WIP is the silent killer

Posted by Sysadmin 4 lyfe on September 1, 2015

I started my career in IT seven years ago in a fairly large Managed Services Provider (MSP) providing support for banks, hospitals and police stations. It felt good to be on the front line most of that time, knowing that what I was doing was impacting the ability of organisations to respond to the most urgent needs of people all around the country. Within the few years in my first job I felt truly valuable at, I found myself romanticising the importance of my role and the vigorous structure that existed to enable me to do my job. A couple of key moments for me from those earlier years include helping Geelong hospital get their phones and computers back online the day after Black Saturday when an unrelated facilities malfunction took out their core switch, while juggling two other critical issues; and being on a phone call with a Big Four bank in which they threatened to tear up our contract if we didn’t get them back online in the next 12 hours, as we’d shipped them one incorrect part and two that were dead on arrival.

I loved being on the front line and gained a real respect for my colleagues during this time. This made a huge impression on me and had the potential to turn me in to a “lifer”, of which my company had many. In the most recent team I worked for in that company my seven years of service was below average. But two key things happened that made me want to re-invent my career and look at different ways of doing my job as a System Administrator.

The first was a major restructure that happened which resulted in the redundancy of most of my colleagues. While a lot of this happened just after I resigned, the writing was on the wall. The company was heading in a direction that I didn’t feel entirely comfortable about, it was becoming an increasingly competetive market and since they were behind the curve ball by many years cost cutting and restructure were inevitable.

Second, before the major restucture came along, I downloaded a book called The Phoenix Project. I was on holidays with my wife and her family in Western Australia and the book was perfect for the lazy periods in between wrangling five children under five (only one of which was mine thankfully), fishing trips and happy hour at the local brewery. It was during a period where I began to feel increasingly important in my new job as a System Administrator of some 300 servers supporting more than a 150 clients. What struck me the most was a character called “Brent” who seemed to be at the centre of everything going on in an organisation that was collapsing around him. A smart guy who disallusioned himself and the company into thinking he was pivotal to the success of everything. I had not reached the ranks of Brent yet, but I felt I related a lot to his character and that many of my team mates did too. Everybody wants to be a hero, but what the book showed me was that, left to their own devices, Brents ultimately make a few key mistakes that can cause more harm than good.

They are irreplacable. Not by conscious choice necessarily, but nonetheless without them the business falls apart. They know so much about the inner workings of every system that nobody else can come close. There is little knowledge transfer because the Brents are too busy fighting fires they don’t have time to document anything or train anyone else.

They are unable to reach their full potential. They are too often at the wrong end of the development cycle, fixing deployment scripts and writing bug reports rather than making sure the work is done right in the first place.

They are not efficient. As they become known for their wizardry they are pulled from all directions by various business stakeholders to fix their urgent problems and rarely get time to focus on the task at hand. Because they are key to a large portion of work, all that work will take longer.

The problem is not just Brent, but the entire organisational structure that fuels the chaos. When there is no clear, unified decision made by the business as a whole as to what work is a priority, company resources are innevitably wasted switching between all the Work In Progress (WIP) depending on who is screaming the loudest. “WIP is the silent killer”.