denied_1In a previous article I wrote “It’s another thing when the delivery of millions of dollars of value to the citizens of Woodinville is significantly delayed.”

In this article I begin to explain the basis for this claim.

Let’s assume for a moment that both the City Council and the City Staff are competent individuals who are striving to “manage well.”  (Yes, I know, not everyone believes this.  It is so easy to point to “bad people” as an excuse.  Let’s not go there right now.  Thank you.)

Now, one of the most common assumptions in organizations is that “A resource standing idle is a major waste.”

You may believe this yourself. For example, if you hire someone to do some work for you, and that person shows up but refuses to work (he prefers to be idle) then I think it’s likely that you will have a problem with him.  I certainly would.

So, when we hire people (I’ll often use the term “resources”, even though it’s a bit dehumanizing) we usually have an expectation that when they are working, they are producing for us, and when they are idle, they are not.

This assumption (“A resource standing idle is a major waste”) is generally true when we are talking about independent resources. For example, if you hire a plumber to fix a leaking faucet, he is typically an independent resource — he (usually) doesn’t need anyone else to do anything in order to be able to do his work.  If he needs to get a washer for your faucet, he goes out to his truck and gets it.  He doesn’t wait for someone to make a washer for him.

However, when we start to talk about dependent resources, the situation changes drastically. When we have dependent resources, it is no longer necessarily true that “A resource standing idle is a major waste.”

The City is an example of an organization with a lot of interdependencies. For example, only some of the City’s resources handle building permit requests. Other resources are the only ones able to sign certain kinds of requests, such as purchase requests. Other resources are the only ones able to create a master budget, do engineering work,  decide a personnel matter, or  respond to a request for IT support.  Note that the members of the City Council are also dependent resources, from this point of view.

There is also a significant amount of variation in the time required to complete many of the tasks associated with a given project. For example, when preparing documentation for an upcoming Council meeting, this task will sometimes go smoothly and not take a lot of time, but at other times, it may be a struggle and take much longer than anyone expected at the outset.

These two factors — dependency and variation — conspire to make it almost impossible to ensure that a given resource will not have to sometimes stand idle from time to time.

Now, smart people (and the Council and the City Staff are full of smart people) will find a way around this problem. They will find a way to ensure that no resource ever has to stand idle for any significant period of time.

The way to do it is to simply flood the organization with work. Just start far more projects than the City has the capacity to complete in a timely manner and, poof, the problem of idle resources vanishes into thin air.

All of a sudden, no one has to wait anymore. Can’t find a way to make progress on your current project? No problem, just drop what you’re currently doing and pick up another project for a while. Eventually, when you become blocked on your current project, or someone else needs you to do something for them so they don’t have to become blocked, just set your current work aside and switch to another project.

After all “work is work.”  Somehow, it must be that it “all comes out in the wash.”  Certainly, if every resource is working all the time, then there is no waste and we are thus guaranteed to be running the organization in a highly effective manner.

And of course, we know that the sooner we start a project, the sooner we will finish it.   So what’s the harm in starting a number of projects concurrently, in order to ensure that we have enough work available so that resources are never blocked?  Everywhere we look, we see other organizations and businesses operating in this manner.  If everyone is doing what we are doing, isn’t it obvious that we are on the right track?

Of course, the answer is that the assumptions we have just mentioned (“work is work”, “it all comes out in the wash”, “the sooner we start, the sooner we finish”) are actually invalid under the conditions which actually obtain inside City Hall.  These invalid assumptions result in the City operating in a more wasteful manner than is necessary.  And this is what drives the problem that leads me claim that the delivery of value to citizens is being delayed.

When the delivery of value to citizens is delayed, that delay cannot be recovered.  A project that could have been completed in 2009 but was delayed until 2013 cannot go back in time and deliver the value it was supposed to deliver in prior years.

Value delayed is value denied.