My Journey to Understanding Variation- Part II

processUnderstanding variation has not been easy for me. I think many have the same issues and its why one doesn’t see many people talking about it. During my last post, I talked about my first reactions to it, but committing myself to it because Dr. Deming said it was important.

I knew I needed to learn it, but boy, I was nervous about it. All those math equations were hurting my head just thinking about it. But I wanted to figure it out.

At this time, I was having a really rough go at work. We were all struggling: exhaustion, inability to innovate, frustration, low or poor quality, slow delivery times. No one seemed to know what to do about it. There was resistance to the Agile movement. Some thought it should be done away with.

My supervisor implored us to be change agents and recommended we find hard data to help management understand what was going on and to help them understand how we can change. Learning variation seemed like a good place to start.

I found an article about Deming and Six Sigma (I highly recommend the read). The book Understanding Variation by Donald Wheeler was suggested for someone trying to learn variation.

It was a pretty easy read and I thought I had a pretty good grasp on variation after I completed it. When I finished, the time had come to start plotting some points on a control chart. But what to measure?

This was one of the most puzzling parts for me in the beginning. Measure what exactly? A team member who had six sigma experience said it would be difficult to measure anything at the company. Others told me it was possible, but even they said they weren’t exactly sure what to do (they were pretty new to Six Sigma and still learning as well).

We were using Scrum as our methodology (well, a . . . um . . . version of it anyway). I never saw hard numbers coming out of it, though. The only thing I saw was velocity. Perhaps this was the best candidate. I often bemoaned how erratic our velocity was and that it wasn’t even close to consistent. I thought perhaps a control chart would help show how unstable it really was and help us understand what to do next.

I found a free template on line for Excel and got my numbers ready.

This was our velocity for six sprints:

Sprint 1: 52
Sprint 2: 35
Sprint 3: 72
Sprint 4: 65
Sprint 5: 60
Sprint 6: 39

This is what it looked like after plotting:

behavior-chart

This graph indicates a system in statistical control with a variation between about 5 and 100. In more simple terms, it meant our team could predictably produce a velocity between 5 and 100 points and be considered stable.

To say the least, I was not happy.

“You mean its ok for our velocity to be between 5 and 100???? That’s not acceptable!! How is this supposed to help us improve? This shows me nothing!”

I quickly closed the control chart, wondering if I was wasting my time and Deming didn’t know what he was talking about. After I calmed down a little, I started thinking that velocity didn’t work with control charts or perhaps we were just doing velocity wrong. In hindsight, perhaps I should have spoken to one of our employees who had a six sigma belt and she could have explained it.

Overall, I was a little disillusioned and disappointed.

But something told me I just wasn’t understanding this just yet and I needed to be patient.

It turns out, Deming fully expected the situation like mine. He said “the transformation” was discontinuous. The individual will learn a little here, learn a little there, and start making connections. In other words, it doesn’t happen all at once. I didn’t know he said this at the time, though, and if I didn’t have faith in Deming, I probably would have abandoned the idea right there.

I can certainly understand why some would decide not to continue with understanding variation. Our western minds are geared for results NOW and we don’t want to wait around for something to make sense. Time is too short and precious for us. We’d rather move on and looking for lower hanging fruit. Deming warned of this type of short-term thinking.

The next post in this series—the light bulbs start coming on.

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