Thursday, December 9, 2010

Perfecting your process

“Eliminating delays between what you do gives you a better return than getting better at what you do.” - Alan Shalloway (Dec 2, 2010, twitter).

I was recently introduced to the ball point game as a way to introduce agile concepts. A colleague of mine had decided to try it out for a larger group so I volunteered one of our teams in order to ‘test drive’ the game and the facilitation of that game.

The game itself is pretty straightforward. If you want to read about it, check out Declan’s link above or one of the many other sites describing the game. One of the objectives of the game is to show how teams can dramatically improve their process just by stopping, reflecting, and re-planning.

This particular team improved from a velocity of 28 to 57 in four iterations (see the image). However, if you read about this game from other sources, this kind of improvement is ok, but not great. The team focused their iteration planning efforts on perfecting their style rather than changing their process. They did discuss some alternative processes but ultimately rejected them and decided together that their best course of action was to perfect their current method.

To make matters worse, as facilitators we were terrible project managers as we told them stories of great improvements by other teams (“I bet you can get to 150, I’ve seen other teams do it”) but all this did was make them frustrated as they continued to try and perfect their process with only small gains. Plus, even though they doubled their efficiency in a short period of time, they were frustrated that they couldn’t go faster and started to slow down at the end of iteration 4. They suggested that if an iteration 5 would have been held, they would only have gone slower as the realization sunk in that they would not be able to achieve 150.

The exercise up until this point did not achieve what we had hoped for. We had hoped that they would find huge jumps in productivity each iteration and that they would get more and more excited each iteration. Instead, they only achieved modest gains and got more frustrated each iteration. So, what did we learn from this?

1. As the quote above says, it confirmed that focusing on improving and perfecting your current process is only going to give you modest gains. Practice doesn’t make perfect if your process is flawed. Continually practicing a bad process isn’t going to result in the benefits you are looking for and will likely slow your teams down over time as apathy builds. We need to give teams the lean tools and techniques to help them find their delays. One of the ‘tricks’ to this game is to reduce or eliminate your delays instead of perfecting your throws.

2. We need to give teams enough time to not only re-plan the next iteration, but to ask them to reflect upon and challenge both their process and their assumed constraints.

3. Teams who are pushed to achieve incredible productivity gains by well meaning leaders under the guise of empowerment or encouragement may see short term gains, but in the long term those teams will likely be negatively affected - especially if the teams haven't been given the tools and techniques to achieve those gains.

The team we tried this with did not at first come away with tools that they could use to improve their current project. In fact, we may have scarred them forever ;) We are trying this game again in a few weeks with a different group and we’ve made some changes with the hope of enabling the teams to see the ‘ahah’ moment before the end of the game. I’ll keep you posted.