Some years ago, I was working with a team developing a new product at a technology company. The team was concerned that their Time to Market (T2M) was too slow, and they believed that they would be able to improve it by automating their build-and-test process. Automating any manual process is usually a good investment to improve T2M, but I suggested that we should first look at their overall T2M using a very simplified value stream map to understand where they were spending their time.
In the course of a couple of hours, we found that their build-test process consumed only about 6% of their overall time. Most of their time (almost 70%), to the surprise of almost everyone, was spent waiting for someone else in the organization to make a decision.
Every time they needed a testing environment, they had to request it and someone had to make a decision. Every time they needed to talk to a customer, they had to request it, and someone else had to make a decision. Every time they needed certain components outside their control to be changed, they had to request it. And so on, and so on...
The problem for this team was that their scope of authority to make decisions was very limited. In short, they were empowered to make decisions on a very limited set of things. Improving their T2M performance was going to mean expanding the scope of their authority to make decisions.
It doesn’t take a value stream map for leaders in an organization to understand how empowered their teams are; a single measure can tell them a lot about the organizational barriers that their teams face: decision latency, or the amount of time it takes from the point where a team asks for a decision to the point where they get the decision. That time is, in effect, waste, at least from the perspective of an empowered team. Put another way, every time a team has to wait for someone else to make a decision is an opportunity to improve team empowerment.
Looking at a team’s average decision latency, over time, can tell you whether a team’s empowerment is improving or degrading. Looking at average decision latency across teams, can tell you which teams are struggling the most, and where they might need help. Looking at average decision latency by functional area can tell you where the biggest bottlenecks exist in your organization.
So what should you do about high decision latency? In general, start with the reasons why teams are not empowered to make decisions in particular areas. It often relates to financial controls over the impacts of decisions.
For example, many organizations who shifted to cloud-based testing environments to save costs instead found their cloud-computing spending growing out of control because teams were not releasing the testing environments when they were done. To control spending, they took back the decision on when to use the cloud environment and gave it to another person or team who would manage the expenses related to cloud computing. Doing so creates decision latency. A better solution is to give the team a budget for testing (among other things), make the impacts of their decisions transparent, and then let them decide how to best use it. Increasing transparency and accountability is necessary for empowerment to work.
While a detailed description of all the sources of decision latency are beyond the scope of this discussion, simply being aware of where decision latency occurs is a good tool for opening discussions with the people involved about how it might be reduced. As the old saying goes, you can’t improve what you don’t measure.
We cover more about about empowering teams to achieve organizational agility in our new book, The Professional Agile Leader, which will be out soon.