Address Your Company’s ‘Rock’ Or It Will Impede Forward Momentum

In Business Innovation, Business Value, ConnectALL, Tech Talk by Lance Knight

Note: Originally published on Forbes

I recently was a guest on a podcast and discussed value stream management—the mechanisms of mapping the value stream, understanding flow and removing waste. I thoroughly enjoyed my session and felt that the moderator asked me some really great, thoughtful questions.

I talked about one of my favorite quotes famously attributed to Peter Drucker, which is, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.” While I agree wholeheartedly with this and have taken that approach throughout my professional career, another one of the quotes I shared was, “You are not managing something if you are not measuring it.”

To this I would add, “You are not managing something most effectively if you are not clearing the impediments that negatively impact your progress.” Those impediments are like rocks. You can’t accelerate and achieve your goals smoothly until you’ve moved your rock (or rocks) out of the way.

While considering this issue, I was reminded of Sisyphus, a figure in Greek mythology who was condemned to roll a boulder up a hill in Hades for eternity. When he would near the top, the boulder would roll right back down. That’s similar to how the rocks in your value stream work. If you don’t eliminate them, they will continue to cause problems.

Addressing Rocks In Your Value Stream

I started my career in the manufacturing industry, where value streams are everywhere. Any finished item that delivers value—whether a single component or a completed assembly—goes through a series of processes. When I was working for a firm that made turbine blades, the various components of those blades would go through a series of cells on the factory floor during which they were created (e.g., extruded), ground/polished, tested, etc.

As each item cleared a cell, if problems arose and were not addressed at that time, they would eventually become rocks, like the example above. The rock could be as minor as a burr on a blade, but if it wasn’t eliminated or moved out of the way, the entire manufacturing process could be compromised. Worst case, the defective part would make it into the finished assembly with potentially dire consequences.

Fortunately, such a “burr” in the business world is unlikely to cause catastrophic damage, but that doesn’t mean it won’t have a devastating impact on your finished product, whether it’s software, food service or even real estate.

During any additive activity, where something of value is being created, rocks will always arise. Teams can roll those rocks aside, roll them forward, or move past them and ignore them for the time being. However, since they’re not addressing those rocks, they will eventually be forced to deal with them. In the meantime, they’re collecting process-related “debt” (in the software industry, we call it technical debt) that is slowing down processes and potentially impacting quality.

Finding Your Rocks, Wherever They Hide

Further complicating matters, manufacturing offers the benefit of being highly repetitive, which is not the case with many industries (including all three mentioned above). Consider real estate: A deal evolves over time, with such aspects as necessary repairs, seller concessions and other elements of the sale in flux until an agreement is signed. Even then, late change requests from the buyer or seller can necessitate a new “iteration” of the deal. (Ironically, in this way, real estate is much like software delivery). The key takeaway is that any impediment can become a rock at any time. For this reason, eliminating the “rocks” as they arise is critical to achieving the best possible outcome.

In my experience, it’s better to hit the pause button and deal with the rock right away. Whether in a manufacturing process, a software delivery cycle, a property sale or any other process-driven activity, business leaders need to address and remove their rocks as quickly as possible.

Parting Thoughts

Regardless of your industry, business model and/or key processes, rocks are everywhere. Recent business challenges have added a few rocks as well.

I hope the outcome of past difficulties will be that even more rocks are eliminated in other areas. I also hope business owners in all sectors will share their inspirations and insights with one another to emerge stronger. Over the past few years, I have been amazed at the amount of collaboration I have seen among business leaders struggling to make their way through a very uncertain time.

In our current world, where challenges abound, from labor shortages to the rapid evolution of digital technologies, we can all share insights with one another on how to make our businesses more productive and efficient—and less “rocky”—even if we don’t do the same thing.