Flow Efficiency: How It Can Improve Productivity

Flow efficiency - ammeon

At regular intervals, teams reflect on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly – this is one of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto stating that we need to constantly adapt and improve.

But how do we know if we are Improving if we don’t keep metrics?

We need to measure in order to tell if we are improving. Flow efficiency is a great metric that can be used to improve the lead time of any request, in any industry. It measures the percentage of time spent actively working on a request. Flow efficiency examines the two basic components that make up your lead time: work and wait time.

Lead Time

Lead Time is a term that comes from the Toyota Production System (TPS), where it is defined as the length of time between a customer placing an order and receiving the product ordered. Translated to the software domain, lead time can be described as the length of time between the identification of a requirement and its completion.

When we are asked for a prediction on when a new request will be completed, we often look at lead times to give an answer. Looking at lead times over a period of time gives us a high confidence level in setting delivery dates.

When we look at what we can focus on to improve lead times, we normally choose active work on requests, such as test automation and continuous delivery pipelines. However, we should focus on reducing the time we spend NOT working on requests.

Work in progress isn’t always actually work in progress. Flow efficiency shows us how often that is true.

Ammeon - lead time image

Flow Efficiency

To calculate flow efficiency, you need two pieces of information:

1. Active Work Time – Work time

2. Overall Lead time – Work + Wait time

Ammeon - flow efficiency image

Normal Flow Efficiency is the term given to teams who generally aren’t paying attention to this concept, and this Normal Flow Efficiency is about 15%. That means that 85% of the lifecycle was spent waiting on something! The lowest recorded flow efficiency is 2% while the highest is 40%. The highest is achieved with a lot of work and effort and should be what teams are aiming for.

There are many reasons for wait times such as the following:

1. Unplanned work and lack of focus

  • All the little tasks add up

2. Waterfall effect

  • Should not depend on other parts of the organisation to get work done

3. Not testing (enough)

  • The more code that is written without testing, the more paths you have to check for errors
  • We can keep on a straight path with proper unit testing

4. Manual testing

  • Why is there manual testing?
  • Why can’t it be automated?

5. Endless environment configuration

6. System Architecture

  • Processes belong to waterfall are not equipped to deal with changes so quickly

You can measure flow efficiency for a single request, but it is much more useful to measure the flow efficiency of all your requests over a specific time period such as one sprint.

Tracking Flow Efficiency

  • Decide whether to track in days or hours. Either is fine, it’s about the right balance for your team. But remember, creating too much overhead will lead to the tracking being abandoned. If you decide to track in hours, assume an 8 hour day.
  • Use project tracking tools, such as Jira or Trello, to track the status of the request.
  • Keep the request updated with the time where work was ongoing, and the time where work was waiting.

Improving Flow Efficiency

1. Focus primarily on wait time.

  • There is a greater benefit in reducing waste than optimising the performance of activities that add value. For example, reducing the approval of new software from two weeks to one week is quite quick and cheap to implement.
    However, refactoring test cases to improve the time it takes them to run would take a lot more time, effort and money to do.
  • Identify the root cause of the wait time so that actions can be put in place to change it.

2. Make small changes at a time.

  • Allow the team to suggest what changes might work. They will be more enthusiastic to implement the changes if the suggestions come from them.

3. Design experiments to reduce wait and increase flow efficiency.

By Ciara Madden
Scrum Master | Ammeon

· Agile Manifesto: https://agilemanifesto.org/
· Kanban University: https://leankanban.com/flow-efficiency-a-great-metric-you-probably-arent-using/

Image: Greadeduc – GettyImages

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