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Too small to fail

Kaizen, or continuous improvement, is a well-known term in business or industrial organization. It’s now spreading widely in every sector of the economy, but it also applies in social life or medicine. This philosophy arose in Japan. Their industry had  productivity and quality problems after the end of World War II. They looked for solutions, and brought experts such as  Deming. Yes, the same Deming of ITIL and the “plan-do-check-act” Deming cycle. His mission: training hundreds of professionals and engineers in quality and improvement systems. These methods had already been applied in the USA. But Japan developed them and improved them. They refined them to such an extent that years later they could return them to the Americans themselves as new work philosophies.
The principle behind Kaizen is to carry out small continuous improvements. The results of those changes are analysed and the fine-tuning resumes. In that way  the productivity or quality of the task being performed can be improved. Making small changes little by little is far more effective than trying to tackle everything in one go. This way you avoid the fear of big change—and the procrastination that normally goes with it —when faced with the idea of starting a transformation. These small adjustments, done continuously, end up becoming a habit and generating permanent results.
The idea is to make changes so easy that it would be hard to fail in their implementation. First we created the habit of changing. Then we add new changes or nudge the milestone of a change a bit further, so we can improve incrementally. It’s important to apply adjustments one by one. The idea is to avoid the complexity of choosing what to apply and when. That way we will be able to analyse the result of each of these minor improvements. If we apply several at the same time, we won’t know which one has worked and which hasn’t. Or whether the effect of one has cancelled out another.
In your project you can decide to deploy every SCRUM, TDD, unit testing, continuous integration, and so on and so forth all at once. But probably the only thing you’ll manage to do will be to drive your team crazy. Yes, all those practices are good for your project, but, are the most basic ones working? Do you have good version control? Are you delivering software every two weeks? It’s better to start by the simplest ones or the ones that you consider most effective to improve your situation. Then you will be able to add the others.
Even far away from the field of software, there are companies that use Kaizen and Lean techniques in production. Take, for example, SPB, manufacturers of household brands like Bosque Verde in Spain. Their industrial manager declares:
“SPB has improved its productivity by 15% without investing in new machinery or carrying out staff cuts. The systems we have applied have enabled our company to reduce our expense accounts from 15 to 25%. We have improved our raw-materials management by 45%. And we have reduced the stock period of our product to eleven days.”
SPB had foreseen that to improve, they would need great investments and opening new factories in northern Spain. But instead they have focused on improving their productivity plan.
We can apply such changes to improve our health or personal life too. If we have always wanted to write a book or a blog, we can set out to write 1,000 words a day. But most of us will probably abandon that idea in only a few days. However, if we set out to write just 50, the change will be so easy that it will be hard to fail. First, establish the habit of sitting and writing for 15 minutes a day. Then we can take the challenge further and make it bigger, little by little.
In my case, I have also applied similar techniques, but I’ve hardly noticed. When I published my book it hardly sold at all. For weeks and weeks it had just the few sales I considered F&F (Family & Friends). But I didn’t just park it there and forget about it. I changed it to a different Amazon category. Then I changed the cover. After that, I included some new chapters. Later, I improved the description until I found one that seemed optimal. Some of these changes made my sales increase up to 50% in a week. If I had just left it there, the book would never have reached decent positions in its categories. I would have concluded that the content wasn’t interesting. Or that it just could not sell well without a professional publishing house to support it.
You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).
Book on Scrum: Agile 101, Practical Project Management
Agile 101 – Practical Project Management

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Five lessons learnt in project management

Every time I finish a project, I try to make a balance report for myself. I look at the things that went wrong and the things that went right. The things that I tried and worked, and those that I shouldn’t repeat. Even those times when that final balance came up negative, maybe the project was worth it if in the next one I don’t make the same missteps again.
I have combed those balances and extracted five of the most important lessons I have learned. Some are beginner’s pitfalls. Others I should have solved by simple logic but matters weren’t so obvious when I was in the middle of things. Here they are:
Agile works
It’s difficult to quantify, but ever since I started using Scrum in my projects, the number of hours spent per feature has gone down —and in my opinion quite considerably so. We were able to gain 80% of Scrum’s advantages with three things. First, the daily 15-minute follow-up meeting. Second, keeping the graph of the state of the project that tells us whether we’re doing well or not. And third, delivering software every the two weeks. Also, every fortnight, clients seemed to feel more comfortable when they received the items that we had agreed on two weeks before. In July and August it was not possible to meet. So every week we delivered a simple two-page document with the percentage of completion of each feature. This document included two paragraphs explaining why those percentages were that way. This helped us to regain credibility in a project that was quite difficult —especially in September when they could check that those percentages were real.
Not everything is positive in Scrum
Being a Scrum Master takes far more work than simply being a project manager. In those daily 15-minute follow-ups you will be told about lots of difficulties that the team needs to overcome before they can continue. Trying to find solutions will take the rest of your morning.
And having a deadline every 2 weeks can be exhausting. You cannot sprint for months. Six months later you start trotting (and that, with luck). You need to take this into account from the first planning meeting on.
Last, but not least, Scrum is not magic. Whatever method you use, you are going to need a team trained for the job at hand, ready to roll up their sleeves and work, and willing to contribute. Teams like this don’t grow on trees. If you have one, your job as a project manager is to get out of the way as much as possible.
Adding more workers to a project that’s behind schedule will only delay it further
This was sufficiently covered a long time ago in the book The Mythical Man-Month. Even so, it’s still necessary to highlight it, as there are hardly any exceptions to this rule. No matter how tight the deadlines are nine women cannot create a baby in one month.
Who owns all this?
No matter what we call it —designating the Product Owner, identifying the stakeholders, engaging them—the end we’re going to need to know who is going to validate the project in real life. And I do not mean who is going to green-light the invoice. You’ll also need to know who is going to use the product. The project will be a success only if, after delivering it, it works and it’s useful.
At some point during the project the area manager gave us all the documentation, validated the partial deliveries, tested the whole application, and congratulated us on our work. Regrettably, when his secretary came into the training session a week before deployment, she said: “that’s of no use to me: that’s no longer the right template, as I need to gather different information now.” This meant a week of extra hours and additional effort, on top of the risk of deploying a product that could be unstable.
Minimum Viable Product
If you already have something that could be helpful to the user, deliver it, deploy it, put it up for sale. Don’t wait until you have each and every one of the features finished. If you remember the Pareto principle, with just 20% of your planned features you’ll be able to cover 80% of the uses that your product will have.

 

When it’s in production, you’ll be able to get feedback from the users. They know with more precision what they need, and you’ll know where you’ve failed and how you can fix it. If you bet on just one final delivery, you only have one bullet to hit the bull’s eye. If we had done this, it would have saved us a lot of problems with the product of the previous example.

 

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).
Book on Scrum: Agile 101, Practical Project Management
Agile 101 – Practical Project Management

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Lessons learnt

Mistakes are made all the time when we manage projects—at least I have made a few. In this section I will list only some of them. They are the most relevant or the most confessable ones, depending on your point of view. I’ve messed up in many other ways, but this chapter had to have a limit. So, here they are:
First the problem, then the solution
This is the order: first you identify a problem, and then you come up with a solution. Never the other way round. It is quite common to hear about a modern solution that we apply to the project with enthusiasm. No matter whether there was a problem to solve or not. What is the use of deploying the new and sophisticated software for Test Driven Development in our daily work, if your problem with that project is way more basic? Or if you don’t have a tight grip on the version control system?
Counting the steps instead of looking at the road
We all know that in some projects the number of hours spent tends to go through the roof. Only rarely do the predicted number of hours and the actual ones coincide. Our first reaction is normally to double-check every hour registered. Then we draft complex graphs that show us how well we’re doing versus the estimate…. But does this actually help us finish the project on time?
Imagine that someone hired us to carry a heavy load from point A to point B. We estimated that it would take 10,000 steps. What is the use of knowing that we’ve walked 5,000 steps already? Do we know where we are, or if we’ve been going in circles? Wouldn’t it be better to raise our head to see whether we are on the right path? Maybe double check that the road leads from A to B, or see whether there is an easier way to get there?
Phantom requirements
Sometimes we ask our team members to change what they’ve already done because “the client won’t accept it like that.” Or because we think the product should work in some other way. Our colleague had already finished a proposal that took time and effort. It’s better to see whether the client likes it. The client will decide whether it’s right or wrong. Investing time in unsolicited corrections will only delay delivery. Careful, though —this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t review or check our work for quality before showing it to the client. All I’m saying is: “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it.”
Spreading the need to rush
Project Managers normally work on several projects at the same time. This implies that they juggle several clients, with their needs and deadlines, and thus accumulate tension and stress. Personally I try not to spread the stress to other members of the work team and to supply all the serenity I can. Of course, every team member must be aware of our delivery deadlines and needs to know which job we should finish for each client. Adding the need to rush to the daily routine only brings quality problems in the final product. Or creates things that are only half solved and that you will have to solve for good later on. This will also make us spend double the amount of time that those tasks would have required in the first place.
Could you make it easier?

 

One of the first mistakes in a project is to start every task as soon as possible without stopping and planning which steps should be part of it, and without determining whether they are truly necessary or whether we could simplify them somehow. I mean not only implementing it in the easiest possible way, but also simplifying the task in itself. Some examples: For this complex system that interconnects several computers…. Isn’t there already some sort of pre-defined standard? Should this parser be able to solve third-order equations? The best way to spend your time is reducing the complexity of the work to be done.

 

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).
Book on Scrum: Agile 101, Practical Project Management
Agile 101 – Practical Project Management

Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

The engineer and the bridge

In the 5th century BC, a certain Roman engineer was appointed to direct the construction of a bridge over the river Leza. The bridge was important for the area. People and goods would be able to use it to cross the river, saving time and avoiding travelling long distances looking for a safe place to ford the river.
The engineer received this appointment with great enthusiasm, and went on to plan an estimate for everything that would be needed for the construction. He calculated how many builders, cranes, pulleys, scaffolds and centrings would be necessary. He could clearly see that with 50 builders the bridge could be finished in 4.7 years.
With the 600,000 sestertii that he had received to execute this assignment, he quickly bought all the necessary materials according to his calculations, and had them delivered to the construction site. He recruited the 50 builders he had estimated he would need and sent them to the river bank to start work at soon as possible. There was no time to lose. The sooner it was begun, the sooner it would be finished.
Soon, however, the workers told him that they didn’t need so many pulleys and cranes, but that there weren’t enough pickaxes and saws for the job. “I can’t do anything about that,” said the engineer, “most of the money has already been spent and there isn’t much left to buy new materials. You’ll have to adapt to what we’ve got.”
The construction went on, and soon afterwards it became clear that things weren’t going as planned. The foreman told the engineer that the stone quarry where the stone was being cut was too far away, and that the road was full of bumps and potholes from last year’s flooding. It just took too long to bring the stone in carts to the bridge. “You’ll have to make an extra effort,” said the engineer, “there’s no time now to fix the road.”
The foreman also informed the engineer that it would be necessary to build arches in the bridge, to reduce the amount of materials used, and, most of all, to improve its resistance. “There’s no time for frills,” said the engineer. “We’re late. We’ll add a little extra mortar in the pillars, and that’ll be it.”
The news about the construction of the bridge came to the Prefect’s ears. He despaired when he heard about how slowly the work was progressing, so he sent for the engineer. The Prefect needed to justify his actions in Rome, and demanded that the bridge be ready for Saturnalia. The engineer explained that, in order to achieve that, he would need at least another 50 workers. As he was also pressured from above, the Prefect agreed and committed to send the new workers a month later.
Back at the bridge, the engineer gathered all the builders and asked them for an additional effort to comply with that new deadline. The workers could not understand how were they to work twice as fast if they didn’t have enough stone, and in any case they always had to wait for the mortar to set.
Not even with the new workers could the bridge be built on time. There weren’t enough tools for everyone, the stone was still slow reaching the worksite, and collapses were common because of the hurried construction process.

In ancient Rome, a bridge’s builders had to stand underneath it while an entire legion crossed it. It’s a good incentive to build firm, solid bridges, don’t you think?

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Book on Scrum: Agile 101, Practical Project Management
Agile 101 – Practical Project Management
Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

Lessons learnt from others

An old Spanish saying says “no one learns a shred from another person’s head.” But let’s try it anyway by reading some experiences other people encountered while managing projects.
In the previous section I’ve told you about my own mistakes in managing projects. In this section I will tell you about the main lessons Jeff Sutherland learned while helping companies like Nokia, Patient Keeper or even Google to adopt Scrum:
In Google, some of the teams adopted Scrum little by little. They did this because they feared resistance from their engineers. They thought that introducing a formal process in teams that were already highly productive would not speed them up but slow them down. They started implementing Scrum using only the most basic techniques. If Google can do it, why can’t we?
In Google, they also had a certain resistance to meeting daily. They thought it would be time spent in vain. They started with meetings that lasted a good deal longer than the initial 15 minutes. At first each engineer took quite a long time to explain what he or she was doing and the problems being faced. After a while, when all the members had explained their job and were aware of the job of the rest of the teammates, the meetings were much more fluid and helpful. To my relief, in their simplified, initial Scrum, they didn’t use a burndown chart for every iteration. They used only one per delivery. That made me feel better. I hadn’t been able to keep the Kanban board updated daily for each sprint (yes, I know, Scrumbutophobia).
The burndown chart helped them realise how long they would spend in developing a feature. For a feature that they initially estimated at 40 points and 3 weeks, they saw that in the first week they had covered only 8 points. In the second week they managed to finish only 7.5 points. But one of the managers thought that they had the feature ready in the third week. Then the graph made it clear that it wouldn’t be ready in that amount of time.

Jeff Sutherland recalls a project for the health sector which would be accessed online simultaneously by hundreds of doctors and other users. In that project, the definition of Done became more and more stringent. At first, they just had to pass the unit tests and acceptance tests. But later on, for something to be really marked as Done or Finished, it had to meet this condition: “deploy to production, and if the phone doesn’t ring for 1 hour, the new delivery is complete.”

You can find texts like this and many other about how to manage agile projects in my book Agile 101: Practical Project Management (available on Amazon).

Book on Scrum: Agile 101, Practical Project Management
Agile 101 – Practical Project Management
Translation by Begoña Martínez. You can also find her on her LinkedIn profile. Proofreading by David Nesbitt.

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