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This Focused Performance Weblog started life as a "business management blog" containing links and commentary related primarily to organizational effectiveness with a "Theory of Constraints" perspective, but is in the process of evolving towards primary content on interactive and mobile marketing. Think of it as about Focusing marketing messages for enhanced Performance. If you are on an archive page, current postings are found here.

Saturday, February 08, 2003

The Project-centric Enterprise -- Britt Blaser, in Escapable Logic, recently wrote on the importance of a critical few resources to "multi-project organizations." But I think he got only part of the picture. Britt wrote...
"They are the innovative organizations that seem to get more done than others, probably because they see their business as a series of projects that produce the individual products or service sets their customers want. At the core of each project you'll find just a few people -- maybe just one -- who produce as much and are as overworked as Ming's description.

"These projects are big revenue producers. Just a few of them may be responsible for most of a company's income -- the 80-20 rule says that 80% of your income is from 20% of your products. And projects don't seem to work unless driven by a small core of dedicated people. It's well known that most big software projects' code is written by about a half dozen people -- sorry to be fuzzy about that important data point, but it's true in my limited experience. The reliance on concentrated productivity is what allows the remainder of most organizations to be laughable in their low productivity. This is such a disconnect with industrial age thinking that we can't imagine it's true:

"Can our economy be the work of, like, 1% of us?!"
Britt goes on to look at the characteristics of those "productive few," in an attempt, as I interpret it, to find a prescription to bring everyone else up to their level. On one hand, I agree with Britt regarding the statement that the output of a system is based on very few resources or aspects of that system. That is the basis for my preferred theory of management, Goldratt's Theory of Constraints, and it's common sense approach to managing constraints for maximum systemic output. The recognition of the capabilities and capacities of the critical few is the first step in rational management.

But I want to offer a different point of view about what Britt calls the "laughable...low productivity" of the "slacker many," compared to the apparent effectiveness of the critical few. Their "low productivity" is not necessarily limited by the lack of laudable characteristics listed by Britt, but instead can be an important aspect of a well-run organization. In a well-run organization, the critical few constraining resources need to be exploited, in the best sense of the term. If there are certain resources, skills, talents that by their very nature are the touchstones of the existence of a particular business, they are also by nature, probably limited in availability. If they weren't, barriers to entry by competitors would be nil. It is important to the organization to get the most (in a reasonable, sustainable manner) out of these resources as is possible. To do so means that they should never be starved for work on the input side, and on the output side, their work should not be allowed to be stalled by the lack of availability of other resources or skills. These invaluable strategic constraints need to be surrounded by non-trivial levels of protective capacity throughout the remainder of the system -- protective capacity that might be misinterpreted as "low productivity" by some.

Additionally, a well-run system recognizes the capabilities and capacities of those critical few, and does not allow them to be overloaded or overburdened. While I suggested earlier that they should not be starved for work, they also must not be burnt-out by overwork or loaded up with too many conflicting priorities that drive them to lose throughput to multi-tasking behaviors. The desire to keep everyone busy must be subordinated to the need to primarily exploit the constraining resource.

That said, it is up to the management/leadership of such an organization to assure that constraining resources/skills/capabilities are managed effectively. The "non-productive" supporting players are often a key to successful constraint management. Once identified, effective exploitation of the constraint can often be a matter of having other resources off-load work from the critical few -- work that does not require the special talents that characterize their scarcity. This can also be a path to cross-training and the eventual creation of more people with those critical skills -- a path to elevation of critical skill capacity and to the growth of organizational capability. In addition, too often, projects fight over key personnel and try to assure their availablity by tying them to the project, and then feel forced to keep them busy on things that don't require their special talents. If these projects were resourced not by names, but by skills, they would probably find that the critical skills could be spread around more for the benefit of not the individual projects, but of the whole organization and it's total project portfolio.

The fault lies not in the "low productivity" of what Britt refers to as the "slacker masses" but in the failure of the leadership of organizational systems -- management -- to fully understand their system through their constraints, and to develop strategies to exploit and elevate those constraining components, while at the same time subordinating silly ideas like individual productivity and utilization to the needs of the constraints and of the organization's throughput. Since it is a very rare situation in which individuals can produce anything in an industrial setting (after all, that's why organizations come together -- to produce things that individuals can't), let's stop obsessing about individual productivity and instead get everyone to understand how they contribute to organizational throughput and productivity.

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