No Problem!

May 20, 2007 by
Filed under: Leadership, People, Process 

While rare, there have been times that I have run into businesses that consciously chose to turn a blind eye to what was clearly dysfunctional practice. In both cases, this blind eye was accompanied by a rationalization that allowed them to justify this behaviour. Amazing!

The first instance was a number of years ago. I was facilitating a retrospective with a local company, one that had made great strides in recent years to improve their approach to developing software. They were doing a much better job at nailing their schedules, getting the functionality they wanted out into the field, and at the same time improving the quality of that delivered product. Recognizing there is always room for improvement, they wanted to incorporate more substantial retrospectives into their practices.

We were discussing the overall project measures, comparing estimates and expectations against actual performance and how well they managed to meet their goals. As many groups do, towards the end of the project schedule, this group used the number and severity of outstanding defects as one perspective to consider whether the product is ready to ship. There was a clear correlation between the defect count dropping and the decision to release the product. So far, so good.

As I do regularly, though, I solicited input from everyone in the group, anonymously, in advance of the session. While this usually generates some interesting points, this one produced an absolute gem. It turns out that this group had found a novel way of driving their defect count down: a short time before the calendar indicated that it was time to ship, they stopped looking for new defects!

Heck! Anyone can ship with a low defect count with that strategy…

The second instance was more recent, in discussions with a senior executive from a consulting software development shop. We were talking about the issue of rework, which is generally seen as something to be avoided in software development.

In this case, this person indicated that the group consciously decided to not be concerned with the amount of time they spent in rework. After all, with time and materials contracts, the customer was paying for all this time.

Tactically, this might seem to make a great deal of sense. After all, you wouldn’t want to ‘leave money on the table’, would you?

Thinking about it, though, there are elements of this approach that eclipse even the first example as dysfunctional. It’s common to not be aware of time spent in rework, and to bill the client for all that time – I would expect that is the practice of most consulting shops in the industry. Indeed, most software teams in general, whether consulting or in IT or product development, are blissfully unaware of the time they spend in rework.

It is an entirely different matter to be consciously incompetent, to be aware of dysfunction but to choose to do nothing about it. As a client of such a firm, I don’t think I’d be too impressed with that attitude, and this example will certainly make me think about my criteria for hiring such a firm in the future.

Beyond that, though, this organization is on the brink of harnessing a huge strategic advantage and choosing to not take that next step to make it a reality. If they were to actually manage their business through the measurement and reduction of rework, they would gain a variety of opportunities for differentiating themselves from their competition.

With a solid handle on getting things done right the first time, they could be more comfortable with fixed price contracts, or they could bid the same time and materials projects and provide greater client value than before. In addition, through conscious reduction of rework, their product quality would go up, essentially for free. My guess is that this differentiation would tend to make more clients stick with them for future work as well.

So close to all these advantages, they opted for the cash that was on the table.

Almost in the same breath, this executive indicated that their competitive advantage was their people. The question is, how would their people enjoy working in a more efficient environment, with less chaos and happier clients?

To be aware of dysfunction, and to use that dysfunction as a way of artificially boosting your numbers or meeting your goals, is a very short-sighted way of getting ahead. Better to use that knowledge for greater strategic advantage. – JB

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