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  • Ian Wells

Hijacking Agile to help your non-tech business

Updated: Dec 3, 2018

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In Christchurch, non-tech service companies, such as those in the the trades,  are spending increasing amounts of time and cost in overhead. This overhead involves processing information, and taking time away from providing the actual work they are being hired for.


Software companies are experts in processing information - they  have developed techniques of managing teams so that  they can generate, process, validate and distribute information - in the form of software -  ever more efficiently.


Let's hijack those new processes and tools to use  for other Christchurch businesses.

Let's apply the learnings from software companies to all Christchurch businesses, to make them fast at processing information too.


Applying technology to improve business efficiency is not new - what is new is that the software industry has made significant improvements in efficiency and tools in the last 5 years, that have not yet been applied to the non-tech sector.  These improvements could give non-tech companies competitive advantage, as they have done for  software companies. These improvements allow for setting up business practices that  can future-proof  our local non-tech companies against future disruptive changes in the business environment.


Let's roll out coaching, training and tools  carried over from the tech sector,  in order to reduce the information-processing costs for non-tech companies.  Tools are an important component. A coach could work with the target company to understand their information workflows and then decide the tools that would meet their business needs, such as accountability, cost, customer support, etc. This tool is then implemented in a small piece of the business. The target company validates the tool, over several iterations,  and outside trainers could teach the staff how to maintain the tool.


Business needs are guaranteed to change. The training teaches our non-tech company how to use the tool, but more importantly, how to adapt the tool  to meet these changing business needs.  Things taught in a course can easily be forgotten. Teaching by doing, i.e. implementing a business tool, ensures that the lessons learned will be retained.

Here is how it could happen, via  a small  coaching/training team:

  • Coaching: work side by side  with staff to articulate what their existing system is.

  • Training: train staff to configure tool to match the process they want. Once trained, as their processes or products change, the staff can adjust the tool. Process should be determined by the process the company needs, not by the tool

  • Tool: Select, implement and validate the right tool based on usability, cost, support and configurability.

What are the learnings from the software industry?

1. Information systems must be trustworthy

If the same information is kept in more than one place, confusion ensues. Time is wasted. A typical problem rolling out a new computer system or tool, is that users don’t trust it. They keep paper records or spreadsheets on the side to verify what they input to the new system. If this happens, the rollout is a FAIL.  If any information is held in more than one place, the rollout is a FAIL.  Software companies understand this as a software quality problem.


A wiki that can be edited and viewed by anyone in the organisation is a good example of building trust within the organisation. The wiki approach is really “trust everyone to change a document, but everyone also knows what changes you made”


The coach configures the new system so it matches the way the organisation needs to work, so it can be trusted. The coach determines this by observing duplicate sources of data.


2. Software systems must meet company needs and embrace change

Company needs are guaranteed to change, in this competitive environment. Companies that don’t anticipate and respond to disruptive change fail.

Software companies are now built around embracing change.  

For a non-tech company, the way to embrace change are:

  1. select information systems/tools that are designed to be reconfigured

  2. train staff  to reconfigure the tool as company processes change

  3. coach management that  change is ok and how to manage it iterate process improvements so change becomes part of the culture

3. Keep your information processes light weight

In software, flexible, light weight processes are preferred because they allow staff to spend more time doing their job and less on overhead.   Some processes of course cannot be avoided, such as those for safety and health regulations.  But new business processes can be implemented in a light weight way. For example, a welding process can be written down in a wiki knowledge base and be updated by any of the welders actually doing the job.  New ideas could be collected from email submissions and posted for all to see and comment on ( wikipedia approach). If a process is managed through a tool, for example a Service Desk, the tool can can collect information in the background while the service desk agent does their work.

A trainer can set up any new tool to collect relevant information with minimum overhead to users. A coach encourages feedback on simplifying processes.



4. Collect accurate data to help management decision making

An advantage of computer systems instead of manual systems, is management now has more data available to make better decisions. Number of requests, summaries of estimates, etc. A learning from software teams is that measuring queue length can help managers improve productivity and “flow”.  Because so much can be measured, does not imply that all measurements are meaningful to business objectives. Data coaching and statistical analysis can help.


Coaching helps managers discern useful information from distracting information.



5. Push responsibility and control lower down in the organisation

In software, measuring results after a 2 week sprint can help the team to correct its *own* processes and estimates, without need of management to do this work. This approach to empowering teams  improves  the morale, creativity and job satisfaction and results of a team.


Coaching, as tools and processes are implemented,  is required for both management and teams to move to this model.


How is the Software industry a model for non-tech?

All  companies are becoming tech companies - all companies leverage  more and more IT technology to manage their operation.


Software companies have been solving problems that all businesses are starting to encounter, especially around information processing, team efficiency  and managing change.

Over the last 5 years, the process of delivering quality software by teams has dramatically changed. The new processes - called "Agile" or "Lean"  or "Continuous delivery"  -  by managing queues, have improved the speed that  software is delivered. Remember when there was new Window release every 3 years? The agile approaches explain why we see a continual stream of (incremental) changes to the software we use everyday, such as gmail, Facebook, Amazon, etc.  Agile practices are widely used by Christchurch tech firms and are now being adopted by our NZ government departments as they roll out software information systems.


This implies that when making changes in an organisation, "smaller and frequent" is more likely to succeed that "bigger and less frequent".  Tech companies know that the  bigger a change you make, the more likely it will not work.  Software development best practice recognise that the  key to embracing change is “small batches” ( i.e. reducing queue lengths). Start with a solution to a small problem, implement it out quickly, validate it, find out what needs changing, make changes, and release the updated solution quickly. Repeat. This “small batch” approach works for information systems because software is malleable - it can be changed quickly - so the “small batch”  approach means that we embrace change.  Try out solutions. If you can quickly correct, you need not fear failure.  


These processes & tools both improve productivity of staff and aid management decision makers by providing accurate data.   


Examples

Some of software company  practices and tools  can be applied to non-tech businesses here in Christchurch now.  We are lucky in that there is a wide range of tools and trainers that can help. The tools tech companies employ match their new ways of  managing information. I will give a few examples from the tool line I am most familiar with - Atlassian. Atlassian tools are configurable, flexible, well supported, scalable and have competitive price points.

  1. Service desk, knowledge base and  portal to record all requests for work and SLA of Service Desk agents.   Used for any service provided by the company, either within or to customers.    

  2. Task Management - JIRA tracks who is doing what,  the status off all tasks.

  3. Knowledge base - create a Confluence wiki for all documents that can be viewed and updated by any staff

  4. Asset Management - track all assets in your company through JIRA 

  5. HR, legal, finance, operations: JIRA core tracks workflows

  6. IT service desk - Service desk specifically for your internal IT department

Costs:  Configurable software tools such as  JIRA core, Service Desk, running as software as a service,  are significantly lower than IT solutions from the past.

Conclusion

 Cost effective process improvements  now used by the software industry can be applied easily to reduce the overhead costs of our non-tech businesses.  These improvements are  accomplished by coaching, training and implementing tools,  in small batches. Besides saving money, improving decision making and improving customer service, these improvements will help future-proof our non-tech businesses against disruptive changes in the business environment.

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