Process Improvement: The Leader's Manual for How to Achieve It

Oct 23, 2020

Just being a software engineering company isn't enough nowadays. You need to be a high performing software company. But organizations often struggle to implement changes that improve their processes. Your goal is to deliver better or higher customer value utilizing less time and money. It's not an easy task to improve customer value with fewer resources. 

There are many different approaches to process improvement that companies can adopt. Some popular methodologies include Kanban, Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe), and Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA). Software engineering companies tend to focus on improving their continuous integration (CI) and continuous delivery (CD) pipeline processes. 

This article explores the concept of process improvement and provides you with an actionable example. We describe a four-step plan for process improvement and discuss the benefits of process improvement. Lastly, we take a look at how strong CI and CD pipelines can positively impact your customer value. 

First, what is process improvement? 

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What Is Process Improvement in Software Engineering?

To start, let's define process improvement. Process improvement focuses on optimizing the operations within an organization that positively affect your value for customers. The goal of process improvement is to measure existing processes, detect inefficiencies, create improvement proposals, and implement those proposals while tracking the impact. 

For software engineering companies, process improvement tries to find inefficiencies in the software development lifecycle (SDLC), often targeting CI- and CD-related processes. However, process improvement isn't limited solely to the SDLC. Process improvement targets every process that adds value to the customer's end product. 

Many methodologies exist that can help a company make a visual map of its process workflows. All of those methodologies try to identify inefficiencies and promote continuous improvement in a certain way. 

Let's look at an example. Imagine that your development team forgot to enable caching for dependencies within your CD pipeline. That makes your team lose 5 minutes of productivity for each commit they push to the development server. For a team of 15 developers, this quickly adds up to a lot of time wasted waiting for feedback from the development server. 

This is a clear example of where you can measure a delay and implement a simple solution by enabling caching. Overall, this might be just a small gain for your team, but small gains add up and help your organization to remain competitive in the market. 

How To Improve Software Processes

There are four main steps to improving processes. However, you'll find that many methodologies introduce extra steps. If you don't want to use a specific methodology, these steps will help you improve processes on your own. 

Step 1: Situation Evaluation and Measurement

First of all, it's important that you evaluate your current situation. During the evaluation phase, measuring certain actions is important to gain deeper insights into your processes. 

For software engineering specifically, you want to focus on both the development and operation teams, or DevOps. For example, you can measure the average build time for your application, release frequency, number of failed deployments, and other relevant DevOps metrics

Say that your team experiences a high number of failed deployments. This indicates that a certain process doesn't deliver maximum value, and so, it slows down the development team. 

Next, you need to analyze the current situation to better understand what causes a high number of failed deployments. This is exactly what the next step, improvement planning, does. 

Step 2: Improvement Planning

During the improvement planning step, you want to analyze the current situation. Of course, you can look at different metrics yourself to get a better picture of the current situation. However, often it's helpful to conduct interviews with key players who manage different processes to better understand the workflow of each process. With this knowledge, it's much easier to detect inefficiencies. 

To get back to our failed deployment example, perhaps your team still manually deploys approved production builds. The problem? There's no pipeline that takes care of CD for production builds. Manual deployment of production builds leaves room for mistakes that slow down the whole team because they have to investigate the problem each time and often have to redeploy the build. Moreover, downtime affects user experience and negatively impacts customer value. 

To fix the manual deployment situation, your organization might propose to configure a CD pipeline for production builds as well to automate this task. In short, improvement planning tries to analyze a situation and propose a plan to improve the situation. 

Step 3: Implementation

During the implementation phase, we want to execute the planned activities and put measurement methods in place. For example, after implementing the CD pipeline for production builds, you may want to measure the number of failed production builds. Otherwise, you can't tell if the proposed plan has positively impacted the overall customer value. 

Step 4: Improvement Evaluation

As the name suggests, during the improvement evaluation phase you want to validate if the changes you made have positively impacted the overall customer value. For our failed deployments example, this means comparing the number of failed deployments before and after implementing the improvement. 

If you managed to resolve the problem, great! Move on to tackle another problem. However, if you haven't resolved the problem, the process iterates and starts again with the situation evaluation phase. 

Next, let's take a look at the benefits of process improvement in IT. 

What Are the Organizational Advantages of Process Improvement in Software Engineering?

There are many reasons why organizations would want to look into process improvement. Here are some of the main advantages for a company. 

Increased Standardization

The main benefit of using process improvement methodologies is that you standardize processes. Working towards more consistent processes delivers predictable value. Often, process improvement methodologies tell organizations to document processes. This helps companies maintain a formal document that describes each process and its expected output. Knowing the predicted outcome makes it much easier to measure inefficiencies and detect problems. If the expected outcome isn’t achieved, you know to look for additional processes that can be improved. 

Reduced Cost

As illustrated in the example of failed deployments, the effort your development team spends investigating and fixing the failed deployment is inefficient and costs the company valuable time and resources. 

Improved Customer Satisfaction

Ultimately, process improvement tries to increase the value for your customer by providing a better product or service. Even improving your user interface to create a better user experience is part of process improvement. 

Why Process Improvement Matters for Continuous Integration and Continuous Delivery

Often, when improving processes for a software engineering company, you start by looking at the CI and CD pipelines. Your CI and CD pipelines form the backbone of your organization—it aligns product owners, release managers, engineering teams, and even risk and compliance teams. 

As we have shown, you can use process improvement to ensure that you have a strong software delivery process and superior DevOps performance that give your organization a strong competitive advantage. Your organization will be able to deliver higher-quality software much faster than your competitors. On top of that, you can improve customer value by responding faster to user feedback and quickly shipping product updates to satisfy customers. This drastically improves customer value because you can provide requested features in a short period of time. 
Want to learn more about process improvement and how value stream management can benefit your organization? Take a look at Plutora's value stream management platform to help improve customer value.

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