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November 15, 2023

When Schedules Fail

By Gene Kim ,Dr. Steven J. Spear

This post is adapted from Wiring the Winning Organization: Liberating Our Collective Greatness Through Slowification, Simplification, and Amplification.


In our previous post, we presented a vignette of Gene and Steve renovating an old Victorian hotel. The problems that Gene and Steve grappled with are likely familiar to anyone who has ever worked in a functionally oriented organization—where people are divided based on their specialties. Leaders in these organizations often assume things will naturally self-organize or that schedules can always integrate those specialties toward a common purpose. They often neglect, as Gene and Steve did, the careful design of their organizational wiring (Layer 3). 

Before we explain what Gene and Steve did to get things right, let’s first analyze and reflect on what they did to get things so badly wrong. How did they miswire their Layer 3 so dismally?

When Schedules Fail as an Effective Integrating Mechanism

At first, Gene and Steve did not coordinate the efforts of the movers and painters at all, resulting in their starting at opposite ends of the building. Next, they tried to use a schedule as the coordination and integration mechanism but were still unable to get the movers and painters where they needed to be when they needed to be there.

What Gene and Steve did not appreciate is that scheduling a project of this complexity, let alone one of even greater complexity, is nearly impossible. They were unable to get sufficiently accurate forecasts of how much time the movers and painters needed to complete their work, nor were they ever able to get adequately complete and timely information from everyone in their system to tell people where to go.

But even if they had all that information, creating an accurate schedule is still hopeless. It was mathematically proven over fifty years ago that it is often impossible to compute a correct and optimal scheduling solution in finite time for schedules of any significant size. Gene and Steve created the best schedule they could in their spreadsheet, based on insufficient detail, guaranteeing a poor schedule and their dismal outcomes.

Expediting Adds To, Doesn’t Diminish, the Chaos

Gene and Steve also tried expediting, having movers and painters drop whatever they were doing to do something “more urgent.” The resulting chaos they experienced is not an exaggeration.

In settings where there is a daily production schedule, such as in manufacturing or IT operations, many of us have experienced morning production control meetings, daily review meetings, and so forth. After schedules have been released, managers start generating hot lists (the list of urgent schedule changes), super hot lists, and extra hot lists, all while shop floor supervisors are running about trying to expedite, firefight, and reroute workflows for “blocking” of upstream work by downstream work and “starving” of downstream work by upstream work.

Furthermore, notice how their system couples everyone to everyone else—if any mover or painter runs late, they quickly cause other rooms to become late, and the lateness spreads like a contagion. In this system, small problems quickly become large problems. As a result, expediting may provide some immediate gratification but actually makes matters worse.

As they did in scheduling, Gene and Steve ran into another theoretical limitation, this time for control systems. Their ability to see and solve problems was not able to keep up with the frequency, speed, or detail of the work of the movers and painters they were trying to coordinate and control. Gene and Steve created the best schedule they could in their spreadsheet, based on insufficient detail, guaranteeing a poor schedule and their dismal outcomes.

Parochial Performance Measures

Note how any isolated performance measure, such as “number of pieces of furniture moved” or “number of walls painted,” did not improve overall performance—and may likely make things worse.

For instance, to meet the furniture-moving goals, movers may start moving rooms before they are needed, jeopardizing the rooms that actually need moving. One can even imagine a situation where they “over produce” and run out of space to store the furniture.

Lack of Isomorphism between Layer 3 and Layers 1 and 2

At this point, we have illustrated how Gene and Steve’s social circuitry (Layer 3) was profoundly unsuited for the work of the movers and painters (Layers 1 and 2). In mathematics, there is a term for this: isomorphism. Isomorphism is the quality of related items having similar structures. In the simplest case, the work of refurbishing a room requires movers to clear out the furniture, which signals the painters to begin their work, who, upon completion, signal the movers to bring the furniture back in when the paint is dry to the touch. 

But consider how the information travels in Gene and Steve’s Layer 3 wiring, which did not flow in anything like this pattern. Instead, information traveled from painters and movers when they completed their work to Gene and Steve, who would determine what people should actually be doing rather than what they were doing. Then, they sent instructions (information) back to the movers and painters. 

The work, in effect, was flowing linearly through time, whereas the information had to be moved (with great effort) vertically, up and down silos. The “structural” problem was that the people who really needed to be in direct communication with each other were not. All information had to be processed through Gene and Steve as opposed to flowing directly between the movers and painters. The resulting problem (dynamics) was as described: scheduling and expediting occurred with a frequency, speed, and detail completely inadequate for the frequency, speed, and detail with which work was being done. 

It is clear that Gene and Steve created organizational wiring that was incongruent, or not isomorphic, to the work being done. (We will explore this in more detail in Part III: Simplification.)

Summary of Gene and Steve’s Problems 

Gene and Steve created Layer 3 wiring that resulted in a system where movers and painters were working in nothing remotely resembling a unified and coherent whole. The functional silos divided the people who needed to coordinate and collaborate frequently and intensely. The only mechanism their system gave them to coordinate was escalating to Steve and Gene.

Let us marvel for just a moment at how thoroughly we can screw up even this relatively simple system, placing Gene and Steve very much in the danger zone. Of course, the consequences are graver in situations that are more complex, across all the dimensions of frequency, complexity, variety, consequence, speed, information density, the number of functional specialties, and so forth.

In our next post, we’ll return to Gene and Steve’s story to see what they do to rewire the system to move them into the winning zone.


Learn more about Wiring the Winning Organization here.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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Dr. Steven J. Spear

Dr. Steven J. Spear (DBA MS MS) is principal for HVE LLC, the award-winning author of The High-Velocity Edge, and patent holder for the See to Solve Real Time Alert System. A Senior Lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School and a Senior Fellow at the Institute, Dr. Spear’s work focuses on accelerating learning dynamics within organizations so that they know better and faster what to do and how to do it. This has been informed and tested in practice in multiple industries including heavy industry, high tech design, biopharm R&D, healthcare delivery and other social services, US Army rapid equipping, and US Navy readiness.

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