpoint, but none of our clients will get to buy a hot dog anymore. And while we had at least 3 happy clients every 10 minutes before, now we’re left with no happy client at all. We destroyed and diluted the very product we’re serving. We even keep up the price, serving nothing. In the height of the fighting we came up with the wrong analysis and solution to serve the demand.

Hot Dog shredded

Hot Dog shredded (**)

It seems absurd – but this is what’s really happing in many many PD departments. What should happen, of course, is a thorough analysis of demand: Quantitatively and Qualitatively: How many and which things do people order from us? Let’s start with “How much?”. In the hot dog example it is immediately apparent that demand is way too high to be served. A solution is out of sight. Staffing more cooks seems like an option, but: No budget and it doesn’t scale quickly in PD. We could find a way to produce hot dogs more quickly, do magic, but: quality is not to be compromised. We could do some production fine-tuning (operational excellence). I once saw a guy serve grilled sausages who wore a T-shirt that told his clients “Ketchup right, Mustard left” while he turned his back to them, looking after the sausages on the grill. This helped him, as he didn’t have to answer the question millions of times. Also it kept the clients happy, smiling and informed at the same time. High art, but it does not solve our problem. We could … serve tea and coffee (or stringer stuff in winter). People would cheer up, but the problem still wouldn’t be solved. Or we could simply tell the truth and out up a sign, saying “ Best hot dogs in town, but only 3 every 10 minutes!”. Wait a minute. That’s easy. But, what does it mean? We simply make transparent what we can do when. And, believe me, the effect of this transparency is dazzling. It’s a little bit like “talking helps”. Because, you see, we are not a hot dog stand, which is simply at the mercy of an anonymous mass queuing up. We are a part of a company. We are a part of a company, in which we are apparently the bottleneck, a part of a company, which is obviously overloading us. And no one in the company will benefit from us staying the bottleneck. It simply is not effective for the company to have such a bottleneck. But to get others interested in fixing the problem with us, they first need to know and understand. To make them know and understand we put up a board on which we map all projects (or epics or features) we currently work on. Now everyone can see what’s going on – we provide full transparency. And know everyone gets a chance to be involved in coming up with the best and most valuable idea for us to deliver. Now we can avoid mindless local optimization and achieve global optimization on which value will be delivered for the whole of the company. 

We serve everything

We serve everything (***)

But let’s think again. We’re not only no hot dog stand, but we’re also not only serving hot dogs. We do it all: French fries, Currywurst, you name it. We need to analyze the demand in a deeper way: What products and services do we deliver internally and externally? Like Peter Drucker would ask, “In what business are we?”. With analysis done, we can better answer which orders come in regularly, which ones as an exception, how big they are etc. And now we can build a real good whiteboard with stickies, showing whatever we doing structured along customers, types of services and whatever it is we discovered. After doing this for a certain time, we did not only gain trust in our environment because of the transparency and giving others the chance to think with us: We also much better understand now “what business we’re in” and what the task at hand is. And it is exactly here where the problem of many companies is buried: They do not at all analyze any of this but simply commit and overcommit to deliver any projects that are being ordered. The last in the chain never says No! We are driving on intuition. After reading Kahnemann, you now know ‘flying blind” is a positive wording for this.

Lots of companies (often those that are actually dominated by numbers) are actually really bad in having a quantitative model of their business. Categories like Cost of Delay or economic models of their products, projects and features are void or plain intuition driven meaning senseless and heavily unstable and wildly varying between stakeholders. Try it as homework! Fact based prioritization is impossible in this context, rhetoric and power wins over insight and merits. The product suffers; the client will find another solution for his problem.  All these capabilities need to be built up for the transparency to pay off.

But what we are talking about now is only the delivery side of PD, the service provider aspect and the administration. What we didn’t cover is the forming and shaping, visionary aspect of PD – and that is a whole different story, we will tell in one of the next blog posts.

(*) AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by rob_rob2001

(**) AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by hifix

(***) AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Marshall Astor – Food Fetishist

Title picture: Attribution Some rights reserved by *sax

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