A lot of people don’t like sports analogies, but Taichi Ohno often used one in particular, and, if its good enough for Ohno, it is certainly good enough for me. Hal Macomber says, " In the project world, specialists often work for different organizations, even different companies. They only loosely recognize themselves as being part of a team, let alone adjacent performers in a value stream. The term workstream recognizes that there are project performers whose work is dependent on others." Ohno talked about such activities, comparing them to two different kinds of relay races.
In a swimming relay, swimmer number two cannot leave until swimmer number one has completed his or her leg of the race and touched the wall. There is a clear, well defined handoff – swimmer one has an absolute, measurable distance to go; and swimmer number two cannot go to work until swimmer number one is finished.
A track relay race is different. In a track meet, there is a long stretch of track, and runner number one can hand the baton to runner number two anywhere within that area. The best handoff depends on the circumstances, and there are a few seconds when both runners are together at full speed, making sure that runner number two takes the baton at full speed.
According to Ohno, the swimming example describes traditional, rigid worker behavior, while the running example represents the optimum. The idea is that there should be as much overlap in knowledge and capability as possible between workers in series in order to optimize the overall process. One worker needs to be able to reach back into the preceding worker’s domain and help out when needed. Conversely, workers need to be able to extend beyond their normal completion and assist the next worker to assure that the baton – or in this case, the work, keeps moving at full bore.
In some projects, this is simply not possible due to very high technical content. One worker is just not qualified to do much of the preceding or succeeding person’s work. In other cases there are legal or contractual limitations. But for the most part, the people along the workstream can do quite a bit to help out the folks working before or after them. The kaizen – or improvement – arises from communicating.
A number of years ago I developed a workbook for the Copeland Corporation aimed at assuring that people in administrative processes knew all of the customer/supplier linkages that existed in their day to day work. The core of it was to assure that everyone sat down from time to time with the person who was the recipient of their work product to ask a few simple questions. What do you do with this information/report/whatever? What is important about it? Is the format I put it in the best way for you to get it? What are the quality requirements? etc… The more a person knew about how the output of their effort was used by the next person, the more effective that person could be.
One thing that came out of it was that quite a bit of work was being done for no purpose. People were spending days compiling columns of information, then handing it off to someone who only used one number from the report. People were taking things to two decimal point precision for someone who was rounding the number off to the nearest thousands.
Whether it is the carpenter meeting with the electrician to be sure both know exactly how the work area could be best set up for the electrician to come in and be immediately productive after the carpenter is finished; or the operating room nurse taking a few minutes to find out exactly how the surgeon needed the surgical tools to be arranged, there is no substitution for communications.
Far too often, we assume we know what the next person needs and wants, but do not take the time to check. Even worse, we approach projects with no ownership in the process. We act like the swimmer who does nothing until the previous swimmer tosses the project over the wall to us, or we stop swimming when our part is done with no concern for what happens to the next swimmer.
When you watch the Olympic track 400 meter relay race, you will see the prototype for workstreams in action. Usually, each sprinter is very, very good. The suspense comes from the handoffs. The best team is not only the team with the four fastest individuals, it is the team that executes the handoffs best. Workstreams are the same. In most organizations, each person is good at what they do. The success or failure of the project usually comes down to how well the handoffs were executed.
Communications, communications, communications, …..