Understanding Variation: The Key to Managing Chaos
by Donald J. Wheeler
Why is a variation book on an Agile blog? Well, I did say this was Evolving Agile. I’ve come to understand the concepts Agile is teaching is only part of the puzzle. I believe W. Edwards Deming to be the grandfather of Agile. Understand Deming—better understand Agile. And Deming emphasized understanding variation above everything else.
I read this book at a time when several things were happening in my life that were pointing towards understanding variation. One was I was discovering Deming and this was the one concept I really struggled with. The second was my company was investing in people learning Six Sigma. I was unable to attend the training, but was certainly interested (ironically, my company was also trying Agile, but were having an awful time implementing it—I wonder how the Six Sigma experiment is going). All signs seemed to be pointing me in learning it.
I first saw this book listed in an article written by Davis Balestracci, “Deming is Dead . . . Long Live Deming.” (btw, this is one of the first online articles I read about Deming and is an EXCELLENT read. I highly recommend it. Its also where I got the idea to read Deming Dimension and Fourth Generation Management).
Balestracci recommends this book, among others, to read instead of spending a ton of money getting a Six Sigma belt. This book was recommended by others as a good starting point for beginners.
Its a good book and I learned a lot. Having a fear of math, I was leery about reading it, but Wheeler is a good writer and breaks things down in an easy-to-understand way for us who are math challenged. There’s lot of pictures and graphs. Its broken down into small segments so easily digested. Its also short—about 121 pages without the appendix. I finished it in less than two weeks (and I’m a slow reader). It teaches the concept of variation, explains the jargon, and walks one through examples and what to look for. Some of the bigger things I learned about was specifications (this is the voice of the customer) and that the actual process—represented by the control charts is the voice of the process. Its important to understand the difference between the two. It also goes over special and common cause variation which is key to understanding variation. In the end, it got my feet wet and I tried my hand at making control charts (which I will write about in a future post).
For better understanding agile– the immediate effect was it helped me better understand the concept of velocity. For example–if your team has a velocity of 50, 47, 52, 41, 37 there is no reason to panic that your team’s performance is getting worse (or worse yet-get mad at them for slacking). Its just the natural variation in your team’s system. The key will be figuring out how to reduce the variation. Simply understanding this concept helped me tremendously as a scrum master and agilest.
Ultimately, though, I couldn’t make the leap from the book’s examples (which were primarily from the manufacturing and financial sector) into my own IT world. In other words, I didn’t quite understand how it could help me with what I was doing specifically. Still, it showed me this stuff made sense after all–I just needed to now figure out how I could apply it.
Bottom line—this is a great book to start to understanding variation.You may not come away with how exactly it can help you, though, like me. I would recommend Fourth Generation Management as a follow up. Joiner goes into more detail about how to reduce the different types of variation and is more nuts and bolts.
Buy Understanding Variation here.