When Adding Waste isn’t Waste
Naresh Jain over at Managed Chaos was griping about The Bloat Effect. The gist is that as time moves on, everything gets bigger and more bloated, including the software, the team, and the process. This makes everything less valuable as a result.
There is often waste in our process. Sometimes it’s given to us and we have to deal with it. Occasionally we introduce it willingly. Often, we start out bloated. We may have an idea of what the streamlined, efficient process looks like, but it’s not what we adopt. Often there are good reasons, or at least reasons. We are, after all, smart, intentional people.
First of all, a definition of waste. Anything that does not directly add value to the customer is waste. Anything that causes you to spend more time than is necessary, is waste. Anything built but not used is waste. Anything that hinders progress is waste. A common goal of any process is to minimize waste, but sometimes we need it. Sometimes waste in the micro saves work in the macro. Waterfall is kinda like this. The theory is that the more you can remove uncertainty with upfront work, the smoother the project will be, ultimately saving time than if the project had tripped over some of the intricacies later in the cycle, or at least having predictable results with predictable resources. Of course, we know how well that usually works out. Agile aims to minimize all of this waste through multiple iterations and is comfortable with whatever revisions may be necessary later on, based on what we learn.
Recognize the role that waste is playing.
If you are being asked to do something you consider unnecessary, find out what need it is filling. If there isn’t one, you may have an argument for eliminating the task. If there is, you may be able to find a leaner way to solve that need. If you don’t have the authority to make the change, you may have to figure out who in the organization can and convince them. Unfortunately, waste is often thrust upon us with no recourse. Then it’s back to a software version of the serenity prayer, accepting what we can’t change and working on what we can. Sometimes that’s just just ‘how it’s done’.
However, you may choose to add steps into your own process to save time later on. If you experience a frequent roadblock that causes a lot of churn, you may need to add extra steps upfront to deal with it. For example, if you have difficulty communicating new concepts to key stakeholders, perhaps more time needs to be spent fleshing out those ideas before they are presented, especially if you believe that they are justified by the business and user needs. Do you spend time that feels unnecessary? What steps could you take earlier to minimize this unnecessary expenditure of effort? Would the trade-off be worth it?
Simplify as you go
Even if you can’t immediately change the process, you can work to simplify over time. Just because there may be legitimate reasons why you live with the excess now, don’t let that keep you from working to improve the process. This is one of the 12 principles of behind the Agile Manifesto. Can you take a small step the next sprint, or the next release, to streamline? Can you keep educating those insisting on inefficient methods in better processes? Is it waste or is it really saving you time later on? People may be hanging on to tools and processes that they are familiar and comfortable with. Moving them away from them too quickly may be difficult or undesirable in the short term. As you demonstrate success, you will have the freedom and trust to make changes and put past process attachments to rest.
Is it Agile?
As you evolve as a team, you may encounter people who tell you that, ‘You’re not Agile.’ They may be right. You may not be capital-A Agile, but I think the key questions are:
1. Are we doing better this sprint than last sprint?
2. Are we making changes that we expect will enable us to perform better in the next sprint?
To often I’m concerned less with removing steps than with adding them. It seems common to encounter an engineering team that has been using agile without the benefit of UX and now they are experiencing some pain. There is often the misconception that waste is anything that is not working code. At the recent Deep Agile Conference, James Coplien indicated that, “Rework in implementation is waste, rework in design is agile.” Adding in a quick usability test to uncover design flaws early is not an outdated process to be slowly abandoned. It is a positive practice that should be introduced where it is lacking. Engage with your users, gather feedback on your product/designs, measure your results. These are steps that do not directly contribute to customer value, but they are some key elements that form the foundation of a solid product. Waste needs to be looked at in the context of the entire product, not just the tasks that any one individual or team are performing.