Bill: I’m talking with Paul McMahon today. Paul is Principal at PEM Systems and helps large and small organizations improve their technical and management processes and move toward increased agility and process maturity. I recently encountered Paul while I was reviewing presentation briefs at the upcoming Better Software Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada in June. Paul’s presentation brief on improving your organization through Lean and Agile techniques caught my attention, and I decided to pick up his recently published book, Integrating CMMI and Agile Development: Case Studies and Proven Techniques for Faster Performance Improvement. I was so impressed with it that I decided to contact Paul and was excited when he agreed to interview for this report. So Paul, why don’t we go ahead and get started by asking you our lead in question: “What’s the best process improvement, strategy or tactic that has worked really well for you or your clients?”
Paul: It may sound strange at first, but even though I’m a consultant I have learned not to try to give my clients answers or tell them what to do. Rather, what I’m finding I’m doing more and more of is helping clients discover what’s already working in their organization, which sounds strange because if it’s already working, how is this going to help them?
To explain this a little more, I’ve learned through the years there are two ways to look at process improvement: The traditional way is— when we see behavior that isn’t quite right—to immediately try to correct it and get the behavior going the right way. But that’s where we often run into resistance because that’s where you start telling them what to do. They’re not so sure they should listen to you because you’re an outside consultant.
They think: “Do you know my job?” or “Why should some outside consultant be able to tell me what to do?” So the other way I like to look at it, to avoid that scenario, is to go in, listen to what’s going on, and to talk to people, letting them tell me what’s happening. I take notes and just try to discover the behaviors that are already happening—good and bad.
The interesting thing that I’ve discovered is even in an organization that needs help, there are always people that have figured out some really neat ways to address common problematic issues. Often their techniques aren’t even considered a standard practice. So what I like to do is observe that, extract it, and then help spread it across the organization.
I hadn’t really thought about it until you asked me this question. When I considered it, just this past weekend, I realized this is definitely the best strategy that I’ve come across. I think the reason it’s the best strategy is that it really does avoid all those issues of, “Why should I change?” or “Why should I believe a consultant who doesn’t really know my organization or my job?” It removes those common obstacles.
Bill: Paul, can you share any examples with us?
Paul: What I talk about in the book are some of the best practices that I discover this way. People sometimes don’t even think of these as practices. I call them local practices. They’re usually not documented, but they’re things that are happening and helping people succeed in each organization.
For example, in the Bond case study in the book I talk about doorway risk management. This is something I actually observed. I’m watching the way they do risk management. This organization really was successful because they lived and breathed risk management. When somebody was worried about something, they’re in the doorway of their manager, and they’re already working out the mitigation strategies.
That wasn’t written down. It was just something that was happening. But I actually wrote this down, described it, and helped them train others in the organization. We trained people and spread the word this was an expected practice. People loved it because when we trained it, it wasn’t the consultant saying, “Here, this is what you should do.” I brought the people in that were already doing it in their own organization, and I was just the facilitator.
I said, “Joe, could you describe what you do?” And then they shared with each other their own best practices. The more I do this, the more I’m finding as a consultant I have less work to do, because what I’m really doing is motivating the people in the organization to talk to each other. Just a few other quick examples—again, a lot of them are in the book:
What I call the super resource spreadsheet. Every company does something like this, but they don’t write it down. They don’t train others in how they do it or why they do it. There’s usually somebody managing the resources across projects, and somebody usually has this big Excel spreadsheet with a lot of valuable information, such as all the engineering people in the company listed—and what projects they’re working on.
They’re often tracking how much work each person is doing on each project. They’re making decisions related to, “Well, if I’m having trouble on one program, I might have to pull Joe off of this one and put him over here, but what’s the impact?” Some keep a column in that spreadsheet of important things to consider with respect to people working certain projects, such as potential impacts to that project if this person was moved to another project. They use this informal spreadsheet with all this valuable information to help make better decisions.
I’ve brought this to the attention of a number of companies. Few companies ever write this down and describe it as a best practice, but something like this is used in many organizations. This is an example of a technique that is used to help with critical decision-making that frequently has to be made in organizations.
Let me give you another example with peer reviews. The interesting thing is there are a lot of people who think a peer review has to be formal, “I go at a set time and I go into a room.” But one of the things I’ve observed in a lot of companies is the best peer reviews are the ones that happen when a situation occurs and they know that they’ve got to get their best people together to talk about this situation. The review just happens at that point when they knew they needed it. Some people may view this in a negative light because it is ad hoc, but I see it in practice as smart because it works.
When I observe this happening, I ask someone in the organization, “What are the criteria you are using when you call such a meeting?” When they think about it they realize they do know, but they haven’t really described it and told others about it. So again, I pull that information up, extract it out, we write it down, and then we say, “This is expected. We expect you to pull people into a room, talk about issues and solve problems when you have these types of situations because they have proven to work in this organization in the past.” By making more of the people in the organization aware of such practices the organization as a whole can begin to perform at a higher level and do it more consistently.
Another piece of this strategy I really like is what I call tailored workshops where I’m just facilitating. I make sure to have people in the workshop that are doing these local practices. Then I just turn it into a sharing and have the different people in the organization share with others some of these best practices they never even viewed as best practices.
Bill: I think that’s a fascinating approach about helping them to discover and find the answers themselves Paul. You point out the practices that are so well known to them they aren’t even recognized. I’ve seen instances of how successful this approach can be, but it seems like there are so many distractions, there are so many ways to get off-course, and I’m wondering if you found any ways to keep a focus on this approach.
Paul: I agree. You do need to stay focused on the right things because I have also found you can get overwhelmed and go too far with this approach. The way to keep it focused and to really keep value there is not to try to discover anything. If you talk to people and you ask them how they do their job, they will start sharing with you. You will start hearing where their pain points are in getting their job done. I listen for what’s getting in their way.
When I do this I start to see patterns in organizations of where the trouble spots are. Then I listen for the people who best know how to solve those common trouble spots. So the things I raise up in these workshops and get people to talk about aren’t just any particular neat thing they’re doing, but it’s something that someone is doing that others need help with, and that’s why it’s of value and why people get excited about it. Typically in the workshops if I ask people how they might handle some specific common issue that I have heard about, I also make sure I have somebody there who has faced a similar issue and has found a good solution and is willing to explain that solution to the group.
That keeps a focus on this approach. We’re not talking about a lot of things. There are often just a few of these key trouble spots, or patterns, that keep reoccurring and really have value if you can show people how to handle them effectively.
When a project starts to get into trouble, it’s not uncommon that there are two or three things that are causing it, and it’s not the same two or three things in every organization. Each organization seems to have their own specific patterns that tend to repeat. So if we can find the best way to keep away from these common patterns, or solve them rapidly when we sense them, and share those techniques it leads to real improvement in the organization.
It’s not just, we’re putting processes in place for process’s sake; we’re putting them in place where we can really see value added that can help the people in the organization with the common obstacles and trouble that they face.
Bill: Paul, we’ve been talking about ten minutes now and before we end our talk today, I’d really like to ask you why you wrote your most recent book. I’m so impressed with how well it’s written. And there are so many great insights and examples throughout the book. It’s clear to me that you put a tremendous amount of work into this book.
Paul: The thing that really motivated me to write that book was the misunderstandings that people have about CMMI. To me the best way to use the CMMI is to turn the model around and not look at it as a set of dictated practices, but turn the practices in the model into questions. Asking questions, and then listening—that’s the way to use the model. Using the model this way got me into this mode of just listening, and then finding where we can really help this organization, rather than just creating a lot of processes.
I think when you do that, people really quickly begin to see how the model can help them, and how it can work well with Agile approaches.
Bill: I think the CMMI model is a very powerful tool and it’s not exactly obvious at first glance. My motivation to write this interview series with people like you came about in a similar manner. I was involved in a successful CMMI implementation and then a new CIO came in at the very end who didn’t understand it and killed it.
Paul: The mistake that gets made is, when people decide, “I’m going to use the CMMI and I’m going to use it right now because I want to be level three in six months.” If you take that attitude and you put that schedule in place and you start driving for a formal appraisal as your primary goal, you totally lose the value of using it less formally in this question mode, which really is needed before getting focused on a formal appraisal.
You need to give the organization time to find out where they need their improvements and to implement appropriate changes or just share what is working across more of your organization. So it’s a less formal way of using the model. If you jump right to the formal way of using it for an appraisal, you won’t get the value.
Bill: Paul, thank you very much for talking with me today. I really enjoyed talking with you today. And I’ll leave our readers with this teaser. “If you’re looking for a guaranteed way to improve your golf game or just about anything, pick up Paul’s book and read chapter 9!”
This interview was originally published in 5 Minutes to Process Improvement Success by Bill Fox.