Is Improvement really Continuous?

September 4, 2014

DT-09-final-infinity

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t want to get on a rant here, but…In the Agile community and perhaps in the IT community in general there is a tendency to use the term “Continuous Improvement” to describe some sort of mythical state where teams are constantly evolving toward some state of perfection. At least that’s what I think of when I hear the term. Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a creature in the wild (or even anything close to it). Furthermore, I’m concerned that using such terminology sets an unrealistic expectation for performance with our customers and stakeholders.

As an example, I’ll use myself. Right now, despite a host of good intentions on my part, I am not continuously improving. I’m typing – my spelling and grammar are showing no discernible sign of improvement (as I’m quite sure you, dear reader, are all too painfully aware of). Honestly, I’m just not improving right now. In fact, I haven’t done anything to improve my blog writing since the last time I wrote one a week ago…a month ago…6 months ago…

“But Tom don’t be so hard on yourself!” You say, “Just by writing more you are improving your writing skill and the content of the blog.” To this my answer would be, “So just writing more code is improving too?” We all know the answer to that question. So no, the only thing writing does by itself, is make the number of words on the page grow.

In fact, I have a confession to make. Nothing I plan to do in the next 24 hours has anything with improvement. Not even:

  • Attending meetings (generally the opposite of improvement)
  • Writing status reports (ditto)
  • Cleaning the house (status quo – just fighting entropy is not improvement)
  • Commuting (status quo)
  • Watching TV (gently sliding toward entropic oblivion)
  • Sleeping (mandatory, but not improvement, at best it’s re-establishing the status quo)

You see, true improvement is really hard work, therefore I don’t do it very often. I certainly have never been able to do it “continuously”. Hah! What a ridiculous notion that is! Nobody can improve continuously. We all need to take a break. Taking a break is actually necessary in order to improve! So the very term “continuous improvement” is at best misleading and at worst an idiotic notion. It can’t be done! Combining the terms continuous and improvement is like the old joke about the term military intelligence – it just doesn’t exist!

Up to this point I’ve just been ranting about continuous improvement, but in the Agile community we use the “continuous” word everywhere. There’s continuous integration, continuous delivery, and I’m sure there are a few more I haven’t even thought of. Take any one of those continuous activities and look at it closely enough, and guess what? Not much is happening. I’m willing to bet that your continuous integration server isn’t constantly running builds all the time (at least I hope not). I’m sure the average integration server spends a lot of time just waiting for the next build request. I hope by now it is pretty apparent that very few things are really continuous. I think we need a better term to describe these processes. I would propose: Periodic, Frequent, Event-driven or my personal favorite – on demand.

I know, I really do get it – continuous sounds just better. Continuous has an aspirational sort of quality to it which you can’t help but admire. I think that it’s just a little disingenuous to use that term for things that may not even take place for an hour or even a day at a time. If improvement is really continuous in nature, I want to see evidence of improvement taking place as I’m watching, when my back is turned, on weekends, and perhaps even when visiting the bathroom. Is that too high a bar to set? I don’t think so. I make that demand of my lowly alarm clock. I’m not saying improvement doesn’t take place. It happens – for some of us it happens pretty frequently. For others, it happens on demand at the end of the sprint.

Improvement may be a never-ending quest, but it is rarely, if ever, continuous.

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