Nov 162010

What do you think about variability? Let’s say you get a new job offer and the organization you would lead continually deals with variability. Would you take the job?

Most people would answer “No,” because stability is better, right? Donald G. Reinertsen has conducted surveys showing that 65% of product developers want to eliminate as much variability as possible. I would imagine that IT executives and managers might want this even more. After all, that is why they approve the adoption of such governance as Six Sigma or PSP/TSP. One problem with this is that variability is handled entirely as a negative aspect that needs to be eliminated.

The fact is we cannot get rid of variability in the real world. Market trends change all the time; customer likes and dislikes change all the time; features come and go throughout the development of a product or service. We are dealing with complex systems that continually change. How do we expect our organization to succeed if we don’t embrace such reality? Furthermore, why don’t we adopt practices and methodologies that allow for variability and handle it efficiently so that its economic cost works to our advantage? What this means is that we must allow, and even encourage, variability that adds value. A way to see this is by realizing that the cheapest solution is most times not the most economic one. Playing “safe” by not accepting, or strongly limiting, customer changes throughout development of the product the customer requested pretty much ensures failure to satisfy the customer.

Variability, on the other hand, gives us room for innovation and evolution to satisfy the customer needs more effectively as the vision of the product materializes throughout development. This value-added approach is in tune with lean practices and with methodologies such as Kanban, where both the development process itself and the product or service being developed are driven by the value and quality to the customer. Innovation should be focused on the product/service to the customer as well as on the practices, technologies, and human infrastructure to create it.

Stability is easy to manage but harder to adjust to reality. While good variability (value-added), which requires more involvement of the stakeholders, keeps us in check with reality.


Masa K. Maeda

Masa K. Maeda is a Senior Consultant with Cutter's Agile Product & Project Management Practice. He has 23 years of experience in the USA, Japan, and Mexico.


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