John Cutler

@johnpcutler

How Does Your Company Approach Continuous Improvement?

May 11th 2018

How does your company approach continuous improvement?

What do I mean? Let’s take a super simple example:

Let’s say that Team 1 and Team 2 run into trouble with a shared tool. Both have agreed to contribute to the upkeep of the tool, but due to pressure from the Director to deliver more quickly (as communicated and managed by the Managers), they let tool upkeep slide. Now both teams are struggling to meet the demands of their respective Managers, and the Managers are struggling to meet the expectations of their Director.

Some options for addressing the issue:

  1. In a biweekly meeting the Managers present on key performance metrics. Progress on both teams is slow. When questioned, the Managers raise the tool upkeep issue. The Director decides to have both teams dedicate some time to tool upkeep.
  2. The teams voice their concerns/stress to their Managers, and the Managers meet individually, and then together with the Director, to try to figure out a path forward. The Director facilitates an agreement between the Managers to both dedicate some time to tool upkeep.
  3. Periodically, Team 1 and Team 2 meet to discuss collaboration. During one of those meetings, they discuss the topic of the tool (along with other challenges) and compare notes on how it impacts trying to hit the Director’s target/goal. The Directors and Managers attend the meeting, but primarily to provide context. After some brief analysis, the Teams agree to both dedicate some time to tool upkeep.

What are some pros and cons?

#1 is faster, provided the Managers raise the issue and have reasonable data. #3 increases overall group resiliency, at the expense of a potentially messy meeting. #2 allows the Managers to mediate the issue and jointly “manage up”. #3 keeps those closest to the problem (the Teams) at the forefront of decision making. #3 might be viewed as a distraction. I’m sure you can think of a couple other pros/cons…

Remember, this is hyper-simplified. Some twists…story time:

Mala on Team 1 is the “owner” of The Tool, but there are questions from Team 2 about Mala’s dedication, competence, and willingness to ask for help and accept PRs. Meetings between the Managers to diagnose the problem get personal/sidetracked fast. Something else is going on. Mala is being pulled into a special “side project” by her Manager, and her Manager is unwilling to expose that effort to the Director and fellow Manager. But we don’t discover that until the truth comes out in Mala’s exit interview (Google found her).

What else happens in this case? Share in the comments.

So let’s take a more complex (and common) example.

This isn’t just a bit more complex. There’s a lot more going on. Consider some potential continuous improvement opportunities and how they might play out using #1 — #3 (or other options, this is expotentially more complicated) above:

  • QA is being brought in too late, and work is thrown over the wall
  • UX wants to start leading design/discovery sprints
  • Toxic personality on Team 2
  • Team 1 is facing crippling technical debt
  • Team 1 finds a great way to do post-mortems, and wants to share
  • The UX and Product Manager Managers (mid level) have a toxic relationship
  • The Individual Contributor (IC) product manager is spending a bulk of her time with Team 1, and is unavailable for Team 2
  • The developers want to rotate to other teams to keep their career’s fresh
  • There’s a desire to reconsider the paternity leave policy (by everyone)
  • Individual contributors have doubts about the company product strategy
  • The QA manager feels like they aren’t getting enough funding from the Developer VP. That lack of funding is causing universal delays and lower quality.
  • Team 1 and Team 2 want to share information on how they measure success for their efforts
  • The VPs need to communicate a company-wide strategy change, but the Teams are bogged down in ongoing commitments.

What do you do? Where do you start? You can start to see the issues, and the relative advantages/disadvantages of the three approaches (and the hybrids you invented)

Let’s boil down some of key considerations:

  • Who is closest to the information?
  • What is the flow of information?
  • Who might attempt to control/influence the flow of information?
  • Who is closest to the power to hire/fire?
  • Who has the knowledge/insight?
  • Who is impacted by the decision?
  • Where is there potentially unhealthy local optimization?
  • Where do the actions of one person/group impact the actions of another person/group?
  • Where do needs align? Where do they diverge?
  • Current levels of trust and psychological safety.
  • Where is consistency required? Optional? Undesirable?
  • How about factors like resilience, speed, variability, robustness?
  • What is the current structure optimized for? And how does that align with the goals/needs of the various actors in the system, and the goals/needs of the company?
  • What parts of the system are static, and where is variability desirable and inevitable ?

One things is clear …. RACI falls pathetically short in today’s complex environments for reasons I’ll cover in another post.

At least in my career, after asking these questions, I tend to find myself advocating for 1) flatter organizations, 2) broader involvement in continuous improvement…large-scale Kaizen events / Open Space, full department retrospectives, cross-team working groups, 3) managers as coaches/facilitators, and 4) purchasing resilience with near-term “messiness” and slightly reduced “velocity”. This probably has something to do with the domains I work in — high growth, high variability, asymmetric payoffs, shifting landscapes, cross-functional teams, etc. — and my personal biases.

But that’s just me. The important thing is that you’re consider the system for your context.

More by John Cutler

More Related Stories