Why I think slack is highly important during an Agile/Kanban transition

Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

(Note, this post is about slack the concept not Slack the collaboration platform. Though Slack the platform is great as well. We use it at AgileSparks and love it, although it eats up some of our slack time…)

Actually, the title is wrong. I think slack is highly important during any change initiative where you expect continuous improvement of the process and practices. The importance of slack is not new. Not in manufacturing, and not in the Software Engineering world. One of my favorite books is Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency by Tom Demarco. Actually anything by Tom is a gem worth reading if you’re serious about managing Product Development organizations… But today I had an epiphany. One of the biggest challenges we face as consultants trying to challenge organizations to be more effective/agile/lean, is that the people simply don’t have enough slack. They don’t have enough time to meet with us. They don’t have enough time to meet and retrospect. They don’t have enough time to experiment. Experimentation takes time – you need to think about what to try, if you take a risk, there is a chance you will fail and lose time. Its very frustrating as a consultant/coach. You have so much to give, you see so many opportunities for improvement, you know that if the team will just sit in a room for an hour they will come up with ideas that can help. You know that if that Developer from the team has some slack time on his hands, he will think of a way to make that build run faster. That test automation suite easier to update.

My pledge to managers leading Agile/Kanban transitions
Please Please Please consider how to add slack to your system. Especially during a change initiative it will help you get the most out of it. People will be more engaged, you will get much more out of your efforts and budget. I pledge to try and convince my clients to do this…
Now that you’re convinced, lets discuss how to actually do it in practice. If you’re not convinced or think you have other ways to better drive this point, I’m all ears… and the post is open for comments…

To effectively use slack I think you need to do two main things:

  1. Account for slack in your resource planning.
  2. Have effective mechanisms to use the slack for the best possible purposes.

Accounting for slack in the plans This is quite straight-forward as soon as you convinced your stakeholders it is a worthwhile investment. Pointing them towards Google (20% time…), Atlassian (20% time and FedEx Day) and other companies using slack as a core part of their system, might help you. Technically, just reduce the resource capacity % in whatever method you are using to manage your projects/commitments. Another great way is to use the slack that is inherent to the plan/development process. What do I mean? For example – in a Kanban/TOC/Flow system the bottleneck doesn’t have any inherent slack. But upstream and downstream from it, if you work in Pull mode, you will find slack. This is because they can process faster than the bottleneck, so obviously there will be times they cannot process because they are bound by a WIP Limit (Or TOC Rope). In Iteration-based Agile this slack takes the form of some free time on the last few days of the iteration if you’re not the tester. In both these scenarios when you have slack, you can either throw it at the bottleneck’s current work, or use it in other ways.

Effectively using the slack
Now that you have some slack time, what do you do with it?
One flow/continuous oriented approach is the Google 20%. People simply have the slack to work on other things in parallel to the ongoing core work.
Another approach is to setup special events, like Atlassian FedEx Day. These events are a time where the entire team/organization is focused on slack kind of work, and it is probably a good idea to use those especially when starting, to kickoff the mindset that slack is a good thing, and show some examples of what can be achieved.
What do you actually do on slack time?
One type of activity is pushing the product forward in some innovative small ways that are off-road from the main track of the project/release. You need to be careful here – messing around with the core behavior of the product is probably not a good idea without the blessing of the Product organization…
I would imagine the google engineers don’t mess around with the homepage too much. They introduce their innovations via Google Labs, plugins, etc. Some ideas make their way into the mainstream product, some become mainstream products (e.g. GMail)
I wanted to talk about a second kind of activity – the one that pushes the capability of the organization forward. Here, your aim is to identify areas where improving can have an effect on the bottom line performance of your organization, and then find ways to improve there.
I discussed before some scenarios like this, but to reiterate the important point – you want to use slack to help Exploit your current system Bottleneck. Now, as I said earlier, one way to simply throw the slack capacity at the current work of the bottleneck. This will help tactically, but will not improve the capacity of the Bottleneck in any long-term fashion. You should balance the tactic solution with finding ways to spend slack capacity on things that will really make the Bottleneck more efficient.
What this means is that a lot of times, the resources working to improve the capabilities of a function, don’t even belong to that function. This is why cross-functional teams and a holistic end-to-end view of the Value Stream is so important… without it you can improve things locally but have zero (or even negative) effect on the bottom line.