Sunday, 8 May 2011

Dodgy Decision Making In the Wake of a “Successful” SCAMPI A Appraisal

So your organization now has a huge deck of PowerPoint slides produced by the SCAMP A Appraisal team, and somewhere towards the back there’s one particular slide that tells you your rating (you hope!). It’s probably taken you a long time to get to this point, maybe even years, and the relief from those intimately involved in the whole exercise is palpable. Your SEPG can relax and everyone can look forward to the party. Congratulations – you’ve earned it!

But for those of you either in Leadership positions or who have influence over the Process Improvement strategy within your organization, just hold on a moment longer. Because right now you are probably about to make a bunch of decisions, either consciously or subconsciously which could seriously jeopardize all your efforts so far.

In this article we’ll look at some of the worst decisions you could take, why they are not good decisions, what their impact might be, both short term and long term, and what perhaps you should be thinking about doing instead. Not all organizations are going to find themselves in this situation, but there are some characteristics which are common to those that might. These are:

  1. Reaching a specified maturity level was the primary organizational objective
  2. Leadership and managers only paid lip service to the “Improvement Programme”
  3. The initiative was called “The CMMI Programme”
  4. Resources (people and budget) for improvement were only planned up until the end of the appraisal
  5. Main output from the programme was the creation of dozens of artefacts, primarily templates
  6. Management of change at the organizational level is not really understood or practiced

If you find yourself thinking that one or more of these attributes applies to your situations, then read on…

Dodgy Decision #1 – Disband the programme team and reallocate resources

It’s highly likely that you created some kind of team to manage and direct the CMMI initiative – most likely a small core project team supported by an SEPG of subject matter experts. Their brief was to “get CMMI Level ‘n’ by such and such a date” and their plan and budget was aligned to that end date. After that the team was to be reallocated to proper work (e.g. revenue generating) and the overhead budget reduced back to a bare minimum.

There are two problems with this decision and both are associated with the misconception that you have genuinely succeeded in your mission. The first problem is that, in the course of the appraisal and as part of the final findings, the appraisal team will have documented a number of improvement opportunities. In the spirit of the improvement process, it is incumbent on the organisation to address these findings and to take the appropriate remedial actions. This may be more difficult than it seems, sometimes because of the wording of the final findings (which is deliberately obfuscated to maintain the non-attributable nature of the findings), but often because the longer it takes to draw up the action plan the harder it is to remember what the real issue was in the first place.

The second problem is that, realistically, you have probably only done enough work to achieve your desired maturity level in an appraisal environment. The real effort is still to come as the outputs from the improvement become part of the organisational DNA and its culture. Organisations simply do not change their behaviour overnight on the basis of a successful appraisal.

To overcome these issues, the people most likely to succeed are those who have been closest to the action – namely the improvement team members and the SEPG. They are the people who have the best understanding of what the defined issues are, and what actions need to be taken. If you disband the team, not only will this experience be lost but there is a very good chance that perceived problems will take the place of genuine improvement activities. As soon as you start focusing on perceived issues you lose your focus and start wasting time, effort and money on problems that may not really exist.

The improvement team will have learnt a great deal about process and change management during the course of the improvement programme, and it would be foolish to fail to take advantage of this. Not only may future initiatives benefit from the knowledge, but there is still much work to be done and those skills are going to be critical in the next few months.

The recommendation is to keep the team together for as long as possible after the appraisal. The team can take on new objectives and responsibilities, and the allocation of the SEPG may be reduced, but in general, if the team has worked well and achieved its goals, then it makes sense to allow them to continue their good work. At the same time, you are demonstrating an on-going commitment to continuous improvement, which was surely the reason for getting involved with CMMI in the first place!

Dodgy Decision #2 – Relax the rules – take your foot off the pedals

Now you’ve been recognised as a CMMI Level ‘n’ organisation (and you’ve reallocated your team and budget) you can afford to focus on other things, safe in the knowledge that you successfully negotiated the appraisal and that your organisation has made the step change required. Wrong!

As suggested in our first dodgy decision, there is still a lot of work to be done. At the very least there are action plans to be drawn up and implemented in order to address the findings from the appraisal. More likely though, your effort has been concentrated on a small number of projects which were directly impacted by the appraisal – those focus and non-focus projects that were in scope and whose team members took part in appraisal interviews and provided input into the appraisal document review.

Much of the organisation will have fallen under the radar in terms of appraisal, and it is important to bring all those other projects into line. More importantly, projects are probably still only “doing CMMI” because they are filling in the templates you created as part of the improvement programme. The underlying principles are probably still a mystery to most projects and project staff, and an outsider walking through the development barns would regularly hear comments about how much extra work projects have to do because of CMMI.

Trying to get projects and staff in the mindset of organisational change takes much more than an appraisal or a group of compliance auditors beating deviants with big sticks. If you’ve taken a bottom up approach to “implement CMMI” by focusing on templates and CMMI specific practices, rather than a value add approach which promotes good practice through shared understanding of the principles involved, you still have a lot of work to do to win people’s hearts and minds (in some cases so much damage has already been done that this will never happen).

If you haven’t really done so, now is a really good time to start learning about organisational change management, not to mention brushing up on your people (and other soft) skills. The key to successful process improvement and change is to understand that people execute the processes that you have in place, and they will be happy to follow (and use) worthwhile processes and documents. They will not forgive you for burdening their lives with worthless overhead and nit-picking compliance officers who have never used the processes they are enforcing on your people.

Quality is not about compliance, and process improvement will not succeed if you ram it down people’s throats.

Dodgy Decision #3 – Focus all management attention on a new major initiative

Remember how exciting CMMI was when you first started – your Executives couldn’t talk about anything else, even though most of them didn’t even know what CMMI stood for (either as an abbreviation or as a set of principles for process improvement). But after those first few months their enthusiasm started to wane as there was no obvious tangible benefit from all their improvement dollars. And until that all important slide went up on the screen, CMMI had become nothing more than a bottomless pit – a black hole absorbing vast amounts of time, effort and cash.

Now you’ve successfully achieved your goal, the executives are looking for the next silver bullet – Agile and Lean perhaps, and so the cycle begins again.

As we’ve already seen there is still a lot of work to be done with your existing initiative. But equally important is the need for the organisation to catch its breath. People can only absorb a certain amount of change in a given period, and there should be a bedding down of the previous set of changes before starting a new round of major change. Without this break, it may not be possible to understand where change has been successful (or not). Changes arising from the new initiative may negate the benefits about to be realised from the previous round of changes.

I’ve heard lots of organisations talk about “relentless change”. Just take a moment to think about the use of language here. Relentless only has negative connotations (synonyms include grim, inexorable, and unforgiving). Is this really the burden that you want to place on your staff? Continuous improvement works best with small steps, and certainly does not imply big initiative after big initiative.

By all means, start thinking at the next round of changes, but be smart about it. Look at ways to synergise the previous initiative and the new one. Do the feasibility analysis, start making plans, learn the lessons from the previous change. But just hang fire on a big bang approach, and find small rapid improvement opportunities which start to make a difference immediately. The organisation will be in a much better position to adapt to small incremental changes than big capital investment changes. The chances are that your bottom line will end up being a lot healthier as well.

Dodgy Decision #4 – Adopt a new process set or management system

As part of your CMMI programme you built a new management system closely aligned to the CMMI Process Areas with a wealth of templates and other artefacts to help your projects become CMMI compliant. As part of the institutionalisation process all projects were mandated to use the new system, and many overtime hours have been spent by project teams meeting that mandate. Now, as part of your next major initiative (and in order to become lean and agile!), you plan to use a system that has been successfully used in another part of the organisation.

What is going on in your head here? You just spent a sack full of money building something that you now want to decommission before the ink is dry on the reams of templates and other paperwork you created. Which bit of “continuous improvement” didn’t you really understand? And of course you do appreciate that if you replace your existing management system you pretty much invalidate the results of any appraisal you’ve just been through.

And what message exactly are you sending to your staff? “Well, we built this system to get us through the CMMI appraisal, but we knew it was crap and that we’d have to do it right in the future”. “So, it’s fine for you guys to develop crap software for now, and we’ll give you a chance to get it right later on – if we still have a business…”

If you find, for whatever reason, that your process set is not fit for purpose then stop the improvement programme right now. Put any thoughts of having an appraisal on hold. Take a step back, look at your approach and strategy for improvement and start re-planning. Replacing a management system on the back of a successful appraisal will generate an enormous amount of resentment amongst the people who have to use it that you will lose their support for any future quality initiative.

If it really is too late, then you have to be smart about the approach you take. Don’t announce and implement a new system. Take an incremental approach, and slowly replace elements of the old system, as part of your continuous improvement programme. Prioritise on areas where genuine value will be realised as early as possible. And learn the biggest lesson of all when it comes to management systems – that simple and small is best! It was probably an over-engineered system that got you into this mess in the first place. Get the people who have to use the system to help design in with the support of the process engineers, not the other way around.

So there you have it - four dodgy decisions that you could take if you weren't thinking clearly. I have seen plenty of organisations doing one or more of these things, and ultimately they all ended up reversing the decision(s). However, the delay cost them all in terms of cost, effort and more importantly in their credibility and their ability to introduce further changes and improvements.

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