How low process efficiency made my Easter a torment

It was the day before Easter this year that I noticed a weird pain under my tooth. This tooth had troubled me in the past. It had suffered from tooth decay and a crown had been placed on it. Later on, the roots had started becoming inflamed, and I had to get a root canal and a new crown. The dentist confirmed that they had taken all of the nerves out of the tooth, so I would never feel pain from it again. But yet, here I was again. Hurting.

So I went to the dentist on Thursday, the last workday before Easter break, and they took a picture of my teeth. The dentist said that the tip of one of the roots had apparently not gotten bacteria free, and I should go the dental surgeon for help. He wrote me a referral and enclosed the picture for the surgeon.

The first thing I did when I came home, was to call the nearest hospital. They told me that I should wait for about 8 weeks for them to have a spot for a surgeon to do an intake with me. Now, I wasn’t in a lot of pain at that time. But still; 8 weeks is a lot. So I decided to call another hospital that is also close by. They had a spot for me much faster; the Tuesday after Easter. That sounded a lot better to me, so I booked the spot.

Then, in the night from Thursday to Friday, the pain got worse. It got a lot worse. In a matter of an hour, the pain was so strong that I could no longer sleep, think or focus my attention on anything. I started taking household pain medication for it, but after a day, the pain still hadn’t gone away.

The First Way: Step One

I knew something needed to be done. So, I called the emergency doctor’s office on Saturday 7:00 AM. They immediately told me that they would not and could not help me, because teeth were a special case where I would have to call the emergency dentist. The emergency dentist had a spot for me on Saturday at 11:20 AM. So I went there, now not having slept, eaten or being able to take care of my little newborn daughter for 1 day and 2 nights.

Something had gone wrong though, and I had to wait until 1:20 PM before the dentist had time for me. This was because the dentist was fully booked, and the assistant had been stuck in traffic. Once it was my time to see the dentist though, he quickly assessed that he could not help me and that I needed to see a surgeon. He asked me what I was doing there. I replied that I had read on the internet that getting antibiotics was a good idea and that he could help me with that. Then I pointed out that he could also prescribe me some better painkillers. After about 3 minutes, I walked out with a prescription for antibiotics and stronger ibuprofen.

Step Two

The pain did not go away that night. Instead, it got worse. I could do nothing but scream and cry. I got a fever of 39 °C (102.2 F), my cheek swelled up and I could no longer keep a decent posture from the pain (falling on the floor). This was unacceptable, I thought, so I called the first aid department of the hospital on Sunday at 8:00 AM, pleading for help. The nurse I spoke to promised me to call the dental surgeon. I had hope. Until she called me back: “The dental surgeon will not help you unless your dentist makes direct contact with him.”

I was baffled. I had just seen an emergency dentist who had seen how much pain I was in. He even worked in the hospital. How could this happen?

Driven by pain, I called the emergency dentist again explaining the situation and how badly I needed him to contact the dental surgeon. The lady on the phone said the following: “The dentist is completely booked today. You will have to wait until tomorrow and hope he has time for you then.” That broke me. I was going through unimaginable pain and the only person that could help me couldn’t make time to prevent this suffering because he was fully booked.

Halfway through Monday, the antibiotics started kicking in bringing the pain level back to where it had been on Friday. I decided to not try anymore and just wait for my appointment with the surgeon on Tuesday. These people were obviously not sensitive to my pleads or the pain I was going through. Even though it would cost them almost no time, they had a schedule. So I suffered through Monday.

The Second Way

On Tuesday at 8:00 AM, I called my own dentist. Now reduced to tears, I told them my story and asked if they could help me. The lady on the phone immediately took my case to heart. She told me she would take care of everything and would check if I could get the appointment switched from an intake to a direct treatment.

At 8:15 AM, about 5 minutes after I hung up, she called me back. The appointment was now a direct treatment. She also asked if I could call her after the treatment to let her know if she could be of further assistance.

At 2:10 PM, I had my appointment at the hospital. They took another picture and I met the surgeon. He analyzed this new picture and told me my dentist had been wrong. It was not the tip of the root that was bad. The root of my tooth had broke, and I had developed an abscess under my tooth as a result. This meant two things, he said. One, I must have been in unimaginable pain, because painkillers don’t work well on abscesses. Two, the tooth could unfortunately not be saved.

Quickly I replied: “Get it out then, I just don’t want to hurt anymore”. And about 10 minutes later, the tooth had been removed. Not a pleasurable experience, since the abscess meant that the anaesthesia didn’t work as well. But it was over with. Finally.

Process efficiency

Today, the Wednesday after Easter. I couldn’t help but think about the difference in process efficiency between these two processes. And together with that, the feeling that I had as a patient.

In both steps of the first way, the process efficiency was low. I got very little care or value-added time from the people that were supposed to help me. It felt more like they wanted to get rid of me than it felt like they wanted to help me. Especially in step two, where I got no help whatsoever. It felt like the system was designed to not help people, but to maximize resource utilization. A thing that made me angry, because I would have needed only about one and a half hour of value-added time to have no pain at all. But no. That is not the focus of the way we organize our healthcare. We focus on resource utilization, not on process efficiency or throughput optimization.

In the second way, I felt like someone cared about me. They wanted to help me. They made happen whatever needed to happen and they took away my pain. I am very grateful to both my dentist and the surgeon that helped me. They worked together to make the life of this patient a lot better.

The Takeaway

I would like to ask you, people in companies all around the world, the following question:

“How do you want your customers to feel?”

and I would like you to think really hard about what your answer means about the way you organize your company culture.

The Most Important Metric

Jeff and Frank

Meeting Jeff Sutherland

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to meet Jeff Sutherland. I had contacted him in the hopes that he could point me in the right direction with my PhD. It turned out that he was in Amsterdam – not far from where I live – and he was willing to meet with me. I met with him in a cafe and after ordering lunch, we started talking.

Talking about my love for efficiency

I started by introducing myself and told him about my life as a developer and my passion for efficiency. We talked about the first great team that I was ever a part of and many other teams that I had been a part of. We visited the idea that some teams are very efficient and some are very inefficient. Jeff pointed out that there exists data that suggests that the difference in efficiency between teams can be as big as a factor of over 2000.

As we were talking about my experiences with different teams, we came to the subject of the last team I worked in before starting my PhD. In this team, we valued getting metrics about our own performance. Similar to what is described in the Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams. We also measured a metric that we didn’t have a name for. It was the ratio of the time we spent working on a story to the total time it took to get the story in production. Our ratio was horrible (0,7%). This was astonishing to us because we thought of ourselves as one of the most productive teams in the department.

Introducing Process Efficiency

Jeff told me that the metric I had been talking about is called process efficiency. He said that he thinks it is the most important metric for any team to measure if they want to speed up their development cycle. As an example, he told me about a company where he had been a consultant. He had given the advice to start measuring this metric and display it publicly. Very soon thereafter, the teams started moving software into production much faster.

This was very interesting to me. Because this metric is what I want to focus my PhD research on. I believe that optimizing this metric will in fact not only accelerate teams. It will also create an environment where teams can benchmark their own performance. They can get a clear idea of how much more efficient they could be. It will give management a way to detect whether or not teams are improving in a very concrete way. It will also incentivize managers to let developers do whatever they think is best to optimize this. And quantitatively show the results. Most importantly, I think that this metric cannot be gamed in any kind of meaningful way. If you improve this metric, you will improve your delivery.

What now?

I intend to gather data on teams that use this metric. My hypothesis is that focusing on this metric will accelerate teams like it did on my last team. I want to see if real life data can support this assumption because a well-founded claim makes a convincing argument for teams to start improving their efficiency in this manner. If a thing is truly good, the data will show it.

We both thought that “80% of agile coaches don’t use data to back up their claims. The other 20% is right”.

By doing the work, collecting and analyzing the data. I hope to show that process efficiency is the most important metric for any team that wants to achieve high productivity.


As a final word, I would like to thank Jeff for taking time to meet up with me and discuss the topic. Thanks.

Jeff and Frank
Jeff and Frank

Looking for teams

As most of you have seen in my last post, I am starting a PhD. For now, I want to do one experiment with a few teams. Parallel to that, I would like to do quantitative research on a lot of teams.

The experiment

With about 10 companies that want to participate, I would like to do an experiment. The experiment has the goal to both make teams more productive. And to create great work circumstances for team members. I would work closely with both the team and the management to help you get measurements which I will then use in the study. After an initial period of measuring, we would create a specific change and see what happens to the team productivity.

The expectation that I have is that it will increase.

I’ve done this change before and it has given great results. However, I never measured anything in a scientific manner. By measuring closely, I can see the results and quantify them.

My hope is that with this change many teams around the world can be helped.

Quantitative research

I am looking for 1000 or more teams that are willing to share data about their way of work and their productivity with me. The data would be anonymous, so there will not be a way to track down what data came from where.

The idea of this is that I want to see if there is a uniform measure of how efficient a team is working. See if correlations exist between efficiency, happiness, customer satisfaction and work circumstances.

This research could back up some hypotheses I have, or send me in a completely different direction.

I want your help and I want to help you

If you feel like this is just the thing that you and your team are waiting for, then I would like to get in touch with you. I hope that the research and experiments that I am going to do will make the future a better place for us.

You can reach me in the comments or send me an email at

I hope that many of you are as enthusiastic about this as I am. Let’s make the world a place where people feel energetic when they wake up, work on a product they love, and go home feeling fulfilled.


I’m starting a PhD

I have decided to quit my job at my current customer to pursue my quest: To help create a world where people wake up feeling energetic, love the product that they work on and go home feeling fulfilled.

I am going to do this by doing a PhD with a supervisor from the University of Utrecht. The subject of my research will be Lean IT. An area very closely related to my quest. This is a very exciting time for me, but I feel it is right.

How did I get to this decision?

I have been struggling with myself for quite a while now. Feeling like there was more I could do, but at the same time not achieving it. Trying to make the workplace better for me and my colleagues, yet not seeing the impact I felt was possible.

I tried to make the best of it and achieved some significant results along the way. I found many like-minded people and learned a lot about what makes successful stories different from less successful stories. This led me towards agile and lean IT.

Then I observed that a lot of the companies that I and my colleagues work for practice agile. Yet they don’t seem to get the results agile promises. Because I felt that I had a strong idea about it, I started thinking about doing research. So that I could help organisations get the great results that they want so much.

I think that to achieve these awesome results, the organisations that we work for have to change. They have to start behaving in ways that are very desirable for their employees. Someone needs to do research to show empirically that this is true.

And I’m going to do it.

Want to join me in my quest?

I am on a quest to create teams where people feel energized, love the product they work on and go home feeling fulfilled.

I am looking forward to this great opportunity. I hope to show the world that being a great employer also leads to getting great results. If you feel that you can contribute to my goal and vision, don’t hesitate to reach out.

A definition of quality we can all agree on

Imagine the following situation:

You are a programmer and you have figured out that the program you have been working on finally works. That is to say, the tests you made are all green, and you think that it functions as it should. Then you look at your source code.

You can clearly see that it isn’t the best code you have ever produced. So you feel that you should improve upon it. There is a lot of pressure being put on the deadline though. So you decide to ask your manager if he agrees with you that improving the quality of the code is a good idea.

You present your case to your manager and ask him to choose what he thinks is important. And then he chooses to not improve upon the code, focusing instead on the deadline.

What just happened? Assuming both you as an engineer and your manager want a product of high quality, something about what quality is or how it’s being dealt with must be unclear between you.

A different point of view

After having been a programmer for many years, and encountering many problems of this kind, I became a manager of programmers.

Sometimes, they would come to me for advice about what to do with their code. It seemed strange to me that they would come to me at all. I had hired all of them for my team because I believed in them. I believed that they could do the job. And that included that they could make the necessary choices to make sure that we met both current and future goals.

It therefore always seemed to me that they came to me because they had an unfounded desire. That they wanted to do something which they knew was wrong but felt like doing anyway. And that that was the reason they were asking my permission. A strange experience.

I typically answered by not giving them a straight answer. Instead, I would tell them that they knew the goals – both long- and short-term – and that I believed that they could make the correct judgement calls to achieve them.

So what then is quality, and how does a clear definition help us?

Having been in both the programmer and manager seat, I started thinking about what quality then is. Convinced that it must be something that unites what everyone wants in a production environment. Since nobody is ever opposed to good quality, it must be something that is recognizable by all parties in the working environment. Be it engineers,  managers, business representatives, customers and senior management.

Quality seems to imply something about a product or production process that makes it good. Good in a few different ways. It needs to be fit for the purpose, to delight the customer, and to guarantee both long- and short-term results. What I came up is this:

The quality of anything is the degree to which it has long lasting, highly functional results.

So how does that help us? Well, with regards to our example. If both you and your manager can agree that this is what quality is, then the solution to the problem becomes easy. If we both want quality, and this is what it is, then we need to value the opinion of the person best capable to assess if the code as it is can guarantee long-lasting, highly functional results. The best person to do that is you as a programmer. You are the expert. So don’t bother your manager with the question, just know that you already have the answer.

Want to feel like quality is a thing that we all care about?

I am on a quest to create teams where people feel energized, love the product they work on and go home feeling fulfilled. Want to join me in my quest? Try out Challenge #3 and let me know in the comments what you experienced.

How to make the team greater than the sum of its parts

The phrase “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is a phrase that I have heard many times in my life. It implies something about synergy. About a group of people interacting in such a way that they perform better than they would do individually. It has long eluded me what this boils down to. Which simple statement could more clearly explain how this can work. This post is going to address exactly that and suggest an experiment to try and create such teams.

How could a team be greater than the sum of its parts

Teams exist because they have a job to do, a goal to achieve. This goal can be called the purpose of the team, provided that they feel a passion for achieving it. If this purpose is not trivially achieved it must mean that there are several tasks to be completed to achieve it. Let’s look at an example:

Skill matrix – by Annelies de Meyere

In this example Abe and Elaine have rather different skillsets. Abe is stronger at determining pricing and creating proposals, whereas Elaine is way stronger at designing a solution.

If they both work on all tasks equally during a week and we assume a linear correlation between skill and amount of work done, their output is 3,25 work per week:

If they decide to work together as a team and help each other out in order to achieve greater results together. They can easily achieve more than 1,5 times as much work:

If their purpose transcends their individual desires, they will try to create a situation where their strengths excel, and their weaknesses are compensated by the other.

This could mean that the one that is better at a single task wants to do it. Alternatively it could mean that the one that is better teaches the other how to become better at it. Whatever is the case, the crucial part is that in a successful team your weaknesses are compensated by other’s strengths.

What makes teams compensate for each other’s weaknesses

Being in a team where people have the ability to help you compensate for your weaknesses does not necessarily mean that they will. In this section I will give a short overview of a couple of things that I have learned and experienced that actually makes team members compensate for each other’s weaknesses.

1. Have a common vision (purpose)

A common vision is a thing that can help a team focus on the end result. Focusing all the members of a team on the same thing will help them work together. When all are trying to achieve the same thing they can be unified in their efforts. That can help the team focus on the end goal and makes compensating each other’s weaknesses and strengthening each other’s strengths a more logical thing to do.

2. Do one thing and do it great (focus)

Even teams that have a broad variety of skills in the individuals don’t necessarily help each other. A team could be working on many different tasks at once. In those teams people tend to spend their thoughts on how to keep every person working, assuming that optimizes output.

Focus instead on doing only 1 thing with your team. It keeps people together. When they focus on a task, weaknesses and strengths become more obvious. The people who are stronger at the task will then start helping the ones that are weaker so as to keep the whole team going forward. So work on 1 sub goal with your team and do that great.

3. Value learning and maintaining a steady high pace (quality)

By valuing learning highly we can create an environment in which it is “okay” to not know something or have some skill. Investing time and effort in learning opens up a situation in which team members can focus on end results and a steady high pace of achieving those results. When people try to learn, it will create an automatic focus on finding people that cover your weaker skills, since those are the people you can learn from the easiest.

Focusing on creating and maintaining a steady high pace gives the team a challenging task. If the task is challenging enough, team members will realize that just doing their part will not lead to steady high results without putting in steady high amounts of time.

4. Trust and care about each other

In order to want to help someone else it is paramount for people to trust each other. Only in an environment where you feel safe, do you have time to help another. A personal connection goes a great way to help ensure that you understand the other people in your team a lot better. A little thing that you can do is to tell a colleague about your personal life.

An experiment to help an existing team

To make the information presented above more applicable, I have tried to find two ways of making teams that utilize this knowledge in order to help build great teams. In this first section, we focus on a 3 phase experiment to help an existing team grow.

Phase 1: Determine required skills

Figure out what the team needs to work on, and what skills are needed to be successful. Try to name as few as possible.

Phase 2: Fill in chart with graphical representation of self-assessment

Present team members with a matrix in which they can represent how strong they are on the required skills with a graphical representation.

Phase 3: Take action where necessary

Use the matrix to identify potential weaknesses of the team.
Identify shortage of knowledge and expertise in the team. Try to offer the team a way to get stronger in that particular skill. This could be by expanding the team or by educating the existing team members. Identify weaknesses of team members that can be covered by team members that are strong in that particular skill.

An experiment to create a new team

In this second section, we will focus on a 5 phase experiment to help create a new team from scratch.

Phase 1: Determine required skills

Figure out what the team needs to work on, and what skills are needed to be successful. Try to name as few as possible.

Phase 2: Pre selection

Select possible candidates that you feel are suited to add value to the work that needs to be done.

Phase 3: Let candidates rank themselves in the required skills

Present candidates with a sheet where the required skills are presented and ask them to rank themselves on those skills.

Attention: ranking means that you make an ordering of the skills. So like this:

This is ranking

and not like this:

This is not ranking
Not ranking

Phase 4: Meet and greet

Let the candidates be together in a room where they can mix and mingle for about 1 hour. Make sure that they don’t stick to only a few people but that they get to know as many other possible candidates in that time.

Phase 5: Form a team

Let the candidates form a team with the following constraints:

  1. A team must have at least 1 person with a high rank on each of the required skills
  2. For every person on the team, for every skill that they ranked lowest, there must be a person that has that skill as a high ranking skill and wants to help them.

Creating more teams like this

I am on a quest to create teams where people feel energized, love the product they work on and go home feeling fulfilled. Want to join me in my quest? Try out Challenge #2 and let me know in the comments what you experienced.

The best team I ever worked with

I was lucky enough to have one of those great team experiences early on in my career. It taught me a lot of valuable lessons and shaped me as a person. Lets evaluate what made that team so good…

The lead up

When I was introduced to the team as the lead programmer I was already in luck. One of the other team members already knew me, and he thought quite highly of me. That helped create a setting where I felt good almost immediately.

We had gotten what was considered to be the most difficult of 3 projects. There was an old system that was going to be put out of commission. A new system was being created in one of the other projects. A second project was to transfer all of the data from the old system into the new system. Our job was to create a third system that would transfer data from the new system back into the old system in real time. So the challenge was considered significant because not only did it require knowledge of two systems, it also had a real time aspect to it. We knew that it was going to be tough. Nevertheless, we made a plan and started working at it.

We had what I would call a normal start for any project, things happened reasonably fast and we made progress. When we had reached a pretty big milestone, we asked somebody outside of our team to do a quality assessment.

Coming together as a team

At that moment, things changed. The quality assessment was bad. Not horrible, but definitely bad. We had screwed up. The system that we were creating was heading towards becoming hard to very hard to maintain. It took us maybe a day to take it all in, but then we decided that quality was important. We had to fix it, now! Before it was too late.

We talked with the project manager and tried our best to explain what the problem was and that we wanted to fix the quality at that exact moment. He disagreed, instead wanting to focus on new features. It was devastating for me at first, until the guys came to me and said: “Hey man. We see that you think that this is really important. What about we work overtime to get you the time to fix the quality issues. Would that help?”

That moment is still ingrained into my memory as the moment where we decided to be a team. We took to working as hard as we could to make it happen. About two weeks later, we came out having fixed all of the quality issues and still being completely on schedule.

Valuing the differences

It turned out that we were all focused on achieving the same goals. We were also keenly aware of the fact that some of us focused more on customer needs, some of us were more focused on reliability and testing, and some of us were more focused on keeping everything neat. That was something we could work with.  We got to know each other and we were interested in helping each other. Both professionally as well as occasionally personally. This created a situation in which we could thrive. You would always know that if you were bad at something, one of the others would step in and make sure it wasn’t a problem.

We became very confident that we could make a great product, but we also knew that to achieve a great result, sometimes we had to disobey what others told us. We knew that we could get away with this disobedience as long as we kept delivering high quality at a high pace. So that became a major focus. We decided to always do the right thing, even when others would tell us that we shouldn’t. It made life exciting and made the bond between the team members stronger, since we were aware that the secret was that we were good as a team.

The personal aspect of a good team

We had lots of talks about what we thought was going to happen. Sometimes we would disagree vividly. Sometimes we came together on something instantly. All of us had a part to play and we were respectful to each other, even when we were disagreeing strongly. It was this part of our team interaction that kept us on the lookout for what would possibly come. It made us secure the system against so many different types of problems that eventually our system became one of the most stable systems in the company.

We had good times talking about everything in our lives, both good and bad. We stood by each other in hard times and had fun together in good times. And we focused on growth of individual team members. When someone asked for help, we would found time to help them. No matter the amount. In the end, it was the combination of a great personal connection and achieving great business results that made us a great team.

A long lasting success

After 3 and a half years of working together we had created a great product. But as far as I’m concerned, the product was not the best thing to come out of that experience.

When I think back on all the things that we did, I always remember why we did things and why it “just worked”. I’ve tried to replicate that success in many other situations, trying to take into account what other people say about what it takes to become a great team.

I’ve found several ingredients and have seen other teams be successful. But never again did I find a group that was as cohesive and committed to each other as I did with that team. We still meet up about once per quarter, 10 years later now, and talk. It is a great feeling to me, knowing that my colleagues of that long ago still want to know how I’m doing.

Creating more teams like this

Ever since this team experience, I’ve been on a quest to create more of those. Want to join me in my quest? Try out Challenge #1