How to Balance the Spinning Wheel of Work

Part of  The Mercurial Perspective Website

View more detailed information on The Mercurial Perspective here: The Mercurial Perspective (document links)


Balancing the Spinning Wheel of Work

We start with a series of processes. Let’s say customer orders as an example.

We’ll keep it simple and say you have two possible processes when an order comes in – a process for individual clients and a process for corporate clients.Simple Process Mercurial perspective Example

One day, several huge orders come in for the corporate client process. Meanwhile, almost no orders come in for the Individual client process. The balance is thrown out of whack for your spinning wheel of work.

Some of these jobs in this process may be fairly specialized. They may take time to train new people to be able to step in and help. You can’t always just throw someone in on a sudden demand increase and expect it to go smoothly. You really don’t want to slow down the employees in the corporate ordering process by having them train new people who have never done this process while you are handling the order surge.

So now you have a bunch of upset and overworked employees at risk of working overtime, and a group of employees taking a nap somewhere. The napping employees may be okay with it, although I have known a few people (myself included) who get bored when the work dries up.


Cross-Functional Teams and T-Shaped People

Within Agile there is a lot of talk of cross-functional teams and T-shaped people.

With cross-functional teams, you should have enough knowledge on the team to get the all the work done that needs to be done, on time and on budget. Between everyone on the team, they should be able to complete the vast majority of the work with their combined capabilities.

T-Shaped People Model / Diagram

Model of a T-Shaped Person

Having some versatility among individuals on a team can go a long way towards building cross-functionality. This is where a team of T-shaped people can come into play. A T-shaped person is someone with a wide area of related knowledge and a depth of knowledge in some key areas. They are generalizing specialists or a jack-of-all-trades and a master-of-one.

Build a cross-functional team of T-shaped people and you can do just about anything.


Creating Cross-Functional Teams of Teams

T-shaped people and cross-functional teams won’t build themselves automatically tailored to your organization. It would be nice, but it doesn’t happen.

Maybe you have 3 people who manage the accounts for all of the individual customers and 3 that manage them for the corporate clients. They have each specialized in their area, many of them in the job for a couple of years. The two teams may have some similarities within roles, but if you have ever dealt with corporate clients and individual customers – you may experience some differences. It may not be a quick and easy transition.

This is why you teach them in advance. You rotate them and switch them out. Not all at once so things are chaos. One at a time, systematic and organized. You want them to be comfortable in at least one solid area, but you also want them to be able to come in and help if they are needed in another area. Challenge them a bit, help keep them on their toes active and learning.

You don’t really want them to stay in the same position doing the same thing for 30 years. That doesn’t create a T-shaped person. That creates a person who can do one thing, and they probably mastered it 25 years ago. You are wasting their potential. Push out the breadth of knowledge of that 30-year veteran.

From personal experience, someone who has done the same thing for decades doesn’t usually like to do something different, but they should be coaxed into familiarity with other processes. To help them adjust, try to at least make the new processes they learn as close to the processes they have mastered.

You create one team from those two teams, a Team of Teams. They specialize in their job role, but they expand out to learn the jobs of others.

There are several goals you are trying to accomplish with this:

  • Increase Agility in the face of shifting workflows
  • Increase worker retention by helping to prevent job boredom and providing access to new/additional skills training
  • Improve knowledge sharing or transfer
  • Expand coverage options when encountering illness, vacation, or employee departure


Organizing the Teams of Teams

How those Teams of Teams are organized can certainly vary. You probably aren’t going to put a team of IT support and a team of accountants together and have it work well. Corporate financial accountants and corporate payroll may be able to transition, machine operators, software programmers who specialize in different languages may be some possibilities.

There may be some benefit of having people who work on accounts management getting to know your other customers and having those customers get to know them. The point is, that within your organization – whether it be 10 people or 100,000, you should find at least one other job role that someone could learn and gain some basic understanding of the role to help improve the breadth of their skills and the versatility of your organization.

Perform these transitions on a regular basis. Someone who learned a new job or process a year ago may be well overdue for a new transition into that job or process.

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