Posts tagged continuous improvement
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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