The slow-smooth-fast of workflows
(4/30 of 30 daily writing pieces)
There’s a Navy Seals training slogan, “slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. Navy Seals are often put in situations where lightning quick reflexes and decision making can make the difference in life-or-death outcomes. Yet, the slogan of “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” became synonymous with their training.
The speculation is that in order to be fast, the movements are drilled to focus on smoothness and fluidity. This means cultivating muscle memory so the Seals can move without much conscious deliberation. Then, in order to be that smooth, the training requires the new recruits to practice the movements slowly to get them right. This is the “thinking from outcomes backward”. I was aware of the slogan for many years but only recently did it occur to me to juxtapose this concept with what I have learned in automating workflows for customers. The similarities are striking.
Slow = Do it yourself, manually
If we were to deconstruct the Seals’ slogan, there are 3 phases essentially: slow, smooth, and fast with 2 transitions in between. Slow to smooth, and smooth to fast.
To make the most successful automated workflows, I will argue, requires going through a 3 phase sequence as well. The equivalent of the slow phase for workflow automation would be to perform the tasks personally and manually.
When you do it yourself manually, it will definitely be slow and painful. Especially when you are used to whizzing around as a developer with your shortcut keys and script automation happening around all the time. Just like the Seals’ training of starting with the slow movements in order to convert them into muscle memory, doing it personally and manually has a purpose too. The purpose is engender empathy in the developer for the user and increase understanding of the process involved.
In practical terms, transitioning from the slow phase to the smooth phase cannot be a once-and-done job. I’m sure there will be lots of two steps forward, one step backwards scenario for the Navy Seals trainee. Similarly, as a developer trying to automate workflows, we may have to go back and forth multiple times between this personal and manual phase with the next phase in order to get it right.
Smooth = Make tech-agnostic workflow design
Once you gained sufficient empathy for the people performing the manual tasks and their whys, and grokked deeply about the process, you are now ready to make some architectural decision. You would, by now, be able to know which parts of the workflow make sense to automate, which parts are not, which parts are better off outsourced, and better yet, which parts can be eliminated once you introduce new technology. You also would gain a sense of where the biggest risks are when transitioning the users from their current workflow to the new automated workflow.
As mentioned earlier, this transition may need to happen over several iterations. You may end up running some experiments to validate your intelligent guesses on what tasks make best sense for automation and so on. You can do this in chunks. For example, whenever an experiment disproves a hypothesis about some tasks (but not all) in the workflow, you go back to the proverbial drawing board by moving back to the first phase of doing it manually and personally for those same tasks.
Probably similar to how Navy Seals trained movements consist of smaller actions strung together as coordinated sets. Their slow-to-smooth training is likely to involve break up the actions into chunks and getting the actions be silky smooth one chunk at a time.
While some automation may be allowed at this phase, it’s not the focus. The focus is to make sure the tech-agnostic design — and it should be tech agnostic — of your new workflow makes sense, is simple, exhibits definite improvement to the users, and would be enhanced once you add in the actual technology in the third phase.
Fast = Add technology where applicable
This is the part most people in business mistake as the main part or the core part of automation — adding technology. Actually, this should be seen as the final phase of a three phase process. It builds on top of the understanding derived from the previous two phases. Similar to how the transition from manual to design might involve a few iterations or multiple discrete steps, the transition from design to adding technology would likely involve multiple steps or iterations.
If you can do either transition in a single move, you’re probably automating some a simple workflow that involves very few people.
And just like how the muscle memory obtained at the smooth phase in the Seals’ training provides the framework for the faster motions in the fast phase, your tech-agnostic design in the design phase is the framework for you to put in technology at the appropriate parts of the workflow.
Manual then Design. Design then Technology
My attempt at coming up with a similar catchy slogan as the Seals will probably be lame. Nevertheless, “manual leads to design and design leads to technology” is the one I’m trying out for now. If you have a better slogan, do comment below.
I also want to point out that upon reflection, whenever I try to rush the phase or worse skip phases, my efforts often flounder. When I do obey this process, no matter how long I have to stay working in the earlier phases, the final outcomes are far more profitable and satisfying for me and my customers.