I remember sketching out this simple idea a few months ago, and I have been thinking about it since then, so I decided I should blog about it. It is essentially a model for looking at the general process for identifying problems, investing work in solving them, and then applying that solution in order to realise some value. Visually it looks like this:
P is the point at which the “problem” is identified or specified. S is the point at which some work is invested in forming a solution to the problem. V is the point at which the solution can be utilised to realise some value.
The other important concept is the “distances” between P and S, and S and V, or indeed the total distance between P and V. Distance here might not just be spatial, it could also be temporal. It could even be more abstract like the distance between two people’s mindsets or value systems. Or it could be a vector quantity, with spatial, temporal and other components.
The central claims I intend to make with the model can be summarised by the following formulae:
- distance PV ∝ waste
- distance PV ∝ 1/quality
- distance PV ∝ 1/motivation
That is, the longer this distance PV is, the more potential for waste, more potential for quality problems, and more potential for demotivation.
It should be interpreted from the S perspective. Some manager or knowledge worker hears some description of some problem. He or she invests some work in developing a solution for it, and hands it on to further on in the system, to be, somewhere, at some time, utilised in generating value. In the most ideal case, the distance would be 0. Point S occurs at exactly the same conceptual point as point P and point V. That is the knowledge work or manager is right there when the problem is first conceived, invests work in a solution at that same point, and the value is immediately realised.
This concept is already understood, and finds expression in many existing principles. For example the lean concepts of “going to the gemba”, and “those who do the work are best placed to solve it”. Also the agile concepts of close collaboration between customer and developer, and developing products with short feedback cycles.
Many models and theories of intrinsic motivation also claim people are more motivated when they can at least see, or better yet be involved in, that right hand part of the model, where the value is realised. This puts the solution in context and provides a sense of purpose to the expended effort.
It also has implications for every day decision making. Once understood, it is harder to claim that developing solutions in isolation, remote from the problem and point of value realisation, is merely a matter of taste, or a valid alternative way of working. It becomes a matter of professional ethics to continually try to reduce this distance PV. It also allows us to help decide in which problem solving activities might be better investments of effort. We should normally prefer to invest effort where the problem was more closely and recently identified, and thus better understood, and can also be realised as value sooner.
I also think there is a fractal aspect to the model. It is possible to zoom out and see this whole PSV chain as being part of an S point in some larger context. It seems possible to zoom in on an S point, and see it containing other smaller PSV chains. There could also be multiple S steps between a P and a V (where perhaps the act of realising one solution as value is the same as defining a problem for the next step).
I was recently discussing on twitter the situation of developers wasting effort on developing software that is not useful, and whether or not they have the power to be involved in deciding what should be developed. In terms of this model, I claimed it was more professional for knowledge workers to see themselves in that whole context, and understand the context that gives rise to the problem and how it should be realised as value, rather than merely solving problems. It certainly seems professional to continually strive to shorten this distance where possible.