Slack Time : A try-learn-improve catalyst

kaizen

In my opinion, a software development actor – by actor I mean a company, a team, a PM, a developer, the PM’s dog – starts being Agile and thinking Agile when he realizes two things. First that the customer – or product owner – cannot detail all the requirements and all the features at the beginning of the project, and will probably change his mind anyway. Second that software development is a creation activity (craftsmanship), not an engineering activity.

Once he realizes that, he begins to feel confident in the fact that some things cannot be streamlined and plan-driven from the start, that there is no such thing as a recipe to make a good software, and that both the requirement part and the pure development part are somehow made of try-failure-try-success cycles. So we try and experiment. If you are developer you might want to try and build your own set of best-practices that fit your current situation. If you are a project manager you might want to try to improve the process by making some small adjustments in a try-and-learn format. In short you stop being dogmatic, you stop thinking in terms of plan-and-apply and begin to believe in try-learn-improve.

This new try-learn-improve culture is basically what Japanese people call kaizen, which is kind of a buzz-word these days. The whole Agile thinking is based on the concepts behind kaizen : improve what you are doing every day, step by step, little by little, from the inside, each time the environment changes, etc.

At the highest level this is now a no-brainer: we stop trying to deliver the whole value – the whole product – at once but deliver it little by little, adding value at each step and gathering feedback as quickly as possible, allowing a quick learn-and-improve loop. Scrum, for example, completes this loop on every sprint through a review with the stakeholders and a retrospective with the team.

At a lower level, however, things are not so obvious. Of course people know that there might be some improvements to do. If you ask a developer, she might give you a list of two or three things that should be improved. Same for a tester. But they just can’t make those improvements. They just don’t have time. And because they don’t have time, they cannot complete the try-learn-improve loop. Why? Because their project managers try to hunt slack time down, believing in the 100%-utilization dogma.

There is a misunderstanding here, a confusion between “a good process utilizes all the resources at 100%”, which is questionable, and “utilizing all the resources at 100% makes the process good”, which is definitely wrong. And project managers that continuously try to maximize resource utilization are wrong. They are running after a symptom, a consequence of what they really seek. Metaphorically having a fever does not make you having flu.

If you are a Kanban-aficionado like me, you already know that limiting the work in progress can help us getting the process under control and ensures that things will end up being done. We are not going to start a hundred things at the same time without completing them. But WIP limits serve another purpose : creating slack time. When someone is “blocked” because of WIP limits and cannot do regular work he has to do something else, which can be about improving its own work, thus completing his own try-learn-improve loop, or, if you believe in self-organized teams, improve the current flow by helping unblock the bottleneck, or even improve the whole process if possible.

But even if you don’t practice Kanban, you should still try to create slack time, thus creating room for improvement. The main advantage of creating slack time with work-in-progress limits instead of scheduling it is that it might create opportunities for improvement right away. For example, a developer who cannot do regular work because the testers are overburdened might work on test automation improvement, etc.

As a final note, you are invited to read (and sign) Pawel Brodzinski’s Slacker Manifesto. You might also want to watch the video of his talk at LKCE2012 that deals with the subject.

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