Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lean Thinking Tools for Improving Your Portfolio Planning and Prioritization Process

We just started an IT Transformation for a new client that is looking to fundamentally change the way they deliver IT services and application development. As part of the transformation we are helping the organization improve their portfolio planning and prioritization process to provide greater transparency, flexibility and control (yes control and agile does go together). Whenever we work with clients in this area, the first step we take is help them break down their old mental model of portfolio management and take a fresh perspective. To do this we introduce four thinking tools to help them wrap their heads around the new concepts. The goal of the four thinking tools is to help organizations look at planning and prioritization as an economic bargaining system.

Thinking Tool 1: Three level planning approach controlled by cadences

The first tool is to stop looking at portfolio planning and prioritization as a one time annual budgeting process and instead move towards a frequent multi-level planning system for portfolio management. Each level of planning should have well-defined units of work, cadence, and a form of currency (more on that later). The specific goals of each level are:

Strategic Planning:
  • Identify ideas to realize strategic business objectives
  • Set allocation based on LOB / Program / Work Type
  • Longer Cadence, example quarterly
Project Planning: 
  • Idea analysis and project planning
  • Define projects in terms of business valued features based on a high-level solution
  • Medium Cadence, example monthly
Operational Planning:
  • Project work intake with frequent work replenishment for solution delivery
  • Dedicated intake channel for emergencies, small enhancements and bug fixes
  • Short Cadence, example bi-weekly
Thinking Tool 2: Breaking projects into minimal releases and business valued features

Based on Thinking Tool 1, if the organization is able to establish more frequent strategic planning cycles (e.g. quarterly) than this encourages projects to be broken down into smaller chunks that can fit into those cycles. This allows IT to work more frequently with the business to understand what the high value features are and get to quick wins faster. At the same time this also provides greater transparency of progress into budget spent vs budget realized in terms of real value (i.e. a potentially shippable system).

Thinking Tool 3: Planning informed by capacity in terms of throughput to level demand

One of the challenges with traditional planning approaches is that capacity is not used to inform the planning process. To build an effective planning and prioritization process the organization needs to understand capacity in terms of throughput (how much value can I deliver within x amount of time) and level demand based on available capacity. What we often see broken with traditional processes is budget being the only input into the planning process and that is typically not the "bottleneck" or scare resource in the organization. Money is abundant, time is not which leads to the end of year madness many organizations fire fight their way through.

Thinking Tool 4: Establishing currency to represent scarce resources provides a mechanism to facilitate exchange of value to promote liquidity and flexibility

The final piece to the puzzle is establishing a common unit of currency based on scarcity. Instead of throwing money at the problem, the organization starts looking at their delivery capabilities as system of work that has real constraints (i.e. time). The unit of currency we alluded to earlier in Thinking Tool 3, is throughput which represents work/value in terms of time. The currency is then limited based on scarcity which is represented as work-in-progress (WIP) limit that controls the backlog and queues that work fits into.

By understanding these four thinking tools they provide an organization with the foundations for establishing a fast feedback portfolio system managed by multi-level planning with cadences, defining projects into smaller increments of value, balancing demand based on throughput, and planning and prioritizing based on a common unit of currency that represents scarcity.

In a later post, I'll share a set of planning and prioritization patterns we use to implement these concepts.

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