Guiding Quote

“Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning.” Einstein

Sunday, June 23, 2013

“Let us speak of Bottlenecks and Silos”, said the Carpenter to the Walrus.

This week I've witnessed an example of the impact of silo management on project delivery and a lack of understanding of what the real problem is.  The company concerned has a strong silo management mentality: they don't just have silos they have silos within silos. They have the silo equivalent of those nested Russian dolls!

A spate of projects has found themselves competing for time and resources in the QA testing department. So the Pavlovian response is that the QA management team needs to have additional support from the PM team to help them manage the issue. Poor throughput and resource contention must be a department management failing, right?

So I was drafted into a meeting to discuss how we could "help" QA to fix their problem. When I started to explain that you couldn't analyze a sub-process in isolation and that you had to analyze the entire system you could see eyes starting to glaze over.

One of the failings of software managers is a reluctance to accept pertinent lessons from other industries. The dominant mindset is that software is different from other productive activities and therefore can learn little or nothing from their experiences. So as I related my experiences of manufacturing and Goldratt's theory of constraints, particularly how to identify and manage bottlenecks, it was as if I'd started speaking a foreign language. They sort of accepted my analysis but there was definitely an air of "don't ring us, we'll ring you" in their attitude at the end of the meeting.

What was not accepted, initially anyway, was that the problem was systemic. QA's problems where caused by uncertainty of output from development, allied to changes in management priorities. QA was not the problem, the bottleneck in development was. The fact that QA either had too much to work on or not enough indicated that most of its problems came from upstream, from development. But the strong silo management meant that they could do little to address this issue. Oh, they complained and they communicated but they were powerless.

Because development had its own problems, caused in no small part by a workload that was being created by four different organizations who launch projects without any regard to the plans of other departments. The result is a huge project backlog, with one department, for example, spending the part of every Monday re-prioritizing their 70 plus projects. They have the equivalent of Dick Clarke on American Bandstand announcing the weekly pop music charts, as PM see if their projects have moved up or down the chart. Great joy is experienced when your project goes up. Mind you moving from 41 to 37 is hardly earth shattering. But every organization needs its rituals and circuses.

The result is that the development group has constant pressure to do more projects while being whipped about by ever changing priorities. They can't predict their work which means they can't help QA plan theirs. We have a systemic problem that no amount of fiddling with sub-processes will fix.

I'm awaiting the leadership response.  Which I suspect will be of the "you need to work smarter rather than harder" variety all the while studiously ignoring the fact that is they who need to get smarter.

This is an example of how many people throughout a system know that it is flawed but the strength of the structure prevents the rational discussion on how to fix it. The Silos win and the bottleneck is preserved to wreak havoc for months to come.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

You are what you think!

There was an experiment conducted in New York University by John Bargh and his collaborators in which they asked their students, aged between 18 and 22, to assemble four word sentences from the five words they were given. One group had the words: Florida, forgetful, bald, grey, or wrinkled, words associated with the elderly. When they had finished the exercise they were asked to walk down a corridor to another room for some more exercises.

The experiment was to see how long it took these young people to walk to the next classroom. The result was that the students who had been working on the elderly set of words walked significantly slower than those who had not.

They had been primed. Asking their brains to think about words associated with the elderly had primed them to act elderly. Fortunately for the students it is a short lived effect. But it does indicate that our subconscious is susceptible to being conditioned by what it works with.

So just be aware that you can sabotage yourself if you fail to understand that what you think about can impact how you behavior. Even how fast you walk. 

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Management: the American myth and reality!

Go in to any decent sized bookstore and you'll find shelves and shelves of books on management: The vast majority of them written by Americans. Looking at the output it would be understandable if you assumed that American corporations were the best managed enterprises in the world. And if you consider the booming sub-section on leadership then America leads the world!

Well in both cases they lead the world in writing about both subjects. However in the realm where theory meets practice, or more bluntly where bullshit meets reality, Americans are no better at actually managing than the British, French, Germans, Italians, and Japanese.

Decades of experience in Europe followed by twenty years in the US have led me to the conclusion that nobody has the right to preach to anyone about the right way to manage anything. There are good managers and bad managers everywhere. The proportions are the same the world over: Far fewer good managers than bad managers.

The difference is that Americans write a good game. The invent new buzz words at the drop of a hat: synergy, tasked, focal, solutioning, etc, but their execution is no better than anyone else's.

Take what happened to me this week. I've been dragging a tool configuration project to completion through a more than usual farrago of bad requirements, management changes, and lack of resources. The DBA and myself have been the only ever present members of the team. We are five weeks away from going live. We are, as the great British soccer manager Sir Alex Ferguson as often said, at the "squeaky bottom" time of the project. So imagine my surprise when I was informed that I was being re-assigned to other projects and they wouldn't be replacing me. It was a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (WTF) moment if ever there was one!

What did I do? I just saluted, stored my project artifacts, and moved on. Why? Why not? If the senior management aren't interested why should I be! Sometimes you have to remember the serenity prayer:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference."

Stoicism and pragmatism, seasoned with a tinge of cynicism, are useful virtues for all project managers.