The hard facts about process

In my 22 years in IT, I've learnt that companies and people repeat the failures of others, and one of the most often repeated mistakes is the failure to follow standard processes.

In complex situations, we tend to forget steps. If you doubt this, just look at the number of computer program defects produced and the project overruns they cause.

Why do we record things? One reason is to pass on knowledge. That way, the next person doesn't have to relearn what we already know. Why follow a written process or checklist? Because it's documented wisdom you don't have to relearn.

Look at your most recent project issue lists. How many problems could have been avoided through the use of checklists? How much time, effort and money might that have saved?

Here are some other objections I have often heard about following written processes:

- Following processes takes longer and costs more than repairing the defects that may result when processes aren't followed. Another illusion. Studies have shown how defects within projects cause overruns. IBM's Rule of 10 shows that simple errors in the beginning of a project, if not discovered until the project goes into production, can cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars per defect to repair. Based on that study, just one defect found early enough would make following written processes cost-effective:

- Many processes are impossible to follow. Yes, it's possible to write processes that are so generic that they apply to nothing. But that's a failure of the writer, not the concept. Yes, there are plenty of examples of old processes that no longer provide value and have become excellent jokes. But those represent failures to capture continuous learning and embed it in the process.

- I have deadline pressures, so I can't take the time to use checklists. Without written processes, your limited memory may cause you to make a mistake.

History demonstrates that someone will forget something somewhere. You're gambling that your mistakes will delay you less than the process would have, but remember the IBM Rule of 10: as you get closer to completing the project, the cost of early mistakes gets higher. By the time you realize that you've lost the bet, all you can hope for is that no one reminds you about the checklists you ignored.

John Columbus is the owner of Columbus Consulting Group

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