May 09

Agile Project Management – Post of the Day

More support for my assertion that feedback is one of the most valuable of the agile benefits, and one that isn’t as easily appreciated as you might think:
From Mary Poppendieck, on the Agile Project Management Yahoo Group:

Being a control engineer (and using control in the sense it is used in control engineering) I know that the shorter the feedback cycle, the more predictable the process, up to a very find-grained point where extremely rapid feedback will create thrashing.  Companies that have processes tuned to rapid feedback are some of the most predictable in the world, because they are poised to RESPOND to events as they unfold, rather than predict the future and then act on that prediction as if it were fact. One of the fundamental principles of lean thinking is precisely that – you get far more predictable results when you are able to wait until the last responsible moment before you make a decision, because then your response will be the most appropriate. 

For example:  Dell was able to respond exactly correctly to the ten day dock strike on the West Coast a couple years back because by culture it is able to keep its supply chain flowing despite any interruption.  Most other companies were thrown into chaos by the strike.  Zara – a clothing manufacturer in Spain – was able to design and distribute to its stores the outfit Madonna wore to her first concert in Spain recently, so that by her last concert that outfit was worn by teens in the audience.  Zara is no small chain – it is a 5 billion Euro company that competes very effectively with Gap and H&M and achieves higher margins because it can respond much faster to fashion trends – in two weeks if need be – rather than try to set them.  Toyota can put a new car on the market in 15 months when it has to, and routinely does it in 18 months.  In all of these cases, predictable results come BECAUSE the organization is able to respond correctly to the latest information while competitors’ slow response time causes them to react prematurely and thus base decisions on guesses instead of facts.  

I contend that the really competitive companies that compete on the basis of speed are the ones who have created a sustainable competitive advantage, and those who learn how to do this in software development will be similarly blessed with extremely repeatable, predictable performance.  I don’t think your McDonalds analogy is correct – repeatable, predictable, fast performance is most certainly NOT inevitably tied to mediocre results.  There are a multitude of companies that have found a way to have speed, quality, and low cost all at the same time – look at Google for a software example.  

This is in response to Robert Bogue, who writes:

It’s actually the reverse.  To increase predicatability you have to add more feedback metrics which will consume capacity and reduce velocity.  I wrote an article a few weeks/months back titled “How Softawre Development is Like Fast Food Restaurants” (http://www.developer.com/design/article.php/3585031), this may illuminate my statement that predictability requires “control” (i.e. metrics) which does tend to make things slower.  I believe this view is shared by several others.  Let me know if you would like me to dig through references to find some of the others in the community who share this perspective.

As you can probably imagine, I come down strongly on the Mary side of this debate.  Feedback is critical, and companies that effectively use feedback to manage their day-to-day operations seem to execute better than companies that try to optimize feedback out and replace it with upfront predictions.

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