technical debt

In part 1 of my blog Tech debt – the plague of digital businesses that never seems to go away, I reviewed the multiple challenges linked to tech debt. In part 2, I explore the alignment to quality, including who’s job is quality and the involvement of stakeholders.

Key principles of quality

Let’s first establish that something needs to change. You have the result you deserve with the organisations and processes you have deployed. If you want different outcomes, you need to reframe the approach. Forget hoping things get better by only working harder the way you always have. It may work while all the attention is on it, but it will likely come to the same substandard outcomes in the long run, unless you take steps to change.

Let’s establish a few quality principles as well:

  • Quality is not granted; it is a constant effort and attention. 
  • Quality is not just an engineer’s role; quality is everybody’s job. 
  • People only understand a standard when they engage in improving it.
  • And fundamentally, quality is a people and leadership challenge, more so than a technical one. 
Quality is a constant effort

In my years in consulting, I have been through many situations of organisations having to “re-platform” an application or even an entire digital estate. In other words, it got messed up so severely that it was beyond repair. People are proud of those modernisation projects, often under a digital transformation agenda. Executives believe that they show the commitment of the organisation to invest in its digital future. But in lean terms, such projects are essentially waste. The debt was so extreme that the application needed to be thrown away and started again. That is pure waste. 

And that’s not all the bad news. The more significant issue is that the approach rarely fixes the root of the problem. From a solution standpoint, people tend to believe it does because the organisation can restart from a clean slate.

But those projects are consistently underestimated, and once the edge cases and data issues emerge from the woodwork, the scope has doubled in size. The project runs out of time and funding, and the new solution is as compromised as the one it aimed to replace. More problematically, even if the business hypothetically buys itself a new clean bill of health, the way it goes about it does not address the cultural shortfall that created the issues in the first instance.

The real issue isn’t the digital application that needs a rebuild but the cultural and operational debt that led to this point. Unfortunately, calling out for help to rebuild does not address any of it. Often, it would be a better choice (and a lot less risky) to evolve the said application out of its debt. It would offer the benefit of addressing the real constraints and sore points of the skills, processes, beliefs, culture, and leadership, in addition to the technology as part of the recovery journey. 

Quality should be a continuous effort. If a crying need emerges to refactor substantial parts of the system, it is a sign that too much has gone wrong for too long. The technology, the processes and the culture need a recalibration. 

Quality is everybody’s job

When I was investigating improving quality in digital, I went to a famous automotive manufacturer to see how they did it. I even took one of my banking clients to have discussions there. It was telling to hear the conversation between banking executives and automotive ones: 

  • Banking: How do you incentivise people to focus on quality? 
  • Automotive: We don’t.
  • Banking: How so?? (assuming that everything that needs a focus needs a bonus).
  • Automotive: Quality is part of the job. Improving quality and taking an active role in Kaizen is part of the job. It is the nice part of the job when people can have input.

Automotive manufacturers have a red cord (or button) on the production chain called the Andon cord. If something feels wrong, production workers can pull it at any time. When they do, the production chain stops. And for the manufacturer (of premium German sports cars) in question, every 2 minutes of stoppage is an £80,000+ car less that is produced. Yet, the factory floor workers are encouraged to pull the cord. During my visit, I witnessed several stoppage occurrences. They understand that the consequences of letting defects progress have a much costlier impact: the impact of fixing the problem later on, with many more cars affected, and the result of disappointed customers. If the cost of quality appears high, the price of skimming on it is inevitably much higher. 

To operate the Andon cord, the factory workers use a simple heuristic: 

  • You do not accept a defect.
  • You do not create a defect.
  • You do not pass on a defect.

So, ask yourself: 

  • How many times do you pull the Andon cord in digital work? 
  • And more importantly, if you don’t have one, how many times would you yank it? 

The concept of the Andon cord is a starting point for bringing quality ownership into the whole engineering team. 

Quality in digital is also the job of non-engineers

When I mention “everybody’s job”, it goes beyond the engineering teams. The pressure for compromising quality tends to come from elsewhere, i.e. the Product Owners, the Stakeholders, the “Business”, and generally all the people that want the outcomes while being blind to the engineering constraints. It is, therefore, critical to establishing their relationships to quality. They may not produce the quality directly, but their interaction with the engineering teams will influence it greatly. 

So, what can you do to get them engaged? As soon as you start explaining the DevOps pipelines, the multiplying acronyms of CI, CD, BDD, TDD, Dev, SIT, and UAT, you have lost your audience as if you were talking to them in Elvish. 

Explaining technical debt does not need to be that complicated: 

  • The total historical debt is hard to size up. It adds up in multiple forms. It is like the financial liability of a country. It is hard to measure it all, and it is actually not so helpful either. You should only selectively identify areas of most pain and focus the investments on those.
  • The debt’s interest rate is typically the waste you ride every sprint. How much value-add work and future investment focus can you accommodate compared to defect fixing, instability incidents, manual steps, misalignment, wait & queues in backlogs, etc.? It is challenging to measure strictly, but you can take periodic snapshots to give a sense of the work balance. 
  • The debt leakage is the further borrowings you are piling on the credit cards. As with credit cards, are you leaving it to build up, or do you repay the balance monthly to keep it in check? The debt leakage is an easy one to size up and monitor. Focusing on it will align the rest. 

So, if you need to involve stakeholders to create headroom for quality, how are you presenting it to them in a language they can understand so decisions balance between the ask for new features and the need to resolve constraints? 

In my next instalment of Tech debt as the plague of digital businesses that don’t go away, I’ll explore how the practice and culture of continuous improvements, using Kaizen thinking, can set the right change to shape a solution to technical debt. 

Philippe Guenet is the founder of Henko, the performance coach in digital business. Philippe is nearing 30 years of experience in digital and coaches businesses and technology leaders in realigning businesses to their Flow and better leadership.


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