Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Software Development: The Klein bottleneck

Klein BottleWe were asked to help with the way that our Computing Services department prioritises and schedules software development. As in many organisations. development is a considerable bottleneck, for all the usual reasons:
  • Inadequate and unclear specifications
  • unforeseen programming complications
  • technology issues
  • poor estimation
  • unrealistic deadlines
  • feature creep
  • inadequate testing
  • specialised skillsets
  • etc. etc.
These problems are deeply ingrained in the development process, leading to frustration on all sides: for customers, because they can never rely on dates provided by developers and because there is no visibility for them into the development process until something goes badly wrong; for developers, because they have a burden of work which can never be completed, and because they have to juggle multiple competing requirements and rapidly changing priorities; and for managers because they are not in a position to understand the impact of new work and re-prioritisation.
At our planning meeting with the team we decided on the following problem statement:
  • CiCS don’t have confidence that we’re doing the right work in the right order
  • CiCS cannot say how long and how much resource work will take
  • CiCS cannot determine the impact of new work on work in progress
Our task was to guide the team towards a process which could provide answers for these problems - not easy as the instant response from developers is usually “we can develop a system to do that”.
As the week of the process improvement event unfolded a great many worries were uncovered. We were concerned that there were so many issues and so much variation in developers’ working practices that agreement on the problem - never mind the solution - was unlikely. However, three major breakthroughs turned this sense of despair around:

  • IMG_8471.JPGThe realisation that early involvement in the estimation of effort for work is crucial, and that estimates are, as their name implies, estimates!
  • The necessity of keeping work schedules up-to-date so that the current picture of work is mostly correct
  • And the understanding that a great deal can be achieved with postit notes and charts stuck on the wall

With this achieved the team produced logical and sensible process maps for project and non-project work, which introduced gateways estimating resource requirements and associated stop points; matrix outlines for individual work schedules, and a series of actions for further work, in particular investigation of software which might automate some of the rescheduling effort and provide the visibility into development timelines required by management and customers.

A great deal of the outcomes are within the control of the development team, and their enthusiasm after the workshop has been marvellous to watch; however, prioritisation and re-prioritisation of big ticket items is a task for computing services service strategy board. We hope that they will grasp this opportunity for improving their ability to prioritise realistically and sensibly.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Delivering external training in the 'Big Smoke'

We've just spent the last two days delivering some training to a group of staff at St George's University, London. It was a hybrid of our eight-module process improvement practitioner training.

When we deliver our eight-module training here at Sheffield, it is delivered in two and a half hour sessions over a period of two to three months, we also require staff to complete a small improvement project.

I initially had some concerns about delivering a significant proportion of our training over two days: my concerns were that it would be very intense for the trainees, with little time for reflection and that without having the individual projects to coach staff the training might feel remote and theoretical.

The training was intense and I think that we all agreed at the end of the second day we were all pretty exhausted. However, I was absolutely thrilled by the feedback from the attendees, they were really enthused about embarking on a series of process reviews and had started to formulate some views on how the reviews could be tightly scoped and have a clear message (and plan) for continuous improvement.

It was a delight to meet the team who were student focused and able to disassociate systems development from process improvement activities. I wish the team the very best of luck as they embark on their process review journey, and look forward to catching up with them in the future to hear about their experiences.

Monday, 15 June 2015

UCISA PCMG – Project and Change Management – Why bother? #PCMG15

I’m on the committee for the UCISA Project and Change Management Group, we hosted our first say event last week. It’s been really interesting being a small part of the group that put this event together.

The planning has taken almost a year from initiation to finally delivering: starting with identifying a suitable date and venue, to agreeing the schedule and perhaps most importantly bringing the right speakers in.

We held the event in Birmingham on 10 June. I thoroughly enjoyed the day, and initial feedback seems to show that attendees really enjoyed the event. Take a look at the UCISA website for detailed information (and slides) http://www.ucisa.ac.uk/groups/pcmg/events/2015/pcmg.aspx.

Highlights for me were the main speakers: Gerry Pennell Director CIO at The University of Manchester who gave a very relevant and candid talk about the transformation work that has been happening there; Dr Ruth Murray-Webster who reminded us to focus on the people who are being required to change, not just on the change agent, Adrian Reed (International Institute of Business Analysis) gave us an amusing, yet incisive look into the role of the Business Analyst, and Prof Zoe Radnor reminded us to not only use lean to improve our processes but also to focus on service excellence and co-production.

I think that the day was a really good mix of high-level change aspirations to some really practical useful tools that we can start to use in our day jobs. I thoroughly enjoyed attending the sessions and I’m already looking forward to the next event. Follow @ucisa_pcmg for further information.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

The Third International Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education Conference

We were very lucky to travel up to a very warm and sunny Edinburgh for the Third International Conference on Lean Six Sigma for Higher Education. It was wonderful to hear from and speak to so many individual Lean practitioners and continuous/process improvement coordinators from America, Canada, Australia and Europe.
It was interesting that many of the problems and difficulties we face are felt by many of our colleagues from across many different institutions.
The first day included talks from three different key speakers in the morning and a choice of three different workshops in the afternoon. Each workshop consisted of three different paper presentations covering topics from Kaizen events, Lean Six Sigma Leadership and simulated work environments’.
Dr Karl van der Merwe from the School of Engineering at Nelson Mandela University in South Africa led the presentation on simulated learning environments. I found this discussion particularly interesting as it talked about the benefits of setting up a simulated work environment in order to better teach Lean concepts and techniques. We have tried different simulations, designed to allow our training participants to see the need for and application of Lean techniques as part of our module training. It was interesting to hear how this had been done in another institution.
It was excellent to hear so many different discussions and experiences of the application of Lean Six Sigma in Higher Education, with the opportunity to discuss this in further detail during a panel discussion the following day.
Chris Butterworth from SA Partners in Australia delivered the keynote address on Tuesday. Chris’s presentation outlined and discussed the example set by Kangan TAFE (a higher education college) in Australia. We had previously heard about the brilliant work being carried out at Kangan TAFE when we met with Peter Hines a couple of months ago.  They are a brilliant example of how an organizational wide culture of continuous improvement and Lean can be imbedded within higher education institutions, leading to great results both for the students and for the staff involved. The focus of Chris’s address was on the visual management currently being used in Kangan TAFE, giving us food for thought about how we might use this back at Sheffield.

Recurrent Themes

  • Importance of Leadership
  • Importance of Leadership and top down support – The need to support continuous improvement through leading by example
  • The importance of implementing successful improvements in order to show people that it does work
  • The need to champion the success stories rather than continually dwelling on instances when it has not been done properly, whilst still learning from these occasions
  • The importance of keeping the students at the forefront of any changes, ensuring that their needs are met and that our processes add value to our customers
  • The need to keep trying!

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Idea Prioritisation - Now, later, or never?

We often find, following one of our events or workshops, teams are enthusiastic to get on and implement all the improvements identified. This is great, however we are often cautious not to put too much on the team all in one go, this is where idea prioritisation comes in handy. Prioritising improvement ideas and tasks can help to ensure they are completed fully and accepted by other interested parties and stakeholders. Trying to do too much all at once can leave people and resources overwhelmed resulting in very little being completed.

There are often many different factors that mean a group needs to prioritise tasks and improvements. These may include:
  • Time - either not enough time within the group to implement all the changes and improvements all at once or constraints imposed by the yearly cycle of the workplace e.g September registration at The University
  • Resources - some improvements may have a financial cost associated with their implementation and the group needs to prioritise where the available money will be most effectively spent
  • Acceptability - Some ideas and suggested improvements may need greater buy-in from other team members and/or management. Prioritising these ideas, rather than steaming ahead with them all in one go can make changes less uncomfortable

Prioritisation can also be useful in achieving a consensus of a group as you will often find that different people associate importance to different tasks, gaining a consensus as a group can help to ensure buy-in from all involved with implementation.

It is also often important to get agreement to proceed with implementation by others outside of the immediate group, such as management and other stakeholders. Having a clear, concise and well thought out prioritisation process will help you communicate the reasons behind your decision to proceed with certain tasks first more clearly and robustly.

There are numerous different techniques that you can use to help you prioritise the ideas and tasks you or your group are going to take forward.

10 - 4 Voting
As a group, everyone votes on the ideas or tasks they would like to take forward. Each person has ten votes (we use counters to represent these) and all the ideas are written down and placed within reach of the everyone.
  1. Everyone uses their first four votes, placing them on the ideas of their choice. It is up to them how they spend their first four votes e.g all four on one or one vote on four different ideas etc
  2. Take away the ideas with the lowest number of votes and discuss why the group did not choose them.
  3. Repeat the process with another four votes and then again with the final two.
At the end of the exercise you should be left with one or two ideas that had the greatest number of votes to take forward. This technique is particularly useful when the team largely has control over what to take forward. If management buy in is also needed it may be useful to carry out the next technique first.
This technique is particularly useful in encouraging the group to look objectively at each idea and score it according to whether it is:
Value - are there any tangible benefits
Suitable - Consistent with current strategy and situation
Acceptable - Will it be supported
Feasible - Sufficient resources and time
Enduring - Is it a quick fix or will it last
It can also be a very effective way of communicating to managers and stakeholders why you have made the decisions you have.

MoSCoW stands for Must, Should, Could, Won’t. It is an excellent technique for generating a shared understanding with stakeholders and customers of the importance they place on each deliverable/solution. This technique allows customers or stakeholders to prioritise deliverables according to those that will deliver the greatest benefits. And is most often used when the deadline for delivery is fixed.

There are numerous other techniques you can use to find the one that suits you and your team.


  • Decisions should be supported by facts and data wherever possible. If you do not immediately have this to hand Prioritisation can be a good technique to focus what data you need to collect and understand first.
  • Priorities do change and what appeared easy and useful at the beginning may be a lot more difficult to implement further down the line. Be prepared to go back and re-evaluate.
  • By a couple of changes and ideas at first will hopefully give the team more time later on to revisit and implement the other ideas