Today, the outbreak of COVID-19 has thrown mountainous challenges at humanity across the globe. It has brought industrial outputs for a large part of the world to a standstill. Many businesses have invoked contingency plans to maintain operations by introducing remote working policies and procedures spanning varying degrees and time periods. As a result, it has brought a tectonic shift in our professional and personal lives and demands discipline in our activities to give equal justice to both.
The key challenge that COVID-19 has posed for business and IT professionals is to replicate their work environment at home and to be productive in the same. IT infrastructure staff have ramped up their efforts and created virtual work platforms for us, but certain resources cannot be replicated, e.g. access to meeting rooms, interpersonal interaction, mentors to seek inputs from, status sharing, quick assistance in case of blockers, etc. These little things which otherwise go un-noticed at office add to the challenges at home
Lean has an answer to overcome these challenges. Lean focuses on continuous productivity improvements. Many if not all the Lean principles are relevant in current times of COVID-19, for us to remain focused. Let us explore how simple, application-agnostic Lean levers will help us remain productive and focus on continuous improvement even in a virtual work environment.
Leads and managers can use the PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle of control and continuous improvement and create a checklist like below for each phase, and the Lean levers mapped to these will provide the solutions.
Plan – Catalogue-based throughput measurement: This would facilitate a quantitative measurement of the performance of different teams at a resource and track level using project-specific tools such as Rally, Jira, SNOW or Excel. Mature teams can deploy productivity tracking tools such as Sapience, Toptracker, RescueTime, etc. to help find work-life balance. These would pave the way for data-driven feedback and coaching without losing focus on productivity.
Do – Daily Huddles: In a virtual environment, conference calls would replace in-person huddles at the start of the day. Collaboration tools such as MS Teams, WebEx, Jabber would be used for discussion and to create a goal-based plan for the day. Additionally, huddles could start collective and individual appreciations on video calls and could include the family of the star member of the week as well. Inclusion of small energizers such as quick mind games, chair yoga etc. in huddles would build a sense of inclusiveness & togetherness. End-of-day huddles can be included in the schedule as needed to ensure productivity trackers are regularly updated.
Do -> Focus hours: Daily focus hours can follow the energizers to take advantage of the team’s positive energy. In normal business operations, focus hour flags would signify the time for teams to focus on their chosen tasks. While working remotely, we would use simple means such as changing our status to ‘In Focus Hour’ or any similar customized statuses to keep distractions away.
Check -> Individual variability and Improvement analysis: Data from productivity trackers would help us to meet our team and customer expectations. The levers will give us several data points for gap analysis. These could be gaps across functional, technical or infrastructure areas for the individual or team, involving skills gaps, common distractions & personal challenges drifting us away from focus. Leads and Managers could use systematic individual variability analysis approach using tickets, stories or tasks data relevant to their projects and time taken by individuals to complete these items .These would help them in working with associates to simultaneously create an improvement plan for most gaps.
Act – Skills matrix, Virtual Buddy System, Chat rooms: Some of the gaps may find solutions outside Lean but Lean can accelerate improvement plan for associates. This would include a structured skills matrix which is an application-level database of current skills and mapping and assessment of individual’s competencies in these skillsets derived from productivity trackers. This can provide insights to institutionalize a structured training plan to upskill and cross-skill individuals. Alternately, collaborative tools can be used to effectively create a virtual buddy system that includes existing job aids, help guides, etc. made available for easy accessibility and self-learning. Chat rooms can also be created, especially in support projects, to ensure appropriate coverage and avoid SLA breaches. This, in turn, would lead to faster resolution of issues, better workload balance and create a forum to exchange ideas and best practices.
Many of these levers would be already implemented for many teams in an office environment, but Lean can help us take it to the next level in a virtual environment. These levers can enhance the agility of operations contributing to the reduction in cost, coupled with a boost in reliability, availability and performance to yield a minimum of a 5% improvement in productivity. This will also help in ensuring optimal work-life balance to create our experience of working from home happy, healthy and enjoyable.