FishingI often run into parallels between what I do in my day job, and what happens on the farm. The topics of sustaining, capacity and slack time, have been on my mind lately.

In the software world, sustaining work is effort applied to keep existing customers happy, or to maintain the existing code base in general. This may mean fixing bugs in released product, adding features to keep an existing product competitive and selling, or making changes to infrastructure to either keep a product line alive, or improve it so that more sellable features can be added to it. Sustaining work doesn’t generate revenue or increase market share. But, it often helps maintain a revenue stream, or prevent losing existing customers to competitors, in hopes they may eventually upgrade or buy new product in the future. In software, many companies dedicate about 30% of their labor spend to sustaining work; and this is always considered a very painful budgetary reality, since there is no direct ROI on sustaining work.

On farms, there is a parallel. For one, when you sell breeding stock, there is inevitably an unspoken “support contract,” where those buyers will contact you with questions about animal husbandry on an ongoing basis, sometimes for years. To some extent, I don’t mind this; I like to help, and I am good at “book knowledge”, so can often rattle off all sorts of applicable facts for whatever challenge a former customer may be facing. Of course, this support takes time, and doesn’t make me any immediate money. But, I want these customers to be successful with the animals they purchased from me, and one always hopes that the good faith act will bring these customers back again to buy more breeding animals later. And also, that it may encourage them to make referrals.  This is part of the reason why we have to charge much more for breeding stock than butcher animals, because they come with this inherent overhead.

There is also a constant rhythm on a farm of maintaining infrastructure: not long after you build fences, they already start falling apart and needing tensioning and repairs. Animals are hard on things like feeders and gates, so ongoing fixing is always needed there. Fields need harrowing, guardian dogs need brushing, barns need sweeping, hen next boxes need cleaning, ewes need vaccinating and hoof trimming, tractors need fixing, crops need weeding, and on and on. It’s worth being mindful of sustaining work, because if it’s allowed to creep above a certain threshold, it erodes your ability to earn profit or grow new markets.

Capacity, on a software team, is just a measure of how much revenue-generating plus sustaining work the team is able to output on a periodic basis. In Agile teams, we refer to this as “velocity”- how many stories can the team complete each sprint? Farming has a parallel, in how many lambs can we grow, rows of spinach can we cultivate, or chickens can we manage per season, while maintaining the stuff we’ve already got going? For any given farm, there is a breaking point where more can’t be sustained without adding extra infrastructure, labor, or both. We’ve probably all known somebody who has allowed their farming activities to go over capacity for too long, to where things start getting out of control or falling apart: the animals stop getting adequate care, crops get overrun with weeds and are lost, or the farm piles up with trash and declines into disrepair. We must always be mindful of our current capacity, when the workload has reached the limit, and what must be done to increase capacity to a new level.

Slack time, in software, is the concept of intentionally running your team below capacity, so that they have some extra time to spare. You keep this time partly in reserve, to handle cases where you under-estimated work required for a commitment. This allows you to avoid asking the team to work horrendous overtime to catch up, or needing to panic and hire expensive contractors to salvage a deadline. Instead, the team can just consume the slack when needed. Slack time can also be used to do things which can’t be done when the team is running at full capacity: cleanup (of either the code base, the backlog of sustaining work, or the physical office space), infrastructure improvements, investing in new ideas or “ideation”, or just plain ol’ downtime that allows people to maintain a refreshed state of mind and a good attitude about their jobs.

Working full time and also farming (and often even when “only” farming full time)  tends to force us to run at the edge of capacity, or even over it, and there is little or no slack time. This is, of course, unsustainable for the long-term. How can we tell if we are at this edge, or over it? By measuring whether all the required sustaining work is getting done on time, and then, how much new work over and above that is being accomplished, and how much slack time is available for unplanned activities. 

I have moments, days, weeks and months where it feels like I am just treading water: attending to the basic needs of the animals, like feeding and watering; and accomplishing the “must-do” tasks like vaccinating and hoof trimming. I have plenty of days where it’s all I can manage to just come home from work, do the basic chores, eat dinner (that my husband had made!), answer email, surf the web a bit, and then go to bed. Some weekends are rushed, cramming in a big chore like weighing all the lambs, then doing laundry, housecleaning (which we don’t do nearly enough of), grocery shopping and errands, and even just catching up on lost sleep.

But it’s important to make sure that not all the days are like this: if so, then something is eventually gonna give: one’s health, the welfare of the animals, one’s day job, the profitability of the venture, one’s relationships, the infrastructure and environment on which one depends, or the quality of the products produced. To maintain focus on not just treading water, but making progress, and also maintaining sanity, I try to do one small “new” thing per day and per week. On the daily goal, I don’t always make it, but weekly, I usually do. Sometimes I cheat a bit on what I count as new versus sustaining, giving myself credit for anything accomplished which is outside of the very basic chore set.

On weeknights, an “extra” accomplishment might be something as simple as running an errand on the way home from work, or briefly researching something on the web. I give myself credit for working late to compensate for having lunch with a friend, because investing in friendships is important. I’ve been making some small contributions to the websites of both KHSI and NSIP in recent evenings. I helped our Flood Control District manager with a computer project at the pump station this last week. On weeknights, I have very little capacity for anything beyond the norm; but I try to stay focused on maximizing those minutes in order to make incremental forward progress.

Weekend days to be cheered are days when there is really nothing that must be done, meaning I’m all caught up on mandatory sustaining work. This is when I sometimes have a little bit of slack time. I can either use that time to relax and slow down a bit, doing something social, or lazy, or just fun. Or, I can use it to work on new projects which might make money someday; or apply it to lower priority sustaining work. In the last few weeks, I repaired a light fixture in the barn that had a burned-out ballast. I fixed a bathroom drawer that had bee malfunctioning forever. I researched and hired a housecleaner, to help lighten our load there. We managed to buy a live Christmas tree and get it up and decorated this year, which hasn’t always happened in past years. And we went to see Star Wars. I’m all caught up on required sheep and other animal care chores. A while back, I went salmon fishing with friends on a weekday before work (picture above)- how cool is that, sneaking out on the river at dawn before heading to the office!?! So, this is a good sign: slack time (albeit precious) is available and being used to burn off the backlog of small, nagging tasks, and also to have fun. I still have tons of things I want to work on, but this is ok: as long as incremental progress is being made, then everything is ok.

It its always a really fine balance managing sustaining load, slack time and capacity on a farm. The work can seem never-ending and overwhelming, so it’s important not only for mental health, as well as business sustainability, to keep track of where time goes, and how close to being at-capacity we are, versus how much “new” work is getting accomplished, and how much downtime is available. How do you track your progress, give yourself credit for work accomplished, and make sure you have some leisure time to spare?