thinking in rules

Better Living Through Continuous Improvement, Part 2: Team Principles

Continuous Improvement for teams

Jeff Key | 2/6/2014

In a previous post, I introduced the two principles by which I try to live:

  • Always Get Better
  • Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

I then focused on how to put those principles into practice from a divisional perspective. In this post, I’ll address on how to put them into practice in a team environment.

Continuous improvement is most easily accomplished at the team level. At InRule Technology we utilize a number of different approaches to enhance the team. I’m sharing a few that the Engineering team has found most effective.

Lunch and Learn

I’m a firm believer in learning about things beyond core competencies. It’s easy – especially in the software industry – to find yourself left in the dust if you don’t actively keep up with the latest technology. As an ISV, it’s especially important for us. We need to be aware of what’s happening in the industry to make better decisions.

Every Friday we have lunch delivered and watch a video related to software development – but typically not anything we’ve done before or have expertise in. This expands our horizons and helps us think about “what’s next” with a more enlightened perspective. InfoQ is a great resource for material covering all of the technologies in play today and they frequently post presentations from recent conferences. For Microsoft material, MSDN’s Channel 9 is our go-to spot to get the latest on what’s coming out of Redmond.

Book Club

Some foundational information is so important that everyone needs to have a firm grasp of it. As a business rule engine company, we touch a wide range of technologies and need to have a solid understanding of the inner workings of the frameworks on which we build our software.

Last year we started a book club and spend 30-60 minutes once a week talking about that week’s readings. It’s a great way to get everyone on the same page and be sure that everyone has a shared understanding of what’s important. Our first book was Jeffrey Richter’s CLR via C#; a must-read for all .NET developers.

Yammer

Yammer bills itself as the “Enterprise Social Network.” Indeed, it’s very much like Facebook for businesses, allowing access to only those that share the same email address domain (@inrule.com, for example).  Yammer allows everyone to share things that may be useful/interesting with others, share ideas and get feedback. It’s also a good place to share non-work related items of interest.

As part of the process

Process is all around us, whether it’s tightly managed or borderline chaos. Embracing continuous improvement at this level allows the participants to control their destiny.

We use agile methodologies for our software development and utilize “sprint retrospectives.” A sprint is a fixed amount of time in which we plan and execute our work. We work in two-week sprints. At the end of each sprint, the team gets together and discusses what went well and what could be improved. Considering the short length of the sprints, it’s a great opportunity to reflect on the past couple weeks and make adjustments . Unlike methodologies like Waterfall that end with a long list of “lessons learned” and promises to “do better next time,” retrospectives allow the team to get better in near real time, increasing trust with stakeholders and providing a more predictable environment.

Making it work

The number one way to benefit from continuous improvement is to embrace it. Make it happen. Believe in the motivation and long-term benefits – because they’re real.

It’s easy to start initiatives, but it takes effort to continue them. I’ve heard countless stories of managers kicking off initiatives only to put them on hold soon thereafter due to time constraints and the like. And you know how that goes: They die on the vine. And people lose faith.

If you do a lunch and learn, keep them going, even during time crunches. If you do retrospectives, make an honest effort to address the problems that are brought up. The more faith people have in the process, the better the process can become, which results in a happier, more productive team.

And at the end of the day, keeping smart people smart and engaged makes for a happy workplace. Isn’t that motivation enough?


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