50cc’s of Patience

Sometimes we take things for granted. Especially if we’ve been at a thing for a while and have gotten used to it.  We might think we are asking for the same results, but we are really pushing beyond what we should expect. We expect more, but get less. So we are disappointed in the thing and try to fix it.  But, the problem might not be with the thing.  It might be with us.  I experienced this riding my scooter.  I learned that we have to balance push with patience; speed with capacity.  And, to be patient, we need to get feedback on what’s possible and what’s happening.

I have a Kymco People 50cc scooter that I ride to visit Olympia-area clients on days that aren’t too wet or cold. It conserves gas, and it’s fun. Maybe too much fun.

I’ve had the scooter almost a year. The scooter’s little 50cc engine moves me smoothly along at city speed limits. 35 is no problem, and a twist of the throttle to the limit pushes me just over 40 with no complaints. Well, for the first nine months or so it didn’t complain. Then, my overconfidence in its capacity for speed started to show as the scooter began to respond to my throttle twisting with self-imposed slow downs.

It must be “bad gas” or “it needs a tune-up” I thought. Cleaning the spark plug and air filter were easy but didn’t solve the problem. Once heated up, the scooter still decided I shouldn’t accelerate as quickly as I expected or cruise at 40+ without occasional self imposed slow downs to about 30 until it was ready to sprint again. Internet searches pinpointed the problem as a dirty carburetor. Fixing that was above my pay grade, so looked for an expert. I found Vince at http://www.vincesmotorcyclestore.com/. His small operation sounded like mine – personal and focused on service and quality. Sure enough, Vince responded to my email right away and I scooted to his shop. He greeted me at the door, hopped on the scooter and went for ride returning with a knowing look on his face.

“Seems to be running spot on. Tell me how you ride.” he said. “Well, I commute to work and do an occasional joy ride around town.” “How fast to do you go?” “The speed limit, well, I follow traffic up to about 40mph. It tops out there.” “How long do you keep it at 40?” “As long as I need to. I ride on a long stretch to work that has a speed limit of 40.” Vinced nodded. “Glenn, you look like a runner. I used to run alot.” “You’re right. So did I.” Two over 50 guys acknowledged achy knees and hips. Vince said “I could run all day at 8 minute miles, but when I’d try to do a 7 minute mile, I didn’t last long. I’d have to slow down or I’d strain something.” “Me, too.” Vince had me.

“Well, your Kymco 50cc likes to run at 30 to 35. You can max it out if you have to for brief sprints or hills, but not without risk. Once it heats up, that little engine hits capacity and will start to have mini seizures or the piston rings will warp a little. It has a governor to limit its speed, but that isn’t enough to keep you from pushing it too hard.” Vince prescribed a better oil and a gas treatment that would cover a dirty carb just in case that was a contributor. Mostly, he said to take it easy and the little Kymco will get me where I want to go smoothly for a long time. Stay off the long stretches of speed limit 40 roads, accelerate a little slower, listen to and feel the bike, and go for smooth and steady, not fast and furious.

I followed Vince’s advice and, sure enough, smooth riding followed. It made me think. My perception was that my riding was the same after nine months as it had been at first. I figured the problem was mechanical as that was the only variable. But, maybe my confidence in myself as a rider and in the bike had grown and I was changing my riding style. Was I accelerating faster, riding faster longer? You know, I probably was. It felt the same, but I was taking performance for granted and asking for more. Instead, I perceived I was getting less and was asking for problems. I was interpreting the feedback I was getting from my trusty scooter as a problem with the scooter.

I work with teams who are constantly being asked for more. There’s less money, but there’s a growing need for new systems to replace very old ones and take advantage of new technologies. When we get asked to do more, how can we find out what we can really do? How do we balance push with patience, speed with capacity?

I think the key to understanding our team’s capacity is to ask them. You need to get the right kind of feedback and to get it often. The right kind of feedback involves both the work to be done and how it should be done. The team has to drive defining the work, organizing the work, collaborating on the work, and assessing how they did. If they have the responsibility to do this, they will find how to make the most of their capacity in a way that works best for them. They will find what can go right and will go there.

Compare this with an approach where the project manager defines what has to be done and then decides how fast the team has to go. The project manager drives defining the work, creating estimates, setting milestones, and measuring progress. The team says they are committed but under performs. The project manager looks for what is going wrong. Based on his experience and how he perceives what can be done, things should be going faster. But they aren’t. Something is broken, someone isn’t pulling his weight. How can it be fixed? The answer may be to look within. Is the project manager giving his team a chance to chose the path that works for them, to make a commitment they know that they can meet?

In systems development, I really like how “agile” brings team engagement to a project and gets feedback to the project manager. Agile is a variation on lean manufacturing practices. It starts by identifying a product backlog. The product backlog contains all the features or “user stories” that must be delivered to produce the desired outcome of the project. The work is organized into sprints or iterations that last a short period of time like 2 to 4 weeks. The planning meeting at the start of the sprint considers how team members need to work together, what has to be learned or coordinated, and how everyone will ensure that by the end of the sprint work completed adds value and makes progress toward project objectives.

The team identifies its capacity in terms of hours available considering team members’ other work obligations or needs. Based on a project plan that identifies a sequence of work, the team selects work from the product backlog that fills its capacity for the sprint. Tasks from the product backlog may also lead to supporting tasks that also use capacity like research or learning. The team interacts daily on how things are going and demonstrates its results at the end of the sprint. It finishes the sprint with a retrospective look at how things went and what learning is applicable to future sprints.

Agile provides the project manager with the feedback needed to understand whether the team is making the most of its capacity. It includes the structure and feedback needed to be patient while delegating much of the pushing required to the team. It engages the team in finding the right way to complete the work. Capacity and speed are self balancing. If team members commit to too much, it shows fairly quickly. They adjust in the next sprint to find optimal speed. If they have excess capacity, they can fill it immediately.

What I’ve noticed is that a team using agile is likely to accomplish more on a consistent basis if it tends to under commit and over deliver. Two of the principles of agile or lean apply here. One is that the team strives for a steady pace that can be sustained. The other is that team members draw from the product backlog to fill their capacity also considering the capacity of those downstream. Being a bit under committed allows the team to find a steady pace. Team members can help one another stay on pace without feeling under pressure to focus only on their own work. Steady pace with some capacity for flexibility allows creativity and digging a little deeper to understand a problem or finding out how to use a technology more effectively. It also creates confidence and pride that contributes to better teamwork and greater personal commitment to the project. This makes the team more likely to stretch a bit and ultimately be more productive.

Agile is an example of letting the team define their capacity and provide feedback on how much they can do. A smart project manager listens to the team, gets a feel for what they can do, and helps the team get to a sustainable optimal level of production.

Agile fits into my focus on finding what can go right because it involves engaging the team members, frequently asking the team for how the work coming up can be the best possible experience for the people involved, staying focused on the project’s outcomes, and achieving balance.

Whatever approach you use to make or get commitments and results, be sure it balances push with patience and speed with capacity. Get the feedback you need to gauge this. You don’t want the scooter to overheat. You don’t want mini seizures or warped components. You should allow a little time for flexibility and just enjoying the ride. You want your scooter to be ready for the next trip. The key to this, as the project manager, is you.

Thanks for riding, I mean reading.

Copyright Glenn Briskin and “The Other Side of Risk” 2012


5 thoughts on “50cc’s of Patience

  1. Great article Glenn, this certainly made me look inside to get perspective of my current project. Perfect analogy. Thanks for posting.

  2. Pingback: Project Management Patience | The Other Side of Risk

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