What I learned about Pull Systems from playing MiniMotorways

MiniMotorways game

So, my wife got a new phone. And with it came a three-month family subscription to Apple Arcade – Apple’s subscription games service that promises fun games, all ad-free. Two months in, and I am hopelessly addicted to a strategy game called MiniMotorways. The premise is simple – connect houses to factories and ensure vehicles keep up with demand. This gets harder as your cities grow, and traffic builds up.

I hit a bit of a rut with my scores until I realized that lessons from working with Kanban, pull systems and value streams in organizations are equally applicable to the world of MiniMotorways. By applying some rules from the workplace I was able to double my scores in a matter of days, before finally achieving my personal target of achieving the mythical score of 2,000!

This article is about organizing your business for delivery. Or perhaps it is about winning at MiniMotorways. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a little bit of both.

Pull, not push

I read a guide to the game online that started with this description of the game “In Mini Motorways, your main objective is to ensure that every car that spawns in your city can get to their destination within a reasonable time.” I later discovered this description of how the game worked was wildly inaccurate!

I diligently connected houses to roads and roads to factories as quickly as I could. I took care to ensure the yellow houses had routes to yellow factories, blue to blue, and so on. But things kept going wrong, and I couldn’t quite figure out why. When I realized the problem, I kicked myself. As someone who advocates for Kanban and pull processes in the workplace, here I was with a pull system operating right under my nose, and I hadn’t even noticed it! You see, it wasn’t the houses that were pushing cars out, but the factories pulling cars to them. The description I had read was a lie. In reality, every time a factory signaled a new stock item, a car would be dispatched from a house of the same color to collect it. This epiphany revolutionized my gameplay.

Where I had been going wrong was diligently connecting all of the houses as fast as I could. In doing so, I was effectively trying to push more cars into the system than the factories needed or could cope with. In organizations, when we try and push projects into a portfolio without thinking about capacity for change and cognitive load, we end up with the same problems as I was facing with the game. Traffic builds up, blockages occur, and cars (or work) take unpredictable and often circuitous routes through the system. In lean terms, we end up with too much work in progress (WIP). And whether you are playing console games on your phone or managing a projects portfolio, too much WIP can bring everything to a grinding halt.

So I started disconnecting houses – only connecting the ones that were needed. I made sure I connected the houses closest to the factory as a priority – as these would deliver quickly without cars spending a lot of time on the road. In the world of project portfolios, intake funnels can be designed similarly. Prioritize the projects that will deliver results rapidly, and avoid bringing in the long, rambling, complex projects that are simply going to cause everything to grind to a halt. Such a strategy may cause upset in the organization in the short term, but in the long term, this pays dividends. Firstly, projects will deliver faster. Secondly, you help the business slice work up into bite-sized pieces that are small enough to succeed. If you need further proof that this works, take a look at Little’s law, which shows the causal relationship between the amount of work in progress, and the amount of time it takes to get things done.

Avoid busy interchanges

When vehicles approach an interchange, they slow down. The more interchanges you have on a journey, the slower your journey will be. Time is wasted in queues, and energy is wasted by speeding up and slowing down.

In the world of MiniMotorways, we handle this by trying to keep traffic separate. Purple houses are linked to purple factories on dedicated roads – sometimes taking a longer route to avoid creating interchanges.

In the world of project delivery, there are two equivalents to interchanges: context switching and dependencies. Too many of either can have catastrophic impacts on delivery.

Context switching is where individuals and teams constantly switch between different pieces of work or jump between different meetings. This can dramatically slow down delivery. Gerald Weinberg calculates each extra task or ‘context’ you switch between eats up 20–80% of your overall productivity in his book on systems thinking (see graph below).

Graph showing how time lost to context switching increases when more projects are undertaken simultaneously.

The effect can be particularly noticeable on projects where work requires high concentration and focus, such as software development. Software teams who are constantly required to attend meetings, and are constantly interrupted by ‘urgent’ work, ahttps://www.hotpmo.com/blog/pmo-what-does-it-mean-acronym-project-management/re never going to perform optimally. Project Managers are responsible for creating temporary environments where projects can be delivered. It is important, therefore, that project managers, PMOs, and portfolio managers consider the effects of context switching on teams and take action to minimize context switching as much as possible.

Dependencies are another big challenge. Too many handoffs and dependencies mean more work sits queuing. These delays increase WIP and also increase effort, as every handoff requires explanation and documentation.

When planning portfolios of work, it is always important to model out the portfolio’s dependencies as early as possible. If your dependency map starts to look like the tangle in the image below, then it is time to think about how you can reorganize the work or reorganize the teams with a specific goal of minimizing inter-team dependencies.

People working on complex cabling.

Bridges, Tunnels, and Highways

During the MiniMotorways game, you are offered a selection of Bridges (to cross water), Tunnels (to dig through mountains), and Highways (to go over buildings and other streets). Sagacious players of the game will use these gifts shrewdly to avoid blockers and increase the number of vehicles pulled into a hungry factory.

In organizations, we often talk about scrum masters and project managers removing blockers to delivery. But this process of removing blockers is not just the project team’s responsibility. The PMO plays a vital role here too. At HotPMO, we often talk about the role of the PMO as delivering the right things faster. To do this, the PMO needs to tackle blockers on a portfolio or even enterprise level. This can range from simple things like helping a project team navigate financial controls quickly to keep things moving to larger initiatives such as taking responsibility for resource planning and portfolio prioritization.

Prioritization is important because it often helps with decision-making that removes blockers to your most critical projects. No matter how well you separate your projects and how well you manage dependencies, you will run into conflicts and competing priorities. What matters here is having good mechanisms in place for expediting the important work to keep everything moving. If you work with software development teams who use Kanban, then you are probably already familiar with the use of ‘Expedite swimlanes,’ which can be used to accelerate tasks or projects that require urgent attention. These expedite lanes are the equivalent of our Highways, Bridges, and Tunnels in our game. Portfolio Managers and PMOs should work closely with the business to look for opportunities to expedite delivery where possible by defining processes that effectively navigate controls, cut through inter-departmental politics and make it clear to everyone which tasks are important (and need expediting), and which can wait.

Protect the flow

Protect the flow is a mantra in MiniMotorways. If your vehicles don’t flow, your demise is inevitable. In the same way that PMO teams used to obsess over Gantt charts and milestones, modern PMOs are devoting the same levels of focus on Value Stream Mapping and flow metrics. We frequently see PMO teams spending a great deal of time looking at what projects are selected but barely looking at how workflows on the projects have been selected. This has to change. If work is not flowing effectively, it doesn’t matter how good your selection process is – nothing will get delivered on time. It is better to devote time to defining the flow of work and protecting that flow to ensure work is delivered rapidly and WIP is minimized. Only when work is flowing smoothly is it work starting to look at optimizing the prioritization process.

Value stream map in Excel.

The perils of traffic lights

In addition to highways and bridges, the game occasionally provides you the gift of traffic lights. Much like in real life, these control the flow of vehicles at junctions. They organize vehicles and let them through in batches. Does this make things faster? Well, kind of. Where traffic flow is light, the traffic lights are a blocker. They slow things down and cause vehicles to wait unnecessarily. But when you have a high-volume junction, they become essential to allow vehicles to flow.

The same can be true of the processes we put in place to support and control projects in our organizations. Applying a model such as the UK Government Gateway Review process in a small company running only a handful of projects would massively slow down delivery. Time would be spent on gateway reviews and on compiling evidence and documentation. But scale up to a major global oil and gas company, and such processes become vital to keeping the right projects on track while protecting the organization from commercial risk.

The art of running a PMO or portfolio is to understand when traffic lights are needed to keep things moving and when they are simply going to slow things down. This is an important consideration when implementing new PMO services: ask yourself – is this service really necessary? Will it accelerate delivery and help us deliver the right things faster? In particular, PMOs should be wary of imported solutions, such as those advocated to adhere to maturity models or because they were beneficial within a different organization. No two organizations are alike. A process or control that may accelerate delivery in one may well act as a set of traffic lights at a near-empty road junction: slowing everything down, with no discernable business benefit.

Final Thoughts

When I downloaded the MiniMotorways game, I saw it as a minor distraction. I never expected to end up writing a PMO article about it! But inspiration can come from a variety of sources. And this is probably the most important lesson of all. If you want to achieve portfolio and PMO success, it pays to read and study broadly. Understanding methods such as PRINCE2 and frameworks such as Scrum will only get you so far. To really succeed, you need to draw on a broader body of knowledge and look for inspiration everywhere. History, Music, Cookery, and Sports are all rich with inspiration that can be used to make your Projects flow faster. As this HBR article weighing up the benefits of generalist managers vs. specialist managers notes: There is no one-size-fits-all strategy to promote creativity.