Lean management's 5 principles allow you to identify value, create a continuous workflow, and identify waste activities. With their help, you can create a lean workflow and easily detect and eliminate problems.
However, getting rid of a problem is not enough. You need to find what causes it to protect your work process from recurring issues.
Among the most common reasons for recurring problems are the blockers ( things that obstruct a team from performing a certain task). However, very often, when a blocker is resolved, the team just keeps working on the task, and the blocker reason is soon forgotten until it appears again.
The more often a blocker appears, the greater impact it has on the average cycle time. Therefore it is better to collect blockers with as many details as possible and analyze them.
There is a relatively new technique developed by Dr.Klaus Leopold (author of “Practical Kanban”) that addresses this exact topic. It is called blocker clustering. Let’s explore it.
The Blocker Clustering Technique
Before we start, we need to clarify that the blocker clustering technique can be applied best if your team uses a pull system such as Kanban. Implementing a system of this sort allows you to visualize your workflow and collect valuable information about each task.
All teams using a Kanban board can acquire a clear overview of their tasks. If a blocker appears, each team member can notice it.
However, as soon as the blocker is resolved, the team forgets about it and keeps working on their routine tasks. This may not be a good practice because the same blocker may appear again and again.
Instead, try to gather all the information for all blockers that occur in your workflow. Write the details on sticky notes and collect them. Then, analyze the information monthly, for example.
Remember that capturing the blocked time is the most important factor to identify the most impactful blockers.
Group the blockers
The first thing you need to do after you have collected a certain amount of blockers is to divide them into two major groups:
It is crucial to calculate the total blocked time for each group you formed so you can prioritize. Total blocked time is the metric you can use to identify which blocker types are most critical.
After you divided the blockers by external and internal causes, you need to form smaller groups. These groups should consist of blockers with identical distinctive marks.
For example, missing information, waiting for review, waiting for test, etc. Afterward, you need to calculate the total blocked time for each sub-group so that you can prioritize the blockers. When you determine the most impactful blockers, it is time to locate the root cause for each one and find solutions. You can apply different root cause analysis techniques such as the 5 whys.
This method will allow you to discover the real reason for a problem by asking consecutive “why” questions as many times as needed. When you identify the root cause, you can hold a brainstorming session with the team to find a solution. Make sure to inform all parties involved when you have the solution ready.
This way, you will able to prevent your workflow from recurring blockers or at least decrease the blocked time significantly.
It is also important to experiment with different solutions if needed. Sometimes the first solution you apply may not work properly. So be prepared to test various ideas until you find the optimal one. After all, minimizing the negative effect of blockers will help you alleviate the bottlenecks in your workflow.
Structure of the blockers
Keep in mind that it may cost more to fix a blocker than it costs to be delayed. Sometimes blockers naturally appear in the system, and trying to fix them at any price may be dangerous. Here is a simple example.
Imagine that your team needs to record a tutorial, but the process is blocked because they don’t have the right tools.
So you decide to build them a whole professional recording studio. You will spend a significant amount of money on something that will be used occasionally and will require a lot of time to get a return on the investment.
Finally, you can use a simple matrix to identify which blockers have the greatest impact and which ones you can solve easily. This will help you pick some easy wins and distribute your efforts evenly.
Easy to solve
Blocker clustering is a simple and effective technique that will help you:
Identify impactful blockers in your workflow.
Eliminate recurring blockers or reduce blocked time.
Increase the throughput and decrease the average cycle time.