Posts tagged continuous improvement
Agile Culture Part 3 - Learning Organisation

Last time, we looked at Striving for Quality and how that means not just ensuring that what you produce isn't simply defect free, but also the right thing, and produced in the right way. To do that, an organisation needs to be able to learn. This is a problem for many organisations. In many organisations, learning is not only not encouraged but is often unofficially discouraged, or worse, it's officially and actively discouraged. I don't mean training budgets getting reduced here. Learning new skills is an important part of organisational learning and people should be given the opportunity to do so, but I'm talking about something different. I'm talking about an organisation learning whether what they are building is the right thing or not. And whether the way they are building it is the right way to build it Or whether the organisational structure they have is the right structure. What I'm really talking about is organisations learning how to become better at everything they do. 

Most organisations are afraid of learning. Why? It seems like such an obvious question - is what we are building, what people want? Organisations will say they are interested. They will quote sales figures and user numbers and so on, but dig a little deeper and they shy away. Did that particular feature meet its goals? Don't want to know. Did that project succeed in the market? Don't want to know. Why? Because if it isn't performing, someone in the organisation was wrong. And they might be important. So it's best not to find out. I have asked about whether a particular feature that a team worked on was meeting its user uptake goals and been told "We don't measure that because that way no-one gets fired for telling the product director that they picked the wrong thing to build". Organisations are afraid of learning because they are afraid of failure.

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Inspect And Adapt

Over the last few posts we have been looking at the key changes I feel are necessary for an organisation to be agile, rather than just do agile. We have looked at distributed decision making, execution efficiency and measuring what matters. It's time now to cover the fourth key change - inspect and adapt.

This is probably the hardest of all the four changes for an organisation to adopt in anything but the most superficial of ways. By adopting inspect and adapt, they are not just adopting the need to continuously improve. They are also adopting a view of the world that is fundamentally non-deterministic. Where uncertainty is not just normal, but accepted and even embraced. Where long term plans give way to rapid experimentation. This may be a step too far for many organisations.

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Rigidity = Fragility

"We need to harden this process...make it more robust. Too many things are slipping through the cracks". How many times have you heard statements like that? Things that don't fit the process take extra time to resolve, so we make sure that the process covers as much as possible. As issues arise, we tighten the process still further. Spell out the entry criteria. Map the process steps in great detail. The problem is, of course, that no matter how much detail we have in the process, things still don't always fit so we document and harden even more.

We create processes and because we are humans working with incomplete information, there are gaps. Our natural instinct then is to fill in the gaps. Tighten the process. Specify, document, enforce. The problem is that this simply doesn't work. The real world conspires against us. Customers don't always want the standard product. You may have a carefully documented 30 day SLA but that doesn't help a bit when a key customer rings up and says "We know it's usually 30 days but we really need it in 10, can you please help? If not, your competitor has said they can do it in 10 days." You may only sell in lots of 100 but what happens if a good customer rings up and asks for an extra 35 because they have had a spike in sales but don't have the space to store another full hundred? The more rigid we make our processes the more often they break down.

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The Improvement Paradox

We've all been there. We know that there is a better way to do what we are doing. There has to be. The universe isn't cruel enough for this to be the only way. If only you had a few minutes to think about the problem you are sure you could come up with something much better. Problem is, you don't have a few minutes. You are flat out trying to get whatever it is you are doing, done. And because the way you are doing it is inefficient, it's taking ages and you are already at risk of missing your deadline. You just have to keep going and hope you have some time once it's finished to work out a better way for next time. Of course that never happens because the next task is also inefficient and so that time to improve never materialises.

As AA Milne said in Winnie The Pooh -

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."

Welcome to the improvement paradox.

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The Black Ecconomy

When you work in a large company, one of the things you hear quite often is “we have to follow the process”. Large companies, for very good reasons, have a need to standardise their processes. If you have 50,000 staff, having one way to do things makes a lot of sense. No matter where someone goes in the organisation, the process for ordering a new pen, or whatever, will be the same. The problem with defined processes though, is that unless they are regularly reviewed and cleaned up, they tend to accumulate complexity. Each time something happens that is just outside the normal way the process works, someone will add some extra checks into the process to make sure that that situation is now covered. Over the years it will collect enough of these extra checks that your carefully considered and streamlined pen ordering process now requires a 10 page form, 15 signatures and about 4 hours (and in some companies a pint of cockerel’s blood). The end result is that everyone spends all day looking for pens.

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