11 Steps to Revolutionize Your Career

Ever wished you knew the key to getting to the next level, enjoying your job more, or just earning the raise you deserve?  That’s what this post is all about!

11 Steps to Revolutionize Your Career, Unlock Creativity, and Prioritize Your Professional Growth & Learning Roadmap

GREAT NEWS – the same techniques used to rejuvenate enterprises and drive strategic agility can help you to improve your position in your organization, your satisfaction at work, and the career path ahead of you.  I’ll show you step-by-step how to build a prioritized roadmap for professional growth and learning, as well as the science behind the art.  This is most exciting as a group experience – with a circle of friends who share your interests.  Don’t underestimate the power of a guild! Post-It Notes and group goals can be far more effective than going it alone.  Find your love, lead a tribe!  

The overarching idea is that you need to increase how much value you add to the process, the product, and the customer (if different, via the users).

I know “maximizing total stream economic value-add” sounds ivory-tower and too academic to matter to your daily life.  It’s true, no one doing real work talks like that. In practice, it means “time well-spent fixing a pain your customer feels.”  The more you directly relieve pain, the better!  That’s why the customer pays your company and your company pays you.  More pain-killing, better company.  You want to be as irreplaceable in that relationship as possible.

Documentation does not help the pain of the customer.  Budget planning or release plans don’t make a crappy user interface more intuitive.  Even if you literally Your deliverables are not your job.  Your ability to alleviate more pain for the customer than it costs the company to pay you – that is your “job”.  In entrepreneurial lingo – the strengthening the sustainability of your salary-for-value exchange is your only job.  The title, the process and your deliverables are all derivative.  Once you see it that way, improvements to your output, your process, and your skill set are all part of one “roadmap” that keeps your salary potential growing rather than stagnating. 

Let’s take it step-by-step.  Reach out if you have a question!

1 – Narrow your focus

To start, identify the most important information or resource that you handle.  Every role centers around one “wildly important thing” that needs to be accomplished by someone who can combine information and resources with professional knowledge and tools in order to create something new.  As an accountant, role centers around knowledge of the flow of cash and others constructs that can become cash.  The expert knowledge of the law, best practices, and tailoring the visibility of a company’s slice-of-time or in-flow cash is not only a full-time job, it can take an entire team.  If you are a software developer, you combine a problem assumption with your knowledge of code to create software that solves the problem.  As a Product Owner, you prioritize the flow of information to ensure problem-solution feedback loop is as tight as possible. 

2 – Get real about your value add

The way in which you add value in your one “wildly important thing” is a workflow.  It has an input, time in progress, and an output.  The five basic phases of any process as defined by Steven Borg are:

  1. Queue – Understand what to do 
  2. Setup – Get the necessary “resources” ready
  3. Run – Complete the goal
  4. Wait – Look for feedback on success/failure
  5. Move – Find the next goal to accomplish 

The “run” phase is the activity most companies call “performance” and likely that activity is the only thing they would want to pay for you to improve.  That said, we all know that the “run” portion of our week is only 10% to 20% of our time in the office.  Embrace that hard truth here – your role is a creative process and you have to fight for your creativity.  Make the entire process visible, not just the old-school boss-whipping performance dogma that resulted in Ford laying off 20,000 people in one day.

Be honest with yourself, be heretical, be brave.  As you map your workflow, you want to very objectively understand how much of your time is fluff due to the inherent inefficiency of information flow in society and your organization.

2 – Map “The Steps”

When I first learned about value stream mapping, I didn’t get it.  In fact the first several times I learned about it I wasn’t sure if I was missing something or if it was really as simple as it seemed on the surface.  Great news!  It really is incredibly simple and superficial.  It just takes a level of paying attention to mundane details we take for granted that most people just don’t take the time to do it.  Maybe quantifying how much of their job isn’t the “run phase” causes fear for their job security.  Unfortunately, companies full of people who love their work and don’t tolerate bullshit are taking down companies full of unthinking zombies every day.  Your job is not “safe” anymore.  Make yourself irreplaceable doing what you love.

Here’s what to do as you map the steps – somewhere between your job description and the “wildly important thing” you get challenged to do, you have established a routine of behaviors.  List out the steps. 

That’s it.

That’s “mapping a value stream”.  I told you it was simple.  The one difference between a to-do list and a value stream map is tacking on what you do to add value (relieving pain for a customer, right?).  For fun, write at the top of your whiteboard “The {your role} Way” – a proud tip of the hat to “The Toyota Way” that has inspired so much of Lean thinking.

3 – Map “The People”

Once you have listed out the steps you follow to create value, list out the people involved with each step.  It is possible that a department or a team is a bit of a “black box” in your process, which you should highlight!  If you know that you need information X from Susan, that is much more efficient than depending on X from “accounts payable”. 

Don’t skip this step!

4 – Map “The Time”

Go back through the steps and identify (even on average) the real minutes on the clock you spend on each step, then the calendar time waiting between each step.  If you’ve never taken the time to do this, you may find this analysis fairly emotional.  It isn’t comfortable to put on paper that you spend 5% of your time doing something meaningful and 95% of your time waiting and struggling to get “the system” to get out of your way so you can do your 5% and then go home or watch YouTube or whatever.  Do it anyway.  This isn’t about them, this is about you and how you can grow so that more of your time is more meaningful to you in your pursuit of mastery, autonomy, and purpose.  Our goal here is map out the business case for ways in which you can spend less time chasing that 95% or more time engaged in your 5%.

Caution – It’s tempting to run off and try to solve things or make a wish list or start blaming people for your problems, because time is a precious resource and “solutioning” ways reclaim your time is extremely rewarding.  DON’T.  That’s not the point of this exercise and it will ruin your reputation and you’ll miss the goal of this effort completely. 

This workshop is about how you can grow, learn, and enjoy your work more no matter what anyone else does.

5 – Take a deep breath

No really.  Take a break and relax.  You need to approach this calmly, logically, and thoroughly.

6 – Identify sources of waste

You already started this process while you mapped your value stream, but you need to go through step by step and really evaluate several things.  For one, look inward.  Which tasks do hate?  Which ones do you love?  When you feel disengaged, why?  Removing wait times and reducing task times would be nice, but the greatest source of inefficiency in your work is usually your own lack of focus or ability to “ramp up” your motivation.  Mastery requires pride in the mundane.  10,000 hours of scales as a violinist or guitarist; 10,000 hours of free-throws as a basketball player.  If your job includes something it is absolutely essential to your career and you hate it, that’s a symptom that you can grow in that area.

Now, let’s go through this very purposefully and objectively.  For every step, check if you have one or more of these sources of waste, then list it out.  Waste is anything that “adds no value” in your workflow or lessens the value that you add to the process.  Occasionally, you might even find you are, despite the best of intentions, reducing the value of information or resources.  Between us, that’s okay – there is immense wasted energy all around you.  You will be much more powerful by understanding yours.

Here are the types of evil, horrible waste you already don’t love:

  1. Waiting for input (information or resources)
  2. Over-production (doing something or making something no one used)
  3. Rejects or Defects (doing the wrong thing, or doing the thing wrong)
  4. Motion (unnecessary movement, like manually turning a Word doc into an Excel spreadsheet every week)
  5. Over-Processing (anything you do in which you “reinvent the wheel” each time)
  6. Inventory (any pile of information or resources, before or after you add value, that sits untouched for any period of time)
  7. Transport (time spent moving something of value – if it isn’t instant, why not?)

The other take-away you want to gain – for purposes of learning, growth, and personal development of mastery – is a list of any instance of miscommunication or misunderstanding, especially if there is any time when the format in which you receive information is difficult to understand without time spent interpreting it or asking for feedback.  Likewise, how much of your time is spent clarifying what what you provide to someone else?  That’s an opportunity for growth.

ONE MORE major thing to look for:

Waste of Talent or Other Scarce Resources (like your precious time) – Be honest with yourself and others (circle of trust) with this one.  When do you feel like your intelligence is insulted?  When do feel like you’re overqualified?  When do you think people around you are disengaged or wasting their real potential?  We need to find what we can do about those moments.

7 – WooHoo!!  Solve All Your Problems!!

My mentor in the App Roadmap Workshop, a variation of this process focused on enterprise mobility, always loved to say “’Magic happens here’ is okay.”  Of course, for that audience, talking about mobile, that meant “technology too advanced (or difficult for your company to implement) to assume it can be achieved now”.  When it comes to personal growth and development, you need to have the same optimistic view of all the options before the cold reality of life hits you as you struggle to learn.  Don’t prematurely rule out any resolution to any problem at this stage, because you’ll want to come back to this every three months and by then, all kinds of things – your role, your abilities, the tools available – may have changed.  For most of us, we need to just say “’future-me’ will sort out the details”.  That’s what we all do when we make bad decisions, let’s apply that same courage while making some really good decisions.

Go through each step, and every issue or waste you found.  Then do your best to identify something you could personally do differently change the inefficiency.  If people fail to provide adequate information, could you provide them a template?  Is there anything you can automate?  When you look at the situations where the most misunderstandings occur, is there anything you can learn to bridge the gap between your specialty and that other person’s?  Could you succeed more by setting better expectations? 

Put together all these opportunities.  Hopefully there are several.  I personally have more ways I could try to grow than I have time to invest in myself, but I’ve been building out this backlog for awhile and learning has a funny habit of unlocking awesome new ideas about what to learn.  Knowing all the ways you could grow is an extremely healthy form of self-understanding. 

8 – This is about MASTERY, AUTONOMY, AND PURPOSE

Mastery requires pride in the mundane and a deliberate effort to understand the periphery of your specialization.  If you are a Product Owner in a large enterprise, this could be technical training, UX or UI creation, business case building, customer interviews, or a host of other leadership, sales, marketing, development, or other capabilities.  Don’t be afraid to try new things.  Don’t be scared when your plan to try new things turns into a slap in the face about how hard it is to learn those things.  Now is a great time to decide how tenacious and dedicated to your personal development you are.

9 – Prioritize, Prioritize, Prioritize

In Lean, we know that the amount invested in a system from one day to the next is relatively stable.  Because of this, prioritizing investment of time and effort should work to reduce the cost of delaying action.  In software, this means comparing opportunity cost of two features.  If you can only integrate Twitter sharing or Facebook sharing, which one is less urgent?  Invest in the most urgent need first.  There are a number of ways Calculate the Cost of Delay for the changes you want to make, but we will customize this for your personal learning and professional development roadmap.

This is a variation of Weighted Shortest Job First which you can find at www.scaledagileframework.com/wsjf

Line up all the solutions to your problems you came up with in a list.  If you can put this into a spreadsheet, that might be handy for the purposes of staying neat, but post it notes work fine as well (and are better in a group).  This is your formula:

(Potential to Increase your Value Added + Time Sensitivity + Career Opportunity)  / Time Investment

You’ll add each of those as columns in your table.  To give an example, let’s compare two learning goals that you believe will improve the value you add in your role:

  1. Complete the entire iOS course on iTunes U
  2. Watch a GOTO Conference presentation video on Continuous Integration

Both options are money-free free, but each will consume your most precious resource: time.  We want to relatively score both of these options using each variable in the formula above.

You begin by choosing the lowest score and the highest score.  In a group, this is done typically with a predefined fibonacci (this is a useful number set primarily because it makes equal WSJF scores unlikely. Since there are only two items we are considering, we can just score with 1 and 5.

Let’s say, as a Product Owner, that although iOS products could be in your future, the company right now is making a push toward Continuous Delivery as a major lean process initiative.  Clearly, the additional value you can expect to add after the iOS course scores a 1, while the value of knowing what people mean when they voice pains in their Continuous Delivery initiative is the 5.  Remember, this isn’t about what could be the most valuable thing ever, this is about prioritizing your continuous investment in yourself.

Time Sensitivity, do the same.  It’s another clear win for an hour YouTube video. 

Career Opportunity – Maybe knowing how to code in Objective-C give you better prospects in your career.  Give the Continuous Delivery video a 1 this time.

Time Investment – the testing ground of every great idea.  It will take you several days of ongoing effort to make it through that entire iTunes U course on iOS development, especially if you really take notes, do the exercises, and learn to actually code.  The YouTube video and a follow-up conversation with someone you trust, plus a blog post about what you learned?  Let’s 4hrs.  At the end of the day though, you don’t need an actual estimate of the time you’ll spend, you just need to know what’s bigger and smaller relative to your most important options.

Now we can score!  I’ll send you an example of my own current learning goals.  Just contact me.

  1. Complete the entire iOS course on iTunes U (1+1+5)/5 = 2.4 #FAIL
  2. Watch a GOTO Conference video on Continuous Integration (5+5+1)/1 = 7 #WINNING

10 – The highest score wins. 

If you have several items, you order them from highest score to lowest.  Go watch that video and write about what you learn!  Your time is a river, keep repeating this process so that it flows beautifully and the water of insight and innovation is always fresh!

11 – Final Step: Tell people about it.

Learning is more difficult in a vacuum, because the occasional plateaus and time in the trough of disillusionment make it easy to quit once you find out how hard a new skill is.  That’s why you want an accountability partner, mentor, or community of practice leader who you trust for bouncing ideas, sharing goals, and tracking your insights.

BONUS SUDDEN DEATH ROUND

Just kidding, no sudden deaths here.  The bonus take-away from Lean that I’ll give you is the challenge to move from old ideas of quality – “no one complained about a problem” – to the idea of TOTAL QUALITY.  What if everything in your product solved pain for the user?  What if everyone involved added value to solving the user’s pain?  Quality isn’t “less than 1% crash rate”.  Quality is “I gave the right thing to solve pains, at the right time, and it changed someones life quickly and easily because their was no filler, fluff, or distractions.”

ENJOY!

 

Featured image via Liane Metzler

Disrupt & Win: Next-Level Lean Process Improvement

Disrupt & Win: How to Achieve Next-Level Lean Process Improvements with Custom Apps

Is your business having trouble keeping up?

It is time to get lean.

Kaizen – Continuous Improvement

Kaizen is a core principle from Lean that lays the foundation of how we choose the right custom enterprise mobile and web apps for process improvement efforts.  Loosely translated from Japanese, kaizen means “change for the better”; but kaizen is bigger and bolder than tacking on an improvement to an existing structure – it is the process of continuously breaking down a process, removing unnecessary effort or waste, and rebuilding it as a more efficient and effective process.

In custom enterprise app consulting, kaizen is the ultimate goal of the discovery and analysis we follow in finding the key enterprise workflow that is both proprietary to an organization’s competitive advantage while (sometimes surprisingly) it is also a source of pain and waste.  Because this seems contradictory, companies rarely ask for the application that will make the biggest difference to their organization.  To plan a truly disruptive roadmap that will position your key processes for sustainable competitive advantage takes a level of honesty and vision that is not easy to tackle alone.   Here are some key concepts from Lean that we use to help you plan your enterprise app portfolio and take your kaizen to a whole new level.


The Three Actuals – Genba, Genbutsu, Genjitsu

Lean consulting begins with finding the 3 Gen or “actuals” of your enterprise.  Kaizen is impossible without direct insight into the organization, so these three “actuals” are critical to finding the right apps that can succeed big and drive the adoption of innovation and mobility as a competitive strategy:

  1. The Genba – By visiting the Genba or “Actual Place” where business is done, products are built, and revenue is generated, an enterprise solutions consultant can view and understand the operations that create value, whether in a factory, a medical facility, or a sales showroom.  Through first-hand observation, rather than conversation, far more can be learned about what an organization does, how it is done, and why it is done.  Whiteboards and conference calls can never convey the real heart of an enterprise, the “What’s the point?” or the “What’s it worth?” as it is experienced by the people who keep each process moving, so coming to the actual place is critical to building out a solution that speaks to the pain felt by the people performing the work.  These pains tend to originate from inefficiencies and information asymmetries that workers will protect out of a fear of change.  Changing a process through training or a set of new rules often fails for this reason.  The disruptive influence of a mobile solution shortcuts this fear – mobile adoption rates are accelerating and new generations of employees demand the simplicity and focus of apps in the workplace.  These employees must capture real value in order to drive higher revenue and operational cost savings – getting to know their daily workplace experience is crucial.
  2. The Genbutsu – If possible, a great consultant doesn’t just watch, it is even better to directly interact with the genbutsu or “Actual Thing” – the real equipment being moved throughout a hospital or the customer “hand-off” artifacts.  In Lean Manufacturing, this often focused on the actual parts being assembled, the path those parts travel in a factory, and finding ways to simplify repetitive motions, reduce unnecessary travel distances through better placement of the work stations, or reducing the complexity of a step in the process by changing the order in which pieces were added to the final product.  In enterprise mobile solutions the “actual thing” is often information and the path it takes before and after that information becomes data and drives actions that produce revenue.  Information is easily decontextualized, so minimizing context-switching in the information-data-action flow is critical.  Mobile solutions drive context-awareness that turns social information into actionable data immediately and cuts out waste.
  3. The Genjitsu – Jitsu is an art, skill, or practice; a word that evolved etymologically from the characters meaning “a step along the middle of a road”.   In Lean consulting, this means we must grasp and communicate the “actual situation” as it pertains to one process as a step in an overall flow.  More importantly, we must quantify the reality of the process as objectively as possible, separate from emotional responses due to ego, social status in the organization, or feelings of blame.  We do this by obtaining data, making hypotheses, documenting workflows, and validating assumptions.  The goal is to not only make a well-informed decision about the most valuable apps that can be created, but to validate the features that will be part of it.

Once the three “actuals” are known, sources of waste can be objectively identified, solutions crafted and prioritized, and an initial Minimum Viable Product can be determined.  First, let’s review how we can create custom apps using proven Lean process improvement tactics.


Just In Time – Why mobile?

Mobile apps are fundamentally on-the-go and on-demand.  The instantaneous nature of communication using mobile allows the Just-in-Time management philosophy  to apply to operations processes, delaying resource commitment and investment until it is absolutely necessary.  This allows the shortest possible feedback cycle between demand and supply and removes waste due to information asymmetry.  If you have ever been left alone as a sales rep checks inventory or watched someone wait on hold to obtain manager approval, you know you know how painful – for the employee and the consumer – a lack of instantaneous information-data-action can be.

Just-in-Time is well defined by its original proponent, the Toyota Production System:

Supplying “what is needed, when it is needed, and in the amount needed” according to this production plan can eliminate waste, inconsistencies, and unreasonable requirements, resulting in improved productivity.

via Toyota

Since our app strategy is founded on upgrading key resources by removing wasted time and effort, mitigating inconsistent process throughput and output, and unreasonable rules and requirements to “protect” against costly mistakes, Just-in-Time is central to every great enterprise app portfolio.  Social information becomes actionable data, from answering time-sensitive questions to triggering purchases.  Real-time communication can replace unnecessary meetings, a highly focused and intuitive user experience can replace training memorization of rules.  The ability to ignite a chain reaction from 3 taps of an iPad is an incredible time and cost saving that can also create enormous additional value that can be captured more quickly.

Implementing Just-in-Time through custom apps allows real-time analytics about the process and its evolution, a “version history” for process improvements, gamification of as-you-work training, and a real-time feedback system for future kaizen.  This means creating continuous flow, level-loading process steps, creating “smart” tools, standardizing quality of work, and balancing minimal investment against highest value productivity is not only simplified, it is easy to validate process impact quickly.


The Yamazumi Board – Creating Continuous Flow

The first step in improving a process with one or more apps is documenting the existing workflows as the focal point of discussion and as the baseline for hypotheses about potential improvements.  There are software tools for this, but post-it notes on a whiteboard can work as well.  Yamazumi literally means “to pile in heaps” and this is exactly what how the analysis is completed, by stacking each step in a process in columns representing each person or role in the workflow.  This could be fairly high-level, tracking the flow of a paper form across the organization, or extremely granular, such as every step in the manufacturing and assembly of a complex product.

via Michel Baudin

By documenting the steps of a process in this way we can easily visualize the imbalances in a workflow, identify the “pace maker” process, discover bottlenecks, and clearly see the cost of unproductive downtimes.  Combining roles that cause diffusion of responsibility, separating roles that cause unnecessary task switching, and removing unnecessary “fail-safe” measures will remove waste and reduce cycle time, making the process more efficient overall.

Once each process in the workflow is organized into an ideal future state on the yamazumi board, we can easily see the specific tool each role will need to be as effective as possible at creating value.  If each tool has a unique user base, we will consider each tool a separate app that we can evaluate and prioritize based on expected returns.  Next we evaluate how strategic disruption using a mobile-first mentality will create impact above and beyond simply reorganizing existing resources.  Whether we are targeting information, inventory management, or customer interaction, our app portfolio needs to work as a seamless ecosystem that facilitates continuous flow across the entire value stream.  Through notifications, context awareness, and on-the-go data connectivity, we are able to brainstorm solutions to each identified pain that can achieve heijunka.

Heijunka – Level Loading

The Lean Lexicon, 4th Edition defines heijunka as:

Heijunka is leveling the type and quantity of production over a fixed period of time. This enables production to efficiently meet customer demands while avoiding batching and results in minimum inventories, capital costs, manpower, and production lead time through the whole value stream.

Once we have seen how our piles of work are should be distributed to achieve continuous flow we then need to identify the pains and inefficiencies that exist even when the process is running smoothly.  Before we can prioritize a roadmap of custom mobile apps, it is important to know the elements of a process that are consuming unnecessary time and resources, find and remove batch-and-queue systems that create process bottle necks, and smooth out supply and demand.  Because we have distributed process steps across focused roles using the yamazumi board, we can now look at the specific pain points that each tool can address for each role.

In Lean Manufacturing, the concept of heijunka is taught using forecasting in supply chain management.  The more unpredictable the demand, the more advanced the forecasting algorithm may be but delaying differentiation, stabilizing production, and reducing inventory holding costs is always possible.  When creating disruptive-grade process improvement with custom mobile apps we can apply the same principles to “memes” and look for the inefficiencies, loss of fidelity, and bottle necks in processes that transform context-specific social information into data that is actionable across multiple roles.  To win at disruption and to resolve internal information asymmetries and bottlenecks, we need to think through solutions that remove the noise from the signals we rely on to forecast processes.  To this, we use custom apps to control selection, throughput, and output.


Jidoka – Autonomation

From the Toyota Production System, the concept of jidoka – “automation with a human touch” means that machines are “smart” enough to identify their own failure, empowering human operators to rectify the problem before faulty parts enter the production line.  Before autonomation these parts were only tested at the end of the production line, so a single machine creating bolts for engines could make an entire day’s work unsuitable to ship!  To mitigate the immense risk of an entire factory-day’s production being scrapped, an operator could be placed at each machine, checking quality of output at regular intervals.  Jidoka is the next evolution of this process improvement, so that machines judge their own quality and a single operator is able to validate the accuracy and quality of several machines, reducing the number of resources required per machine.

In an enterprise app portfolio, the ability to focus a user on completing a single workflow quickly with context-based help and input validation accomplishes similar autonomation.  The more focused an app is on a single user completing a specific task, the less we will need restricted access and complex logic.  Instead, the technological investment can be focused on context awareness and assistance.  This creates a powerful ability to the guide subjective observation of an employee into objective judgment.  Rather than increasing training, creating new policies and punishments, and increasing managerial oversight – an a attempt at a “fail-safe” environment – we want to create intuitive “smart” solutions that create a “safe-to-fail” environment in which some mistakes are no longer possible and consequences are minimized.  This empowers employees to consistently succeed and removes the stress of failure, all while reducing the need for direct managerial oversight and human approval processes.  Anywhere your employee is asked to supply critical information or responsible for continuous flow to the next process step, we want to facilitate responsiveness and guided interaction, then capture and aggregate data as Business Intelligence that can inform both the worker and organization leadership about decisions being made.  Anywhere an employee must manage machines or technology, the inner working of which only a specialist would understand, we want to create an interface into the health of the process rather than set the false expectation that every employee can be skilled at

Once the solutions to process pain and waste are imagined – with an eye on “smart”, intuitive mobile workflow tools – we want to look for ways to ensure that throughput and output are consistent in time, effort, and quality.


Standard Work

Through effective information architecture and user experience design, the mobile app user is able to follow an established and intuitive workflow of interactions that are ideally context-aware.  So in addition to the focus, empowerment, and autonomation improvements, going mobile is a time to analyze current best demonstrated practices internally and externally, and standardize them.  Standardizing what is done, how it is done, and creating consistency of output not only reduces the necessity of identifying and addressing under-performers, it creates a context for the employee in which output quality is held constant for them, enabling focus on critical thinking and social engagement rather than policies and spreadsheet-like information tables.  Even more importantly, once work is standardized with a mobile application (e.g. instead of a document template) the consistency of output and capture of Business Intelligence will allow an objective review of “best” practices, assist with hypothesis and experimentation removing some of the emotion and politics from the kaizen process.

Once changes are identified, effective MDM enables your organization to control the shift to a more effective practice by simply releasing a new version of the software.  Build any training (using interstitial screens) and feedback (with modal per-feature ratings) directly into the application.


Minimum Viable Product

The end goal of removing interruptions to continuous flow, level-loading processes against fluctuations in supply and demand, and removing information asymmetries and process waste is to attain Minimum Viable Production – a process state in which we find a “sweet spot” in the tension between minimizing invested value while maximizing return on that investment.

This goal will need to be reached on three levels:  the process being improved upon, investment in improving the process, and prioritization of the custom app investment portfolio.  Because we are disruptively and potentially drastically rebuilding a process we need to understand the point of diminishing marginal utility for inputs to the process itself as a precursor to determining the investment we should make in it.  If we are attempting to increase revenue through an improved sales representative process, we need to recognize that increased capacity does not increase demand – we will need to identify stabilizing and increasing supply can result in an unfair advantage in the market.  If demand for a process output is unlikely to grow, investing in increased capacity is ill-advised.

If we focused purely on minimalist production, we would drastically rebuild our core operations processes – stripping out anything unnecessary to gaining the “easiest” productivity possible.  A true focus on minimalism might even cut revenue in favor of margins by creating less value.  Opposing this approach would be a total focus on viability, in which we invest to upgrade processes and resources regardless of ROI to achieve the most robust value stream possible.  Ideally, this would give us sustainable competitive advantage, assuming we raise so many barriers to entry that we create near-monopoly conditions.  However, most gaining economic rents in this way can take years to capture, making the investment risky.  By maintaining a tension between minimal investment and maximal viability, we can minimize necessary inputs while holding output constant, increasing process ROI.  If desired we can then establish a path for increasing input while holding ROI constant.

With mobile apps, we facilitate minimum viable product by transforming the nature of the steps taken in a workflow, the number of steps, the number of operators required, and minimizing time to complete each step.  By removing all delays in information transfer and introducing autonomation we are able to bring downtime to an absolute minimum.  Maximizing ease of completion and minimizing time to completion is therefore the overarching goal of mobilizing any process.

Once we have a full understanding of the next-level lean processes, we take the mobile apps we have dreamed up and create a prioritized roadmap for investment in our app portfolio.  While the “big dreams” white-boarding session is an important first conversation, defining Minimum Viable Product for both the processes we will disrupt and the process improvement investment we will make is critical to ensuring the app roadmap is continuously focused on the improvement with the highest incremental impact.

How to use the Lean Canvas for App Planning

Lean Canvas

The Lean Canvas via http://www.leanstack.com

The Product Vision Imperative

Imagine a Ferrari with no steering wheel and no tires – no amount of horsepower or torque will win the race if a car has no direction. Increasing resources or efficiency without alignment and traction on a common strategic vision is utterly ineffective.  While agile, scrum, and XP will maximize velocity, it is critical that we ensure the well-formed team has ultra-clear, laser-like focus on the goal.   After all, no increase in velocity or decrease in impediments can supplement a lack of understanding of what to build and why it should be built.  This is why the ability to clearly articulate the product vision of an app is critical to ensuring we don’t just build the right app and build it fast – we build it for the highest possible impact.

There is a natural 3-level taxonomy to an app.  The app Narrative (the entire app) is made up of Epics (major features), Epics are made up of Stories.  Because an app (as we’ve previously defined it) is a relatively small and ultra-intuitive tool with a highly focused outcome, stating the Narrative is the Lean way to succinctly express the workflow being created, who will use it, and why.  It conveniently looks like a massive user story:

  1. The Narrative – A a sales rep, I want to support customers without having to turn my back or leave the room so I can build better rapport as their consultant.
  2. Some Epics – Check inventory, Answer questions, Take payment, Notify inventory team
  3. A User Story – As a sales rep on the sales floor I want to use Apple Pay to accept payment from my customer  (Part of the Epic “Take Payment”)

The simplicity of this description will help align the team on the product vision, but it glosses over the business case that justifies the vision.  This can be done efficiently for multiple apps using the Lean Canvas approach to documenting the business case for an app.


1 – Identify the Problem

Because the scale and scope of any given app MUST be laser-focused we must start with identifying the key problem we want to solve.  Building the right app – A Billion Dollar App – means we don’t build a hammer and start hunting for nails.  We identify the nut, bolt, or screw, take stock of the complex setting in which we find it, and build the right tool for the job at hand.

“Customers care about their problems – not your solution.”

-Dave McClure

This begins with the Problem Statement.  The top three major pains for a single (existing) operations workflow often tie together in one overarching “problem”.  The Billion Dollar App for an enterprise should also have no feasible existing alternatives.  We aren’t reinventing the hammer!  Instead, we want to identify the problems that are unique to the organization, making a custom solution the best approach.  If a SAAS product for a non-core process is available for a client’s pain, we do the right thing and suggest the correct existing solution.


2 – Know the Target User

An appropriately sized and focused app must have a well-defined target user base.  In marketplace consumer apps, this means identifying the target market segments in which an app will compete.  For enterprise apps, this is typically limited to single business function (e.g. sales).  While there may be a subset of users that have customized versions of the same experience, we avoid creating apps that lose focus by combining multiple unrelated workflows.  For example, if managers want a dashboard for their sales rep app, the manager narrative (focused on analytics and the big picture) should be separate from the sales rep narrative (focused on point-of-sale conversion).

This is often accomplished by creating User Personas that describe an imaginary but likely user for the app.  In order to properly determine Minimum Viable Product, it is essential to know the “80/20 rule” for the target user base.  There are three personas that will assist with effective planning discussions:

  • The Early Adopter – Knowing your early adopter is critical.  Whatever initial revenue or increased productivity the app will drive, the early adopter will drive it and provide the initial wave of feedback that can inform a pivot.
  • The Average User80% of people will use 20% of the app.  That first 20% of features will also deliver 80% of the value created.  Prioritize the high-impact feature that the average user will make use of and defer the rest until later. 
  • The Power User – This user is both useful for building out the longest-term set of possible features and for helping define what type of person will likely not get everything they want.

3 – Summarize the Unique Value Proposition

Once we identify the problem at hand and who it impacts, we quantify the value a solution has the potential to generate.  In enterprise process improvement apps we call this “Impact” – the time or cost savings potential or the potential increase in revenue associated with solving the pains we have identified.  A business case is incomplete without this.  It is easy to gloss over this in the excitement of imagining an app solution, which is why the App Roadmap Workshop is specifically designed to maintain this discipline – we need to know the value proposition before determining the solution.

Once we know the value proposition we are in a position to move from problem to high-level concept.  This is often easiest to do by drawing from apps familiar to the audience, identifying both similarities and differences that we would expect to see. 


4 – Provide the Solution

With a high-level concept and a quantified value proposition, we are ready to brainstorm the solution.  The goal at this stage is to determine what an app would do for each of the pain points identified.  At this stage, avoid over-thinking whether the solutions are separate apps or features combined in a single app.  Instead, focus on the Narrative that uniquely solves the Problem for each User with an identified pain.


5 – Determine the Product Channels

Determining the Product Channel for each app means determining which devices and operating systems will be supported and how the app will be distributed to users.  For web apps, we need to define the internet browsers that will be supported based on the target demographic or based on insights from IT.  For enterprise iOS apps distributed through a Mobile Device Management (MDM) platform this will require an Apple Enterprise Developer Account that may take several weeks to secure – do not delay this process.  Android, iOS, and Windows consumer apps each have a unique consumer marketplace with their own policies for content and distribution as well as unique marketing requirements (description fields, screenshots, etc).  Regardless of which channel is right for the solution to the problem, add to your to-do list to look through the policies, terms and conditions, and Human Interface Guidelines for that channel.  If your personal device or browser is not the product channel for your target market, be sure to look up a few “Top Ten Best Apps” and “Top Ten Worst Apps” to get a feel for trends in design and performance.


6 – Revenue Streams

The next step in the Lean Canvas method is determining revenue streams for the product.  In the consumer mobile app marketplace this is often referred to as “monetizing” and may be a combination of selling a paid app, using in-app purchases, making space for iAd, sponsored content, or selling data that is collected.  When planning web or mobile apps for the enterprise, the App Roadmap Workshop looks at how much cost or time savings or additional revenue (of the potential identified at the Unique Value Proposition stage) can likely be captured by the business given the possibility.  This is part of an overall Balanced Scorecard that ranks the apps the business has identified in order of Return On App.


7 – Understanding Cost Structure

As part of the App Roadmap scorecard, we work with clients to identify the impact of the cost structure of the business processes we will impact.  This can be done using relative estimation by rating a handful of subjective influences:  switching costs, disruptiveness to employees, cost of waiting, and timeline to capture the value created.  For example, if our goal is to improve the in-store sales process to increase revenue, we need to understand any costs associated with training employees to use the app, costs to change the layout or technology infrastructure of the stores, and the extent to which the change will be disruptive in a way that has a negative impact on revenue as the employees adapt to the new process requirements.

When planning a consumer app, fixed and variable costs associated with the longer-term product strategy are important to identify – an information website, hosting fees, product support, and ongoing development costs should all be taken into consideration.


8 – Identify Key Metrics

Because we identified the numbers associated with the problem we will solve, understand the unique value proposition, and have planned our monetization or impact, agreeing on key metrics should be relatively straightforward.  If an app is tightly focused, there is typical “one number” that we want to move and a few numbers that we are certain contribute to our goal.  Secondary metrics are important because our primary metric is often a trailing indication of success or failure and is therefore difficult to use for short-term planning.  For instance, if the “one number” is increased quarterly revenue, the impact of new features may not be represented for several months.  Secondary metrics like increased traffic conversion, increased items per sale, and increased revenue per sale may provide insights more quickly.  

While the business case metrics identify the how we measure success or failure of the app itself, the Lean Canvas method can be repeated on a per-feature basis to prioritize Epics on the app roadmap.  Key metrics at this point are typically called “analytics” and focus on the impact of any given feature on the user.  This may include a combination of time-to-completion, time per screen, crash-free users, and user-provided subjective ratings (i.e. 1 to 5 stars).


9 – Competitive Advantage

While identifying revenue streams or process impact and establishing the key success metrics for an app allows us to prioritize and understand feasibility, identifying “unfair” or competitive advantage is essential for determining how to sustain long-term margins.  At this stage, a Five Forces or Resource-Based strategic analysis can help determine how barriers to entry can be raised and also identify what quality about the new product or process improvement will be difficult for competitors to copy.