Thursday, November 8, 2012

Practice Continuous Improvement (Principle 3)

I had the opportunity to swim at Laguna Beach. As a person that spent most of his beach time on the east coast in Florida, I found that the west coast provide three things that were different. The water is much colder, the currents are much stronger and the shore drops off quicker. The waves were awesome and the body surfing was great. I loved it and I was getting tired. I rode a wave in and was expecting to touch ground. No ground to be found. The current quickly ripped me back out to where I was before. I rode the next wave and tried again and again I found myself pulled back to the same spot. I was getting cold, tired and a little panicked. I took a moment to look around. I found that a group to the right of me seemed to be having less trouble getting in. I began swimming in their direction and sure enough I was able to make my way to shore.

Many organizations are happy to remain stuck in the waves. What has worked before is good enough. This is the way we have always done it. I am just doing what I am told. (Please comment on phrases you have heard that reinforce the status quo). Avoiding moving forward is in effect moving backwards. It took energy to create the product, the organization and the culture. What got you here will not likely keep you moving forward. Competitive environments depend on challenging the current state to reach a better state.
Here are some areas that I have had the opportunity to introduce the principle of continuous improvement in my career. I have done this at all levels of leadership ranging from individual contributor to the head of an organization. By practicing at the level you are today, it will afford you the experience and maturity to be ready to perform at the next level.

You must build it into your culture and make it part of your process. This means creating time, examining, following up and coaching to move things forward. Agile provides great support for this in backlog grooming as well as the iteration retrospective. Backlog grooming needs to address both product needs as well as technical debt. Focus on one at the exclusion of others will grind your productivity to a halt (A book for reference: Managing Software Debt by Chris Sterling). Product management and development must be as one when tying together business strategy and the technology needed to support it.

The use of the iteration retrospective (effectively) by definition guides the team to create improvement items. These retrospectives are powerful since they can address improvement areas in org debt, technical debt, team debt or other areas. As leaders, you need to understand and support their requests. Organizations need to have senior leadership support to remove organizational barriers (Scrum Transition Team). Do not ask for improvement if you are not willing to support it.

For teams that are not full agile, I have used iterative development and the teams complete a technical debt backlog that is estimated and stack ranked. That work is then broken down and completed over in the development iterations. It is important that this work be integrated with the all other work. If it is worth doing, it is worth doing it with core hours.

Some flags that point to continuous improvement items
  • Repeat meetings with same topics and no decisions
  • Manual steps in your process
  • Documentation that is created and not used
  • Lack of stats that measure productivity
  • Defects not being corrected in an iteration
  • People that focus on why not
  • Corrected defects do not stick
  • Endless review meetings
  • Cancel all meetings once a year and see which ones come back
  • Problems solved with long email trails.
  • High defect rates
  • Lack of continuous builds
  • Lack of unit tests
  • Look for high hour/low value activities

It is good to recognize the improvements and celebrate the wins. Get people to talk about the improvements and how they help. Work to make this principle part of your culture. Practicing continuous improvement leads back to define/own, follow to your customer as well as providing support for provide professional growth.

I would love to hear you comments or stories.

  1. Define and own the problem 
  2. Follow your work to your customer(s)
  3. Practice continuous improvement
  4. Provide professional growth
  5. Build and practice teamwork
  6. Provide accountability

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