Flow Metrics Explained

Flow Metrics

If your organization is looking to include enterprise service teams in a future of working-from-home, then it’s likely that the operational information available to managers needs to be better than it was before. To help, flow metrics introduce actionable operational insight related to homeworking teams. This article explains what flow metrics are and how they’ll help the operations and outcomes of your service teams and the people within them.

What are flow metrics?

We’re very fortunate in IT. Every service team, for instance an IT service desk, is expected to capture all work requirements and tasks in service tickets. Mostly, this is in fact an operational necessity. It’s also necessary, or at least expected, that all subsequent work activity is recorded too. Taken together, for a busy service desk team especially, complete activity data holds an accurate and often fair representation of each team member’s contribution and performance. It also quite accurately depicts a team member’s day.

This article explains what flow metrics are and how they’ll help the operations and outcomes of your service teams and the people within them. #servicedesk #homeworking Share on X

Flow metrics sit on top of aggregated work activity data to provide this kind of information.

In IT, activity data always includes four activity types, namely tickets raised, tickets completed, journal notes, and email journals. But many IT departments also use tasks, so tasks created and tasks completed would usually be included in the aggregation.

There are many ways in which this data can be used to form many different types of flow metric. The two most beneficial, particularly in a work-from-home setting, are what might be called activity gap metrics and “day line” metrics.

Activity gap metrics explained

Activity gap metrics are the most useful and actionable. They’re useful because of a second necessity for any front-line support team. That is, to maintain a quite regular flow of activity so that service is as timely and available as possible. This necessity means that any unexpected long gap in recorded activity indicates that something has gone wrong – that an issue has occurred.

By making this information known, managers are positioned to “manage by exception”. Help and support can be offered when it’s needed, which might involve coordination of teamwork.

An unexpected long gap will usually be for one of three reasons. Most commonly, the cause will be getting caught up in a time-consuming task. By managers knowing when time-consuming tasks happen, procedural and knowledge shortcomings are identified which can be captured in a continual improvement register. Other kinds of events also become known, for instance a divisional manager wishing to discuss a project. Without this flow metric type, such issues and business needs will often remain unknown, meaning many improvement and value-add opportunities are missed.

This is perhaps the biggest benefit gained from flow metrics. By capturing most, if not all, operational issues, IT departments can introduce lean six sigma principles and other service improvement qualities to everyday work.

By capturing most, if not all, operational issues, IT departments can introduce lean six sigma principles and other service improvement qualities to everyday work. #servicedesk #ITSM Share on X

Secondly, there might be a welfare issue. Thirdly, there might be an issue in which a team member has been unable to cover their designated hours, which might be a welfare concern. When individuals are working remotely, it’s especially important that events of this kind are known.

The following example scenario frames activity gap metrics clearly:

“You manage an IT service desk team and recognize the importance of frequent activity. To help achieve it, your team is expected to spend no more than thirty minutes on a single task before escalating to another team.

A team member has unexpectedly not logged, updated, or completed a service ticket or task for 45 minutes. This is known, shown on your dashboard.

You check-in to make sure that all is OK and realize assistance can be provided by a colleague, which is duly coordinated. You also realize that the cause was inadequate documentation and so add this to the team’s improvement register. Once the documentation is updated, future service is provided more efficiently.”

This same scenario, but perhaps following a different time frame, is relevant and applicable across all IT support tiers.

“Day line” metrics explained

“Day line” metrics might be shown as the daily total activity contribution across a team member’s week. To imagine this, think of a bar graph with the week’s five days on the x-axis and the team member’s total activity count presented as bars up the y-axis, with each bar perhaps delineated by tickets created, tickets completed, and “all other activity.”

Usually, the only activity types measured by an IT department are tickets and tasks completed. With flow metrics, even if tasks are not used, it’s still four rather than the usual one activity type being measured to accurately depict an individual’s day.

Without “day line” metrics, it’s perfectly reasonable to take the view that team members should not be judged on numbers. With this type of metric, however, the opposite view is not only appropriate but can yield substantial operational benefits.

Leading research and advisory firms agree that team members want to have good performance metrics. We all like to know how well we’ve done, as long as the judgment is accurate and fair. Performance metrics must also relate to a team’s purpose, and to gain the most from them they should be the source of frequent praise commending good results.

The conclusion is that good metrics motivate performance. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a “carrot” (as opposed to “stick”) approach to performance management.

What’s more, Gallup Inc. has found that when employees feel their manager holds them accountable for their performance, they’re 2.5 times more likely to be engaged in their work and half as likely to find employment elsewhere in the next twelve months.

Day-based activity totals might be presented to respective team members on a personal dashboard. More generally, aggregated activity data is fit for use in performance reviews whereas a subset (only tickets completed), is not.

Flow metrics take operational necessities to new heights

I touched on two operational necessities that give flow metrics their use. What’s interesting though is that the existence of the metrics leads naturally to much better achievement of the operational necessities.

This is because firstly, for dispersed teams especially, team members might want to avoid an unexpected gap in their activity, to avoid their manager being concerned. This factor naturally encourages logging of all activity and team collaboration to keep things moving along.

Secondly, the logging of all activity as often as possible is encouraged by presenting “day line” metrics on a personal dashboard, and by performance reviews that use valid, meaningful performance data.

Flow metrics also satisfy new operational necessities

For peace-of-mind and manageability in the “new normal” of working-from-home, I’d say that there are three new, or at least heightened, necessities. They are to:

  1. Position managers much closer to what is happening operationally on the ground
  2. Grow collaborative and collective teamwork
  3. Give meaningful recognition and praise when things are going well.

All three are met when aggregated activity data is used in the ways outlined.

Are flow metric outcomes a digital transformation?

Definitions of digital transformation vary. My view is that it’s the replacement or easement of manual input through computer-generated or assisted means. Not computer systems and applications, but how they’re implemented to make things more efficient and improve experiences all-round.

Are flow metric outcomes a digital transformation? #digitaltransformation #servicedesk Share on X

Flow metrics fit this definition. Managers no longer need to spend a great deal of time micro-managing in order to steer service in a more effective direction. Indeed, because micro-management is not usually very achievable due to competing managerial responsibilities, and employees much prefer autonomy, flow metrics introduce new and quite transformational capabilities for managers that will directly improve service operation and experience.

These outcomes are heightened because the metrics can be expected to also lift attitudes and behaviors quite naturally. A side benefit might be fewer welfare incidents.

Much has been said about how working-from-home might affect company culture and employee engagement in the long-term. It’s an understandable concern that is reduced quite substantially by the upswing that can be expected of flow metrics.

All flow metrics serve to elevate manageability, experience, and engagement to some degree, with some being more “digital” in nature than others. So, although activity gap and “day line” metrics might not seem like a substantial change (which is a good thing), I’d suggest that flow metric outcomes are most certainly a digital transformation. After-all, by making a future of working-from-home viable for more teams across the enterprise, this poignant outcome is itself a digital transformation.

Finally, with a big boost also given to continual improvement, while this aspect is not a digital transformation in itself (but can be, actually), the outputs sometimes will be. For instance, in discovering opportunities for automation.

The fact that flow metrics bring about transformation at, and affecting, the center of a business is a good thing as well. Many would suggest that this is in fact the sensible place to start. By forming digital change from the inside out, line-of-business digital initiatives are likely to have a much better chance of success. This is because, as is much discussed, inclusivity early-on wins hearts and minds and helps to surface more ideas. By fostering a digital culture in this way, the more ideas and perspectives that can be gleaned, the better it is for digital strategy.

So, what’s the downside?

The downside is that to get the most from activity data aggregation, it’s necessary to extend a service tool’s database, starting with a bespoke data collection table. For this reason, flow metrics are not common and might even be a new concept, but if your ITSM tool can support their production, putting them in place is bound to be worth-while.

My company, Opimise, is a Cherwell Technology Alliance Partner. Flow metrics are available as a Cherwell extension and I’m keen to discuss and research how far they can be implemented in other ITSM tools too. If you can help with this, please get in touch.

A white paper on the subject of flow metrics, including images taken from the Cherwell extension, can be found at opimise.com.

David Stewart
Service Management Consultant at Opimise

David is a consultant who works with organisations in their adoption of TOFT practices.

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