The Economics of Raking Leaves

I was out in the garden this weekend raking up leaves. Having read Geoff Watts recent post about using Scrum to clear his leaves – and as someone who can’t do anything without thinking about work (see Kanban and Quad Biking!) – my mind turned to how I would use Kanban Thinking to approach the work at hand. Surely I would advocate single piece flow by clearing up each leaf individually, visualising and measuring my progress?

I hope its clear that doing as such would be insane! But why? Maybe “single leaf flow” would be better? Why did my instincts shout out otherwise? The answer, as I have learned so often recently, comes down to making an economic trade-off. Every decision has a value and a cost, and finding the right balance is key, preferring higher value and lower cost.

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Each leaf cleared from my lawn would have value in progressing me towards my goal of a tidy garden. However, the transaction cost of removing each leaf individually would be far too great. Therefore, a more sensible trade-off was to batch the leaves into piles, so that transaction cost was spread over a larger number of leaves.

Further, like Geoff, I also considered the risk of creating multiple piles before bagging them up. I could also run out of bags, or have the piles blown away. However, I knew I had plenty of bags, and it was an unseasonably still day, so I created multiple batches before bagging. I was even able to safely have lunch between batching and bagging without any regret. In other words I made another trade-off between the value (in terms of addressing risk) and cost. The value (or risk) wasn’t great enough to justify the cost.

I may not have designed a Kanban System to rake the leaves, but I did apply some economic thinking to decide what to do. If there’s one main lesson I’ve learned over the last few years, its that there is rarely a ‘right’ answer, but that there are trade-offs, and they are usually economic.

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