thinking in rules

Better Living through Continuous Improvement

Jeff Key | 1/28/2014

In the mid-90s I was both a finance student in college and an intern at Merrill Lynch, so Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was required reading. As a 20-year-old, I didn’t have a full appreciation of many of the habits. That’s especially true of the seventh habit, Sharpening the Saw.

Seven Habits is about personal effectiveness. Within that context, Sharpening the Saw refers to eating well, exercising, restoring, learning, reading, writing, teaching, and expanding the spiritual self. A similar approach can be taken by organizations, from large corporations to small teams. I’ll be using examples from our Engineering group at InRule Technology throughout this post.

Principles

I’m a simple guy and try to live/lead by two simple principles:

Always Get Better

In the film adaptation of Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross,” an aggressive Alec Baldwin orders a lackluster sales group to Always Be Closing (ABC). While that may work in a sales organization, I like to think in terms of AGB: Always Get Better. The world is always changing, and with it the environment in which every organization operates. There are always opportunities to get better. This is a true win/win, as both the organization and individual benefit.

Strive for Excellence, Not Perfection

At the same time, perfection should not be the goal. Perfection is largely subjective – and a moving target at that.  The joy is in the journey and expecting perfection leads to disappointment, over and over again. (Remember what Einstein said about that?)

Principles in Practice

I like to think in terms of scope: organizational, divisional and team. Each presents different opportunities with regard to improvement. As managers we have most influence on divisional and team principles. In this blog post, I’ll address divisional principles. I’ll dive into team principles in a future post.

Divisional

Here is where continual improvement can be more easily realized, as those that are affected by it have access to the means by which it can be improved.

At InRule Technology, we often have quarterly goals, chosen by the leaders of each group. The Engineering group typically uses these opportunities to make changes to our process over time. For example, this quarter’s initiative involves a major revamping of our build process.

The Engineering group also takes one day out of the month to address two things: Friction and/or Technical Debt.

Friction

Merriam-Webster defines friction as:

  • the force that causes a moving object to slow down when it is touching another object
  • disagreement or tension between people or groups of people

Within our group, Friction is anything that slows us down or, frankly, is irritating. We maintain a Friction Reduction board in Trello that anyone can add issues to when they come upon something that is frustrating or slows them down.  During Friction Reduction Fridays, the entire team works on addressing these issues, which are typically operational.

Technical Debt

Wikipedia defines Technical Debt as “… [a] metaphor referring to the eventual consequences of poor software architecture and software development within a codebase.”

Our Technical Debt Reduction Days allow our engineers to address issues that otherwise might not get prioritized. We also have a Technical Debt Trello board that may be added to at any time, as well as TechnicalDebt attributes that decorate code that’s known to have debt.

The Impact

Friction and technical debt reduction empowers team members to document what they believe to be wrong – and fix it.  These practices empower individuals and make them accountable to Always Get Better.  Employing these practices foster a culture in which there is a vision of excellence—not unattainable perfection—that everyone strives for, as individuals and as teams.  With individual and shared visions of excellence and a desire to continually improve, it’s a joyful and productive journey.

Next time: Principles in Practice for teams


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