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Are You Little League or Major League? It's Not What You Do But How You Do It

Consider two teams, both playing the same game of baseball. With one team, when the ball is hit, some players run towards the ball and others stand around and watch, sometimes not even thinking about the game.

Now look at the other team: when the ball is hit, every player reacts in a disciplined manner and his teammates know what the other is going to do. Depending on the situation, the pitcher may cover home plate, infielders set up for a double play, and outfielders prepare to back up their teammates.

Which team is going to deliver the most wins?

In any kind of business, what keeps you in business is whether or not you deliver the goods to your clients. You need to deliver quality results in a consistent manner. The good news is that to deliver quality results, you do not need tons of people or the most expensive tools: it’s all about the quality of your systems.

What is a “system”? It is a set of activities, methods, practices, tools and transformations that you use to create a specific deliverable result. An effective set of systems brings together people, tools and methods into an integrated whole. The quality of your end result is determined by the quality of the systems used to produce it. Systems provide a measurable way to improve your ability to execute.

As an engineer and project manager back in the 1990s, I had a lot of personal experience with project teams that had good systems and others that had poor ones, and it had nothing to do with how much money the team had to work with.

In the late 1990s, the Software Engineering Institute (SEI), located at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, studied hundreds of software companies and development teams of various sizes to understand what kinds of activities, processes and systems are needed to create good software. They grouped the teams into a Capability Maturity Model (CMM) with five levels of “maturity”, or how the systems are defined, managed, measured, controlled and effective:

· Level 1 – The Initial Level. Systems are characterized as ad-hoc, and occasionally even chaotic. Few processes are defined, and success depends on individual effort and heroics.

· Level 2 – The Repeatable Level. Basic processes are established to track cost, schedule and functionality. The necessary discipline is in place to repeat earlier successes on projects with similar parameters.

· Level 3 – The Defined Level. Systems are documented, standardized, and integrated across the organization. Everyone accepts and uses the approved systems.

· Level 4 – The Managed Level. Detailed metrics are collected, measuring the effectiveness of internal systems and quality of the deliverables. Everything that is done is quantitatively understood and controlled.

· Level 5 – The Optimizing Level. Continuous process improvement is enabled by quantitative feedback from the process and from piloting innovative ideas and technologies.

There are very few Level 5 software development organizations, and these tend write code for the Space Shuttle, nuclear power plants and other high-reliability applications (one defect per million lines of code, and they know precisely what and where it is). Most companies are somewhere between level 1 and 2. When a company reaches between levels 2 and 3, it usually has the procedures in place to successfully apply for ISO 9000 certification.

Although this framework was initially developed for software teams, I find the CMM is a very effective way to measure and improve a team’s ability to execute.

Any systems that you put in place should address four main aspects:

· Tasks: What you do. Tasks should be described at a “macro” level, with enough detail to determine what is the deliverable for the task, but with enough flexibility to give whoever is doing the task the autonomy necessary to get it done. A good rule of thumb is that a task should take at least one day and not more than four days (so that it can be accomplished in a normal work-week). If a task takes less or more than these guidelines, it is either too detailed or can be broken down further.

· People: Who does what. Responsibilities and authorities must be clearly defined and published, so that everyone has a clear stake in the success of the project. Everyone should “own” an aspect of the project, to create a sense of “craftsman’s pride”. If something goes wrong, the responsibility to rectify the problem is clear, and if something goes right, the reward and recognition can be clearly determined.

· Technology/Tools: How you do it. The tools and technology used must be scaled to the task and the resources at hand. Manual methods can be just as effective as fancy online tools. The main requirement is to not let the tools get in the way of the job, in other words the KISS principle applies.

· Measurement: How you track what you do. As the old saying goes: “if you can’t measure it, it wasn’t done”. Clear and simple measurement tools help you distinguish between fantasy (how you think you’re doing) versus reality (how you are really doing).

Your business also has to deliver dependable, consistent results. The maturity of your execution and management systems will determine to a large degree whether you can deliver these results. When the systems in your business are well defined and well implemented, people know what needs to be done and the right things get done.

If you want to play in the Majors, you must develop the maturity of your processes and systems. When you have a finely-tuned machine that is humming along, you get more done, have less stress, gain happier clients, and you make much more profit in the end.

For more information

The “Little League/Major League” analogy at the beginning of this article is from Watts Humphrey, a leader in the field of software development and founder of the Capability Maturity Model project, from his book “Managing The Software Process”
http://www.amazon.com/Managing-Software-Process-Watts-Humphrey/dp/0201180952
Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watts_Humphrey

The Wikipedia entry for “Capability Maturity Model” gives a good overview of the process as applied to software development: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Capability_maturity_model

ISO9000 sometimes is synonymous with excessive paperwork. But the principles of ISO9000 quality management can be applied to any kind of manufacturing, retail or service business. The Wikipedia entry for “ISO9000” gives a good overview
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iso_9000

Image credit: Ed Yourdon via Flickr
Direct link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/yourdon/3583164483/
Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 Licence

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