tech debt

Engineers complain about technical / technology debt (“tech debt”) but often feel powerless to fix it and labour painfully through it instead. In parts 1 and 2 of my blogs about tech debt – the plague of digital businesses that never seems to go away, I reviewed the challenges linked to tech debt and ownership of quality in every role. In this final part, I explore how Kaizen, or a culture of continuous improvements, can nurture attention to quality across the system of work.  

Attention to standards will happen when setting attention to improving said standards (Kaizen)

You want engineers vested and engaged in quality. Yet, the dynamics of projects and the lack of collective accountability over quality have done nothing but disenfranchise them from it. Everybody wants it, a few see it, and nobody is in a position to invest in it.  

Mandating and controlling quality is a typical deployment in organisations based on control. But, a checklist of musts at the top of Confluence will achieve very little. Aiming to control it all centrally will not work either. You cannot have eyes everywhere; if you did, you would add a layer of bureaucracy to slow you down. Metrics may be helpful (and indeed necessary), but once you make them targets, people expend more time trying to make themselves look good (i.e. gaming it) than making genuine progress. 

I often encounter people trying to improve performance by reinforcing responsibilities and working harder and better within the existing constraints. As presented in the Hawthorne effect (a type of reactivity in which individuals modify an aspect of their behaviour in response to their awareness of being observed), it may temporarily improve while all the attention is placed on the effort. But the approach is improbable to sustain once shifting to BAU. As Henry Ford put it: “Quality is doing it right when no one is looking”

Instead, it would be best to figure out how to create a new dynamic where quality will self-support. If you want the right level of attention, you need to establish skin in the game. The best way for people to know about standards is to have them define and set the standards. Please let me introduce you to Kaizen thinking. 

Kaizen is often reduced to a set of tools and approaches. However, It is a lot more than that. Kaizen is a practice and a philosophy. Kaizen is central to Lean Thinking and the Toyota Production System. It is about creating organisations that continuously learn and become better. It is about stimulating people to find solutions to their problems and taking the initiative to act on them. It supports high standards by applying the intelligence of teams to improve and apply them. Not only do you find better solutions, but you also get practical ones and get buy-in as part of the practice. 

Going beyond retros with Kaizen

Kaizen goes beyond Agile’s traditional levels of running retros. Daily Kaizen happens in the teams, and larger systemic Kaizen should happen across the teams in the form of Kaizen events. 

Kaizen spends time understanding problems before jumping to solutions. Quality problems are multifaceted and complex and require a good understanding of the landscape. In problem-solving, Kaizen focuses on implementable increments and their adoption. It is not about theorising over the perfect solution. It is about taking action directly to shift the present state to something better. It is, after all, an Agile approach to solving problems.

Kaizen is also a test of leadership. Leadership from the leaders and leadership/ownership from the team members. How do you establish constant attention to problems without falling into the micro-management coordination trap? It is a fine line. In coaching terms, you call it “holding the system”, and this is a necessary skill of “systemic leaders” (i.e. leaders of collaborative teams). And as digital technology leaders, it is essential to develop such systemic leadership skills to support collaboration. We’ll cover this topic some other time. 

In conclusion

Every digital technology business (or digital side of traditional companies) faces challenges around tech debt. Having to move at speed, and while the alignment of value chains and the equilibrium of integrating technology are still emergent, it will remain a moving target.  

Working in the context and with the people will incrementally shape the right solutions. Although it may appear paradoxical to say so, you won’t wipe tech debt by making significant investments where the technology is currently failing you. Your digital technology ability is not about the software systems and applications but about the people that put them together. 

Tech debt is primarily a function of people, organisation and alignment, and if you want to keep it in check for good, it is about using the same means to fix it as the means to sustain it:

  • Not transformation steps, but small Kaizen steps, 
  • Not mandating from Confluence, but focusing on adoption, 
  • Not just the engineers but everybody, 
  • Not working backwards from an idealistic view and a plan, but working forward from your present state and setting the correct practices, 
  • Not ephemeral project tenures, but persisted product alignment, 
  • Not external consultants, but your people, 
  • Not just the technology but the people and practices, 

… and most importantly, developing the leadership to achieve and sustain a new alignment perspective.

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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