Why lean is the only viable development approach in a post-COVID world
The work-from-home era of the pandemic prompted many people to rethink their careers, resulting in what has been called the “Great resignation. “Adopting a lean development approach can greatly benefit companies that struggle to retain talent during this time, as well as make life more fulfilling for developers.
A “lean” concept consists of reducing waste; when applied to a working environment, it extends to wasted effort, ideas, money and engineering resources. The origin of this actually comes from lean manufacturing, to avoid unnecessary effort within the Toyota production system. By preparing a stack of 100 doors without a car on the line, the company would essentially have excess inventory behind the production lines. The act itself would be wasted effort. It would make more sense to have 5 cars on the line and prepare 5 doors instead. Translate that into software, where you have this big product release date and plan to develop a ton of features that you are going to build. before it actually happens to the end customer. Instead of stacking doors, you’re stacking features – and you assume that they’re actually what your consumer wants.
What if, instead of spending months building a set of features to be released all at once, you focused on releasing small, incremental features in the fastest possible way for your customers so that you can quickly learn what you have to create then? Building functionality in this way would not only allow you to better understand the wants and needs of your customers, but also avoid the unnecessary effort of building additional functionality and having to throw away half of it. Taking a lean development approach doesn’t necessarily have to do with profitability, or even doing things cheaply; it is rather a matter of building in a without waste manner.
For companies looking to reduce iteration cycles, the first step in this process is to identify the key metrics you’re trying to influence. The metric should be actionable and suggestible – not a vanity metric. For example, while measuring the total number of customers visiting a website can be a good indicator of a product’s popularity, it does not help determine the actual performance of a product. Better measurement may come from speaking directly to customers and your sales team to understand the intention to buy or use the product. In the past, my team has built products that we hoped would increase a vanity metric like revenue, but when we didn’t see an immediate increase in sales, we spoke to customers and found that they actually planned to include the product in their future plans. So we kept building and iterating and shrinking and here it was, this product ended up having a significant impact on long term revenue.
Based on these metrics, the next step is to think about solutions to move this metric in small iterative steps over a massive multi-month business. The idea of building minimum viable products gives those involved in the construction process a better understanding of whether or not they are on track to create a great end product. By taking small, iterative steps along the way, you’re more likely to create something that users will use, instead of going away for a few months and coming back with a solution.
With great resignation upon us, the efforts of big bang products will suffer the most. Long release cycles can result in a lot of tribal knowledge accumulating between each cycle, resulting in a greater risk of a knowledge gap with each builder on the team. The reduction in learning time will allow more formalized institutional knowledge and less tribal knowledge. This will make it easier for all new engineers to ramp up, while reducing the amount of knowledge that goes missing when an engineer leaves.
Taking a lean approach not only optimizes development processes by eliminating unnecessary practices, but can also improve retention rates and help create better quality products for customers in the long run. By reducing the problem, it becomes easier to understand and focus on the solution; this removes the risk of staff leaving as it can provide a sense of accomplishment in small victories along the way. Plus, the sum of all those little iterative lessons will ultimately result in a much bigger, more impactful solution. By focusing less on a massive version of the product and more on building in incremental steps, you learn more about how a customer can use your product and continue to leverage what will help move that needle forward in the end. .
Rob Fan is CTO of Omnichannel Ad Exchange Share.
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