Slack by Tom DeMarco

I just finished reading Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork and the Myth of Total Efficiency by noted author Tom DeMarco, famous for Peopleware (with Tim Lister) and Waltzing With Bears and for those who go back further author in the 1970s on Structured Systems Analysis and Design.

It really did strike a chord with me and I dare say with similar veterans of the software development field.  DeMarco has been writing about people side of software development work since the 1980s, however as respected as he is my experience indicates that not much of his learned writings have hit home with the software project community.

The overall premise of the book is to ironically and paradoxically juxtapose efficiency and effectiveness by inserting the variable of slack.  With slack the organisation can position itself to be more effective which in turn means turning down the efficiency dial.  The question is what does one what value more effectiveness, how much we delight our customers, and efficiency – how well we do are jobs (eliminating the customer in this definition).   The answer is hopefully effectiveness.

What is slack?  In short it’s the small amount of time we spend not directly generating customer value but learning how we increase customer value long term, that is short term vs long term gains.    Perhaps the best known example that Google incorporates Slack into their work week.  They are famous for the 20% budget for the week for employees to work on their own pet projects.  This has spurned many useful products that we take for granted today.  That is they budget for innovation.

Google’s example is perhaps the most famous example of slack we know of today but there are other forms of slack that we use to keep the organisation healthy and people working in those organisations healthy which for me is the most resonate element of the book.  Tom covers alot of other elements which are very important as well but they all come back to the idea of healthiness.

Without this this ‘health’ as I like to call it, it becomes difficult to work effectively and grow. DeMarco notes Slack – ‘It is the lubricant of change. Good companies excel in the creative use of slack. And bad ones can only obsess about removing it.’  Thereby removal of slack, that is the aim of 100% utilization, invariably consigns a company into morbidity and perhaps even death and the accompanying distresses that entails.

The book is as much a catalogue of fallacies, some of which we already know about but are fearful to deal with.  Tom does provide some guidance here and in some cases advises best be looking for a new job in others.  Some fallacies and maladies:

  • People under pressure do not think faster – from Tim Lister.  Pressure has limited capcity to reduce delivery time – 10 to 15%
  • Do more work and more we get done – but we don’t think about context switching. Lean Principles tell us that doing less increases throughput.  That is limit work in progress.
  • Overtime – causes reduced quality, burnout (and poor health), staff turnover, zombie workers.  Ineffective long meetings or meetings with no basis are the main culprit
  • Creative Time Accounting – spending 12 hours at work only recording 8.  I witnessed a guy regularly do this but I do credit him for negotiating a longer holiday afterwards – but I see this as a reverse gaming of the system as well.  Maybe still recovering from that.
  • Cutting useful support staff when there is a downturn.  That’s a great opportunity to innovate!  Furthermore support staff do the little things like printing and binding.  Expensive thought workers should not to do this, generally speaking.
  • Replacing cut stuff with yourself (being the manager) – now all your slack is gone and your team attending to team health and innovating activities is lost.  You’ll look busy and be commended for it, perhaps, but take a look at the bigger picture.
  • Unsafe to fail – using your power to instill fear and therefore limiting the revelation of new information and learning opportunities
  • Applying Process thinking to Knowledge Work – a great example from 1980’s Volvo using a single team to build a complete car.  Here the team decides how to do its work.  Empowerment has wondrous effects on people!
  • Lip service paid to quality and when it is used it’s the quality program to stifle and frustrate rather than assist
  • Management By Objectives is still alive e.g. sales selling to quota over time diminishes customer satisfaction.  This is aligned with the idea of local optimization.  Sales is doing well but oblivious to the health of the entire company.  But we mustn’t blame them people, the System caused this.
  • Lack of robust Vision – content free baloney as James Shore puts it.  A vision needs to motivate – resonate through truth and excite the future
  • Leadership – it comes from all and not just the anointed few
  • When change occurs it is done inhumanely.  People are expected to learn a new way and then perform at the same rate as before.  The Satir change model graphically illustrates that this doesn’t occur.  Kanban (David Anderson) hopefully to the rescue here with change more gradual and respectful to people’s current roles and responsibility and evolution into new roles.

Those are the main takeaways from the book.  I enjoyed it and must get and revise Peopleware again.  It’s been a while.

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3 responses to “Slack by Tom DeMarco

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