Crunch time and Theory of Constraints

I’m continually amazed at the wastefulness and lack of focus I often see in software development. Worst of all, the problems seem to intensify as one gets closer to the deadline. It doesn’t have to be this way if you are focused on continual improvement.

A colleague of mine that I have tremendous respect for turned me on to Eli Goldratt and The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement. While The Goal focuses on manufacturing, it is applicable to other industries as well (see Critical Chain). The basic idea is to identify bottlenecks (or constraints) to throughput, and systematically make improvements to reach the goal of maximizing throughput for the system as a whole. Of course, the theory of constraints was the inspiration for the name of this blog.

Crunch Time

Anyone who has spent time in software development has experienced crunch time. You’re up against a tight deadline, and there is more work than time. The closer you get to the deadline, the more chaotic things get. You have X number of features that must go out, and they are all top priority.  If a feature has to be done, it is of COURSE top priority.  Along with all the other required functionality.  How can we maximize chances at success?

Step One: Identify the constraint

This can be tricky, but very often it is development that is constraining the system. Coding is a time consuming process. For this post, we are going to assume it is the development that is the bottleneck.

Step Two: Exploit the constraint

No, this doesn’t mean treating your developers unfairly. It means utilizing your resource to the fullest. Remove any functionality not absolutely necessary. Re-evaluate targeted functionality for the simplest solution that could possibly work. Prioritize work, even if priorities are arbitrary. When the human brain encounters 10 different #1 priority tasks, nothing is going to get done. By prioritizing, you let development focus on individual tasks.

Step Three: Subordinate every other decision to the constraint

Have you ever been in crunch time and found yourself doing something that is unrelated to your goal and is wasting your time? As an example, if I’m a developer under the gun to get functionality developed, preparing release notes and responding to bug reports via some cumbersome bug tracking system is wasting my time. Find another resource that can handle these things for me so that I (the bottleneck) can focus on my goal. Don’t hand incomplete requirements to your developers that will require them to stop working to clarify.

Step Four: Elevate the constraint

Elevating the constraint is tough during crunch time. In this case, elevation could involve adding people or faster machines for the developers. Neither of these is a good idea when up against a deadline. But outside of that scenario, the above should be considered. Particularly computers. It absolutely baffles me the salaries organizations will pay developers and leave them with 2 or 3 year old machines. Spending $3k on a faster computer is a no-brainer.

Step Five: Repeat

Chances are that if you repeat the above steps, at some point in time your constraint is going to shift. Most likely, it will shift to your testing crew. Repeat the focusing steps to continually improve what you do.

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