December 15, 2009

...Learn TDD with Codemanship

Value Is Not The Opposite Of Waste: Why I Don't Buy Into Process Improvement

If you've been a regular visitor to my blog since 2005, first of all, thank you. You may also know that I'm not the biggest fan of mechanistic or pseudo-scientific approaches to making teams better at creating software.

Which is why I don't buy into process improvement any more. At all. In all it's guises. TQM, BPR, Six Sigma, Lean. All old wives tales and hifalutin mumbo-jumbo, in my honest opinion.

Yes, there are the success stories that devotees and evangelists routinely point to. Usually in Asia. Mostly Toyota.

But anyone can find the exception that proves the rule. I can point to 80-a-day smokers who lived to be 100. In a wider sample population, there doesn't seem to be compelling evidence that process improvement makes a positive difference in the long term.

Commoditising "value" in this way, suggesting it can "flow" (and no doubt can be diced, sliced, weighed and stored for future use, like charcoal briquettes), seems very alien to me. "Value", in my mind, is a very complex and vague concept. There's fiscal value, of course. Profit. But businesses have been learning the hard way that such a one-dimensional view of what matters can lead to a very one-dimensional approach to management. Companies that are only interested in profits tend to be so at the expense of other kinds of "value", like satisfied customers, content employees, safe neighbourhoods, clean air, and so on.

Businesses have been learning, albeit very slowly and clumsily, that long-term success comes from chasing a richer, multi-dimensional and balanced set of outcomes. They are also learning that, like all multi-bodied problems, these outcomes interact and affect each other in complex ways. Who knew that improving the quality of your products could actually reduce costs, for example?

To suggest that this complex web of interconnected "things" can somehow "flow", to me, sounds as bizarre as proposing that "happiness" is rectangular for easy stacking.

The reality is so much richer and nuanced and unpredictable, of course. It is not like sorting out blockages in your plumbing, or hot-rodding an engine. A does not necessarily follow B.

The most damning indictment of process improvement is the widely-accepted fact that good developers tend to produce better software. All the tweaking and Six Sigma-ing and Lean-ing in the world won't make a piss-poor team appreciably better at delivering "value", any more than it could make an orchestra any better at playing Mozart.

Did it occur to anyone that the folks at Toyota just got better at making cars?

And it's not without it's unpleasant side-effects, either. Many methods focus on reducing "waste". Lean goes the whole hog and suggests that if we reduce waste, we improve the "flow of value". This has a very definite "profit vs. loss" feel to it. It is distinctly one-dimensional.

Complex systems need a fair dollop of waste. Waste might come in the form of unsuccessful prototypes, or a range of choices, or a level of redundancy. We only use 10% of our brains. Most of our DNA is "junk". Many species fail to flourish, ending up as food for the ones who do. Is anyone suggesting that removing 90% of my brain would make me smarter? Or that removing my junk DNA will make my childern healthier and stronger? Or that only successful organisms should be allowed to be born?

My point, laboured as it is, is that in many cases "waste" turns out to be there for a very good reason. In creative and innovative persuits, which are inherently novel and therefore unpredictable, who can say what will never be needed?

The adaptive capacity of a complex system necessitates some waste. Some choice. Some diversity. Some redundancy. Some slack.

In this respect, the likes of Six Sigma are effectively anti-Agile, if we interpret "Agile" to mean "responsive to change". If that's your goal, then focus on the people in your teams, and make plenty of room for their innate learning and adaptive abilities to work their magic.

You may now start throwing the furniture around.

Posted 8 years, 5 months ago on December 15, 2009