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3.8 Moving Variations to the End

Operational science teaches us to move variations in a process to the end. Burger King restaurants make a generic hamburger, waiting until the last minute to add toppings such as ketchup, mustard, and pickles. Unsold inventory can be kept generic so that it can be quickly customized when the order is placed. Otherwise, a restaurant might end up with a surplus of burgers with pickles sitting unsold while Christina waits for her pickle-less order to be made from scratch.

Auto manufacturers also delay variation to the last possible moment. Option packages are added at the end, where demand is better understood. Unusual items like special audio systems or fancy tires are added by the dealer only after a particular customer requests them.

As long as the WIP stays generic, the process is simple and easier to streamline. You can mass-produce dozens of generic burgers with a single process and a single focus, improving it constantly to be more efficient. Once they are customized, everything becomes a special snowflake process. Our ability to improve the process is not impossible, though it is deterred.

This strategy also works in IT. Design systems and processes to keep WIP generic for as long as possible. Save variations until the end. This reduces the combinations of configurations and variables to be tested, makes it easier to verify completeness and accuracy, and makes it easier to improve the process.

We’ve already seen this in our discussion of the onboarding process, where common tasks were done first.

Another example relates to laptop distribution. Imagine a company where all new employees receive the same laptop, with the same OS, the same configuration, and the same applications. However, when a user logs in for the first time, specific applications are installed depending on whether the employee is an engineer, salesperson, or executive. After that customers can customize the workstation to their liking. This enables the entire laptop deployment process to be generic until the last possible moment.

Now imagine instead that such customizations were done at the start. If there was a burst of new engineers starting at the company, the IT department might find itself with no engineering laptops left but plenty of sales laptops. If the hardware was the same they could at least rework the laptops to be engineering laptops. This would double the effort expended on each laptop, but it would solve the immediate problem. If the hardware models were different, however, the engineers would have to wait for laptops since the units are not fungible resources. Alternatively, the engineers could be retrained to work as salespeople, but that would be silly since people are not fungible resources.

When things are different in software, we can treat them generically by choosing the right level of abstraction. Containers permit all services to be treated generically because no matter what is on the inside, the SAs can simply deal with them at generic touch points that are common for all.

Some software frameworks permit plug-ins or drivers to be written so that the framework deals with generic “things” but the differences are mediated by the plug-in.

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