Making Work Visible With Dominica DeGrandis

Posted on Tuesday, Jan 18, 2022
Dominica DeGrandis is the author of Making Work Visible, and Principal Flow Officer at Tasktop. She joined us to talk about how important it is for teams to ensure that all of their work is accounted for in planning.

Transcript

Mandi Walls: Welcome to Page It To The Limit, a podcast where we explore what it takes to run software and production successfully. We cover leading practices used in the software industry to improve the system reliability and the lives of the people supporting those systems. I’m your host, Mandi Walls, find me @lnxchk on Twitter. All right. Hi, folks, welcome. Thanks for joining us this week. Today, I am joined by Kat, who you met in a previous episode, welcome Kat. And Dominica DeGrandis is joining us this week. Dominica is currently the principal flow advisor as Tasktop and the author of Making Work Visible. Dominica, welcome to the show. Tell us about yourself and what you do and what’s a principal flow advisor?

Dominica DeGrandis: Hey, Mandi, hi, Kat, so nice to see you, it’s been a while. I’m principal flow advisor at Tasktop, been here for about four and a half years. And I work on a team of other flow advisors and basically, what I do is help organizations make their work visible so that they can actually start to see where the bottlenecks are and work to optimize their throughput, their delivery of value through the value stream. And it’s like value stream, we call it value stream management.

Mandi Walls: Okay.

Dominica DeGrandis: Which is similar to value stream mapping but we’re using live data, capturing live metrics, right out of their tool sets. So, unlike live stream mapping, which tends to be far and few between and infrequent and more of a static way to go, live stream management, it’s like continuous improvement, continuously looking at your data, making data-driven decisions, making that workflow visual, so that we can start to learn what’s really going on and do something about it from an experimentation mindset. And I’m loving it, because I’m big on making things visible and then it’s really to spark these necessary conversations that need to happen.

Anytime we can bring another sense to the problem… I mean, vision is the sense that most humans perceive information through. So, when we’re just talking to try and solve problems, I always want to of go up to the whiteboard and start drawing on it. And that’s what we used to do, pre-pandemic days, solving a hard problem, people would get out the napkin and start drawing on it or you’d start doodling on that whiteboard and I think that has been missing lately with a lot of the virtual calls. So, that’s why, still trying to find ways to bring visibility to problem solving.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Excellent. For folks who aren’t super familiar with value stream mapping and that whole practice, do you have a quick overview for those folks that they can use to then go find more?

Dominica DeGrandis: Sure. Value stream mapping was the exercises that, maybe, organizations might do once a year, often done on a board with post-it notes and string and whatnot, to identify all the activities that occurred in the value stream to deliver that value and it would track how long things took. And then, the outcomes of these, often two to three or more day longer events, would be ways to improve efficiency. With live stream management, our sessions now are continuously bringing visibility to the work that’s actually flowing through the tool sets and very much interested in making work that sits in white states visible-

Mandi Walls: Oh, interesting. Okay.

Dominica DeGrandis: Because that’s where we’re seeing the conflicting priorities and the dependencies and the unplanned word, all these things that contribute to delays and frustration that teams are dealing with. Because you’re working on something and you’d like to make progress on it, but then you got to put it on hold, because of dependency. And then, sometimes, by the time you get back to it… knowledge work is perishable, so by the time… you probably moved on to the next thing already and by the time you get back to it, you got to wrap your head around it again and it just contributes to things taking longer.

Mandi Walls: For those kinds of teams, is it for things that you have to request a ticket for or they just waiting for other folks to do their work to complete? Are there lots of places where that stuff hides?

Dominica DeGrandis: This is really interesting, because a lot of times we start working with teams, it’s just the development team, but most of the time, the bottleneck isn’t in development, the bottleneck is way upstream, waiting on triage, waiting on funding, waiting on approvals, waiting on all these upfront dates from PMO or on business side. Or the bottlenecks are at the other end, waiting on release, waiting on UAT. And so, then moving from making the development teams work visible to trying to expand that shift left, shift right, to get a much bigger picture so we can truly see where we need to focus because it doesn’t do any good to try and optimize these teams locally and to focus on making development faster when the bottleneck is upstream, waiting on design or waiting on requirements or whatever. And that’s probably one of the biggest insights that we see, it’s a theme that we’re seeing, especially with large enterprises. We work with a lot of Fortune 100 companies. So, really big companies.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. So, it doesn’t help… One small gear is working very, very fast and everything it plugs into is stuck, just sitting and waiting.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. It’s this comment. I mean, there are wait times within engineering and development too. So we bring visibility to that, but then trying to get visibility across the different parts of the whole product. So we talk a lot about moving from project to product-

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dominica DeGrandis: From work that is managed by projects that tend to have a lot of ramp up and, and ramp down time that increased coordination costs versus managing work, using a long standing product team of professionals where you don’t have all these, air quote, interchangeable resources, that are running off to their next project. And they don’t have… Now they’re doing two projects at once or more or shared services team, which is supporting many different other teams. So they’re not dedicated. So if they’re supporting many other teams and they’re highly specialized or have a lot of expertise, the question is what’s the probability of those experts being available when you need them.

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dominica DeGrandis: So managing work by product reduces that a bit somewhat. If you can add a designer to a product team that is supporting that product, then what are developers waiting on?

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: Are they waiting on wire frames, do we need to hire more developers or do we need to hire more designers that bring designers onto the team? So there’s less wait time on wire frames. So questions like that can get into the weeds with. A lot of companies, don’t seem to really know where their bottleneck is, and they have visibility on it. So bringing that to the forefront, they may have an idea, some people on the team know, but in order to get buy-in and support and really affect change at a level, that’s going to be useful. But at the product level is going to require some expansion of that visibility so that we can change, see where the bottleneck is.

Mandi Walls: When you say visibility, is that going to be something different for every organization? Are you creating reports? Are you doing other sort of summaries for folks? What makes things visible for the organization?

Dominica DeGrandis: For us it’s the, their tool sets and their work items.

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dominica DeGrandis: So their stories or their tickets of the ticketing system, or their… How does work arrive in an organization? How do people find out about it? What is the artifact? What is that thing that people are… Who is it assigned to? Where are the comments? Where is the status of this item, which is usually in a tool set, it could be in a spread sheet, could be in a slack channel, could be in an email, it’s all over the place. So when we talk about making that kind of work visible, it’s having a process for lack of a better word, where people who are impacted actually have visibility. When we were all working together, if everybody was co-located a physical board work pretty good in lot of cases, because you had no constraints. Every tool has some kind of constraint that you got to work around. But now, because we want to automatically capture the metrics and the data and dashboards, so people can see what their flow time is. They can see what the throughput and the capacity and the efficiency is then automatically pulling that out of people’s different tool sets. That’s what we’re talking about with visibility of the work items in the tool sets the teams are using, and also the metrics that will automatically come out of those tools to see how they’re doing so that they can improve their decisions.

Kat Gaines: I’m really curious, Dominica. You were mentioning a couple of times how, when we were all co-located and a lot of people were working out of offices or hubs and having all those visual cues to rely on for how things are happening, what are some of the more creative ways that you’ve seen people kind of adapt to and work around that? Because I feel like everyone’s doing something different, right?

Dominica DeGrandis: I’ve been using a lot of mural lately.

Mandi Walls: Okay.

Dominica DeGrandis: There’s mural and there’s mural and I’m sure lots of other visual virtual tools. And I’ve seen myself and my team, we’ve gone really from a PowerPoint presentation world to a mural or virtual whiteboard world where we can draw whatever we want. It’s a white canvas that we can build out with all kinds of logos and images and characters and drawing tools so that we can help people see, what are we actually talking about here? Oh, well, and that you can invite other people to join your mural. So you can invite your teammates or your customers. They don’t need to subscribe or register. You can just send them a visitor link and get other people in the mural, doing all kinds of things. Like even just introducing yourself, you have sticky notes on this virtual whiteboard of all the people that are in this workshop and what their role is and how we used to have. We always just have a parking lot for questions.

Mandi Walls: Oh, sure. Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. You put a parking lot up on the board and then you go, we’ll go do workshops where we’re doing a variety of different ways to sort of expose pain points in the organization and inviting participants to add what prevents their team from getting their work done to different sticky notes. And what are your customers grumbling about and what are some of the causes of these issues? And we just build upon these exercises and it’s all visual on a virtual whiteboard that you can save and later send it to other teammates use as a kind of a historical reference going forward, see if we’re improving or not.

Mandi Walls: That actually sounds more handy than the traditional one. So be able to share it. You’re not taking photographs of it and uploading them to the Wiki every couple days or whatever.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. Exactly. Yeah. You can just download them as PDFs or PNGs and pass them around. And we’ve gone back for companies that we’ve worked with for a long time, we’ve gone back and looked at those original outcomes of those workshops to help again, provoke necessary conversations for change.

Mandi Walls: So what kind of goals are folks setting when, when you’re hoping to help them? We recently talked with the Google Dora folks about the goals of the DevOps report and their metrics are deployment, right? How fast is your code getting into actual production? What kinds of things are folks hoping to improve when they’re doing an exercise like this?

Dominica DeGrandis: Trying to reduce their web, trying to improve or bring visibility to the cognitive overload on the teams who are just slammed with way more demand than they have capacity to do. It’s a big problem. Everybody’s overloaded. Well, most people that I talk to are really overloaded. They have a lot of high seasonal demand. Particularly this time of year insurance companies have their open enrollments.

Mandi Walls: Oh sure.

Dominica DeGrandis: Retail companies have their cyber Monday and black Friday, although that’s becoming not as specific day driven, but still this time of year. So the seasonal demand really takes a hit on a lot of these large organizations who are already overwhelmed. And if they’re going through some kind of transition or transformation where there’s, buy-in from leadership to do a transformation or a transition-

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Dominica DeGrandis: They’re going to fund it. They’ve got budget for it. And now it’s like, go team go. But the team is already overloaded at a hundred percent capacity utilization. And now you’re going to throw something new on top of that. It’s absurd in a lot of ways, because now people have to learn a new way of working-

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dominica DeGrandis: A new tool, set a new process, and they’re already scrambling to keep up on top of the demand. Occasionally I run into organizations, some teams have a leader who gets it. And so their team has a much more balanced amount of whip compared to capacity, which is such a delight to see. It’s like, wow, what a difference? And how many people want to be on that team?

Mandi Walls: Oh, sure. Everybody, right? Yeah. do this work across lots of different industries. Right. You mentioned retail and insurance. It sounds like there’s lots of digital process.

Dominica DeGrandis: Banks, automobile industry, insurance, retail. Yeah. It’s pretty big list.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. And the pandemic has stretched on. Have you seen more demand for this kind of analysis of work or has it just been steady since before the pandemic started? Well,

Dominica DeGrandis: Well, we see a lot more demand at Tasktop. The product that I work on is called Viz, where it became general availability just about two years ago. And so it was just growing almost exponentially with the number of clients. So there’s that as far as in general, from a pandemic sense, I do think that the rate of change in technology is difficult for humans to-

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: Keep up with. I mean, work workers are just utterly overwhelmed and ill prepared for the future. And a lot of companies are struggling right now. I mean, we’re heading into some trying times with all this geopolitical uncertainty and inflation, and energy descent, and climate change. And on top of this pandemic world, I mean the probability of having a steady process or a steady state, I think declines dramatically. And I see teams having goals of striving to implement standards and these best practices when-

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: I think that it’s, we need novel ideas to… We need to sort of embrace the edges and the fringes, what we need to do to change and adapt for things going forward. And one of the things that I kind of maybe embark on a little bit is that I’ll be in a workshop and we’re bringing visibility to all the work that’s in the backlog, or all the work that is in progress that I hasn’t been touched in a hundred days or 180 days. And I’ll say, “just get rid of it.” If it hasn’t been touched in 60 days, do you really need that? Can network be deleted and after you socialize that, or at least archive somewhere and people will tell me, “well, but we need to have a list somewhere. Like some day, we might need that.” And my response to that is I try and be really polite, but do you really have the luxury of continuing to work in this manner where you’re going to hang on to things for really long, a period of time when your leadership, your customer pain points are clearly that things need to move faster-

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: To improve customer satisfaction.

Mandi Walls: And like you’re saying about cognitive load. I feel sisyphean. You feel you’re never going to make a dent in those massive ancient backlogs. And as you’re peeling back all those tickets, it’s like an archeological expedition. Why did we even make the decision to put this in the backlog in the first place? The people who requested it are no longer even with the organization, and things just live there forever. So they become legendary. Some open source projects find this kind of amusing where you have this one ticket that sits out there. And it becomes part of the lore that you’re never going to do this thing, but it’s always there to reference. And I like the backlog bankruptcy kind of idea of just the dumping, all that stuff.

Dominica DeGrandis: I used to do this exercise weekly, where I would query the old show me the oldest ticket in a system, the one that hasn’t been touched in the longest number of days. And then I would send an email to the originator of that. I said, ticket, but work item, feature, request, whatever the demand is. And I’d send a email to the creator of it until it was currently assigned to. This is now the oldest request in the system. Can we meet for 10 minutes after our standup and talk about this? And I would try and facilitate this conversation. And what I discovered was a lot of these items had a lot of baggage and conflict between the creator and whoever didn’t approve it or approved it, or and whoever was assigned to. So it was a little bit of like therapy and facilitating a conversation about is this still a valid, from a business perspective, is this still going to deliver business value. Define what value was for them to facilitate this conversation? And I found out a lot of the times just bringing a few people together to have this conversation allowed us to close that ticket or that feature request or whatever it was-

Mandi Walls: Wonderful feeling. Yes.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. Oh, it is so great. It’s like finally checking something off the list, because it’s like that broken toaster that just sits there and you look at it and you need to fix it, or whatever. It still consumes, even though if you’re not actively working on something, it still consumes a bit of mental capacity in your brain-

Mandi Walls: Yeah.

Dominica DeGrandis: Or like the [crosstalk 00:21:58]-

Mandi Walls: It’s just there.

Dominica DeGrandis: Closet that you need to clean or whatever it is that you got to walk by and see it and feel, I got to deal with that. Once you cross that off the list, I think it must trigger some serotonin or something. Feels good.

Kat Gaines: Yeah. And it’s like you were saying, right. That there’s so much else going on in the world around us, that everything just feels one item and one task can feel so much bigger than it has to. Right. And so I have to admit, imagine that when you can say, “oh, this actually isn’t important, it can be deprioritized, or it can be shifted in a different way that the relief is probably 10 times what it used to be.” Right?

Dominica DeGrandis: [It just for me 00:22:44].

Mandi Walls: Awesome. It’s all super helpful, and one of the questions we like to ask folks on the show, is there a favorite myth or a one that you love to debunk with folks about stuff like this? Is there a thing that keeps coming up and you feel you have to keep explaining to people for these kinds of projects?

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. There’s a couple things. One would be best practices. That term for me is like fingernails on the chalk board. And I’m always a bit skeptical of best practices, because teams will strive to implement them. But I want to remind people to really understand that best practices are based on people having experience doing, of knowing causality, knowing cause and effect, and that your best practice today is probably going to be usurped by better emerging practices tomorrow because of the rate of change, rapid change in the need to move forward. That isn’t going to be a best practice for very long. I think that the best skillset well should use the word best care. There’s a lot of good practices and not a good skillset that you can have is learning how to be very resilient and work to keep pace with an ever moving fringe… Ever moving way of working. And that I think we need diversity in different ways of working. And if we get caught up with this idea that there’s a best practice, there’s a best way of doing things then other ideas appear to be incorrect. And I think that’s problematic in a period of time where we don’t always know the effects or the causes that are going to occur.

Mandi Walls: It becomes its own kind of red herring that folks get attached to it. Even if it isn’t maybe the right thing for that moment.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. We’re dealing a lot of complexity right now. So it’s important for there to be diverse thoughts and different perspectives that those don’t get shut down into, for those to be heard as acceptable for consideration. And that some people have a lot of energy and passion for that. And that, and that’s a good thing. We need to embrace some new ideas and not have all of our eggs in one basket, a hundred percent investment, and one area is risky. So I do agree there is a place and a time for best practices, but we don’t need a best practice for everything, particularly not now we, we don’t live in a static world.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. So your current project that you just wrapped up, you’re telling me it just got released the day that we’re recording this, is a new immersion course with the folks at IT Revolution. And why don’t you tell us about that before we wrap up for today?

Dominica DeGrandis: So the immersion course is based on the book, making work visible, exposing time theft to optimize work and flow, and I’m taking each time fee and presenting the why, the what, the how, and exercises to go along with that. And it has new information, because I’m working on second edition of [Visible 00:26:09] that’s coming out. And so some of the exercises that are in the immersion course that weren’t in the first edition are going to show up in the second edition and I’m tackling some of the more common problems. The more trickier issue that come up. But for example, we talk about limiting whip. Well that is good. We need to limit our whip. We need to tackle cognitive load and the stress that comes from it and the psychological safety that we get when we have permission to say, “no, we don’t have capacity to take that on right now.” Or if yesterday’s priority, one is no longer our today’s priority one. Then which thing should we take off of our plate?

Mandi Walls: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dominica DeGrandis: The thing is though, is we can reduce, put our whip on it’s wherever we want. But when the calendar has back to back meetings on it all day long, I call it the all day [cramp 00:27:12] calendar-

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Dominica DeGrandis: Or the triple book [wham 00:27:15] calendar and the meeting invites are coming from leadership or bosses and they just get overlaid on top of other meetings. How do we deal with that? How do we deal with all day cramp calendars? Because people need to have dedicated time during business working hours to do their very most important work.

Mandi Walls: Yes.

Dominica DeGrandis: They don’t get their very most important work done during. When do they do it? They’re doing it at midnight or Sunday afternoon and over the long haul it’s not sustainable.

Mandi Walls: Absolutely. Absolutely. You’re risking a lot of burnout.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Overloading folks with extra stuff.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah.

Mandi Walls: Excellent. Well, we will put a link in the show notes for folks who might be interested in joining your course and checking out some of the other excellent resources at IT Revolution. Those folks over there, as well as your book will be excited to see the second edition when it comes out. That’ll be great. So,

Dominica DeGrandis: Ah, thank you. Can I say one more thing?

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Yes. Final thoughts. That’d be great.

Dominica DeGrandis: One thing that I wish I knew more about when I wrote the book is just how important vision actually is. Our eyes are the only two parts of the brain that sit outside of the cranial vault, outside of the skull. And so they’re directly connected to our nervous system and it’s why vision, isn’t just about shapes and colors. And it’s more than shapes and colors. It is how we sense where we are in time and space, and how we sense our safety. Our vision has everything to do with our psychological safety and feeling okay, and our nervous systems and our hormone system, and impacts dopamine levels and serotonin and adrenals and epinephrine. And so all the more reason to bring more attention to vision and visibility. And it’s why I believe people are so burned out with Zoom fatigue. If they’re on virtual meetings where people don’t have their cameras on, when they’re speaking. If I’m trying to do a workshop with a group of 10 people, nobody has their cameras on. It is really hard to, especially if you don’t have any… Like if you have a previous relationship with so somebody and you know them, it’s like a phone call and you already have that trust built in. But if you’re meeting people for the first time and not be able to see them, but yet you’re trying to have this intimate conversation with them about their workflow and how to make [crosstalk 00:30:15]-

Mandi Walls: Right.

Dominica DeGrandis: Improvements then I think it’s one reason people are exhausted at the end of the day of all virtual meetings by being so up close to people, but yet not being able to see their facial expressions or to see if their head is nodding, that they agree with you or whether they’re rolling their eyeballs or whatever it is. It’s just, it seems inhuman to me.

Mandi Walls: Yeah. Yeah. That’s an excellent point.

Dominica DeGrandis: Yeah. Yeah. But I do understand how it’s also just weird to see yourself on camera all day long. Like that’s not normal either or natural either, but I think we could have a few things in place. Like if you are speaking, maybe you could turn your camera.

Mandi Walls: Yeah, no, I agree, but in the past couple of years, as we’ve done engagements and, and conferences and things, it’s a whole lot of talking to yourself and definitely feels that way. And for some inside baseball for our listeners, our recording software recently added the nice feature that we can actually see people on these calls as we’re doing the recording though, we don’t record the video, which has been a huge improvement. I will say for actually putting these episodes together. It makes things much easier. Dominic, thank you so much for joining us today. [crosstalk 00:31:35].

Dominica DeGrandis: Thank you Mandi.

Mandi Walls: Wonderful. To catch up with you.

Dominica DeGrandis: Likewise.

Mandi Walls: All right. We would back in a couple of weeks and I’m not sure what we’ve got coming up next, but that’ll be fine. So we were signing off this week’s Page it to the Limit and we are wishing you and an eventful day.

Speaker 4: That does it for another installment of Page it to the Limit. We’d like to thank our sponsor PagerDuty for making a podcast possible. Remember to subscribe in your favorite podcaster, if you like what you’ve heard. You can find our show notes at pageittothelimit.com and you can reach us on Twitter @pageit2thelimit using the number 2. Thank you so much for joining us. And remember uneventful days are beautiful days.

Show Notes

Additional Resources

Guests

Dominica DeGrandis

Dominica DeGrandis (she/her)

A huge fan of using visual cues to inspire change, Dominica DeGrandis, author of Making Work Visible - Exposing Time Theft to Optimize Work & Flow, and Principal Flow Advisor at Tasktop, helps organizations make work visible to improve the flow of work across value streams. Obsessed with flow metrics & influencing change, Dominica advises customers on value stream management and how to affect change in their organization.

Hosts

Kat Gaines

Kat Gaines (she/her/hers)

Kat is a developer advocate at PagerDuty. She enjoys talking and thinking about incident response, customer support, and automating the creation of a delightful end-user and employee experience. She previously ran Global Customer Support at PagerDuty, and as a result it’s hard to get her to stop talking about the potential career paths for tech support professionals. In her spare time, Kat is a mediocre plant parent and a slightly less mediocre pet parent to a rabbit named Lupin.

Mandi Walls

Mandi Walls (she/her)

Mandi Walls is a DevOps Advocate at PagerDuty. For PagerDuty, she helps organizations along their IT Modernization journey. Prior to PagerDuty, she worked at Chef Software and AOL. She is an international speaker on DevOps topics and the author of the whitepaper “Building A DevOps Culture”, published by O’Reilly.