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Pat O'Toole's Dos and Don'ts of Process Improvement: DO Take Time Getting Faster

Rather than establishing a goal of becoming faster, your organization would be better served with the goal of becoming more predictable — through analysis, good practics, requirements control and management support.
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#3: DO Take Time Getting Faster

Level 2 in the Capability Maturity Model is called "Repeatable," but even Level 1 organizations exhibit repeatable behavior. For instance, many Level 1 projects are scheduled to complete on the earliest date with a non-zero probability of success. The thinking, which unfortunately appears to be repeatable, is that if everyone works 60+ hours per week, and nobody gets sick or takes weekends or holidays off, the project might just finish on time.

And now your senior management has proclaimed that the overarching goal of the Process Improvement Program is to reduce cycle time. They are not being unreasonable – it's hard to deny that for many software-intensive products the primary competitive dimension is time to market. Customers, whether internal or external, are always clambering to get new products and features in an ever-decreasing time frame. But as a member of the SEPG you fear that this edict simply gives the projects an excuse to circumvent any existing processes and standards in order to get the job done any way they see fit.

Customers apply schedule pressure as part of a "ritualistic dance". They get you to commit to delivering in twelve months in the desperate hope that they will receive the full product in fifteen months, or alternatively, that they will get 60% of the core functionality by the committed date. You know it, they know it, and yet the charade plays out release after release. It's just like budgeting's ritualistic dance – if you need $5M for your project you request $7.5M, knowing that 1/3 of the budget will be cut back through the approval cycle. We all know the tune and the dance continues!

So what do the customers REALLY want? They want to believe! Customers want to know that when you commit to delivering a product on March 31 that it will be available for implementation on April 1 (an appropriate date?). Although they claim they want the software faster, they really want it more predictably.

As much as the customers want to believe, the software development staff wants to be believed. They would like their managers to leave their professional integrity intact by accepting and even defending their estimates. They would like senior management to understand and mitigate the devastating effects of golf course commitments and uncontrolled scope creep. They would like their customers to realize that it is in their mutual best interest to plan and execute projects in a disciplined manner. Finally, they would like to see their spouses and children more often than Sunday evenings!

Rather than establishing a goal of becoming faster, the organization would be better served initially with the goal of becoming more predictable. To achieve this goal, the organization must:

  1. Gather and analyze historical data to develop and calibrate estimation models;

  2. Codify good engineering and project management practices that lead to more predictable results;

  3. Establish the means to control the projects' requirements and configuration baselines; and

  4. Enjoy the strong support of leadership in achieving this goal.

Disciplined planning and execution significantly reduce the variability of project results. They also establish a solid foundation for getting projects done faster, the organization's ultimate goal. Since you are unlikely to achieve sustainable cycle time reductions without first achieving reasonably predictable results, follow Steven Covey's advice and "put first things first." The SEPG's challenge is to convince senior management that generating more reliable estimates is a necessary prerequisite to reducing cycle time - and that once customers believe, once estimation credibility has been established, the tune of the ritualistic dance will be altered forever.

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