Apr 9, 2019 - John Jeremiah    

Why improving continuously speeds up delivery

How do you keep pace with rapid changes in technology? The answer is continuous improvement.

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I just finished Tom Friedman’s latest book “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations,” in which he explores how our world is accelerating and everything is happening faster and faster. He explores the impact on business, society, economy, and environment. It’s a fantastic read – at times sobering and others exciting. I think a fundamental takeaway from his research is that, from now on, business leaders must learn how to transform their organizations to operate at faster cycle times than ever before. While that sounds great, the obvious question is: How?

Operational efficiency and speed

One of the classic business books on operational efficiency and speed is Dr. Eli Goldratt’s classic, “The Goal”. In “The Goal,” the main character, Alex is a plant manager responsible for turning around a failing manufacturing plant. He learns a valuable lesson from his son’s scouting troop on a camping trip. As the group hikes into the woods, they spread out, because the slower hikers can’t keep up with the faster ones. No matter what Alex tries, he can't seem to keep them together. Then, he makes a small adjustment that changes everything. He puts the slowest hiker in the front so that the entire troop moves along at the speed of the slowest hiker. It’s the same in your development lifecycle: The fastest you can go depends on the most time-consuming step in the end-to-end value stream.

So, how do you identify the most time-consuming step in your value stream? This daunting task can be accomplished by adopting DevOps practices. In “The Phoenix Project” and subsequent blog posts, Gene Kim describes the “Three Ways” from which all DevOps patterns arise. These philosophies boil DevOps down to a set of three principles that can help organizations increase efficiency and speed by carefully examining the value stream:

  1. The First Way: Systems Thinking – This first way is a flow of value from the business to the customer – or from Dev to Ops.
  2. The Second Way: Amplify Feedback Loops – The second way is to gather feedback from the customer, the business – or from Ops back to Dev.
  3. The Third Way: Culture of Continual Experimentation and Learning – Think of the third way as many smaller feedback loops of learning and improvement.

What Alex learned in “The Goal” is an important lesson to remember: No matter what you change, you can only go as fast as the slowest. The same is true in your value stream. The principles of continuous improvement, exemplified by Gene’s Three Ways and Kaizen can be a powerful force to help drive incremental and lasting change.

Continuous improvement through small changes

Why should you adopt a Kaizen approach? Because it works. Kaizen is a strategy that refers to continuous improvement through small changes that result in major improvement. When applied in a business setting, Kaizen has significant impact on culture, productivity, and quality.

When teams practice continuous improvement, they;

  • Start with understanding their value stream.
  • Look for bottlenecks and waste.
  • Prioritize what to improve (remember the hikers).
  • Experiment with a minor change and learn.

In principle, continuous improvement and DevOps isn’t difficult, if you approach it from a perspective of Kaizen and Gene Kim’s “Three Ways.” However, the complexity of fragmented toolchains and processes, siloed incentives, and lack of collaboration often get in the way of making lasting improvements in software delivery.

Increase your DevOps success and reduce cycle time

To set the speed in the competitive race of software innovation, I have three suggestions:

  1. Simplify your scope. Focusing improvement efforts on one specific value stream at a time narrows your efforts to hone in on major problem areas rather than becoming overwhelmed.
  2. Empower your team. Giving your delivery team the authority to experiment and improve enables innovation to become a focus.
  3. Measure your value stream. Understanding your cycle time and identifying bottlenecks enables you to take an objective look at what's slowing you down.

Increasing your DevOps success and reducing cycle time through continuous improvement can help your organization continuously improve your value stream. At GitLab, we’re helping teams reduce cycle time with our approach to DevOps, which unifies teams to focus on delivering value.

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