Why lean is the only viable development approach in a post-COVID world
The pandemic’s work-from-home era made a lot of people rethink their careers, resulting in what’s been called the “Great Resignation.” Adopting a lean development approach can greatly benefit companies struggling to retain talent during this time, as well as make life more fulfilling for developers.
A “lean” concept is all about reducing waste; when applied to a workforce setting, this extends to waste in terms of effort, ideas, money and engineering resources. The origins of this actually comes from lean manufacturing, to avoid wasted effort within the Toyota production system. In preparing a stack of 100 doors with no car coming down the line, the company would essentially have an excess of inventory sitting behind production lines. The act itself would be a wasteful effort. It would make more sense to have 5 cars come down the line, and to prepare 5 doors instead. Translate that to software, where you have this grand product release date and plan to push out a ton of features you’re going to build before it actually gets to the final customer. Instead of stacking doors, you’re stacking features — and you’re working under the assumption that they are actually what your consumer will want.
What if, instead of spending months of time building a set of features to release all at once, you focused on releasing small incremental features in the fastest way possible for your customers so that you can quickly learn what you should build next? Building features this way would not only get you a better sense of your customers’ wants and needs but would also avoid wasted effort in building extra features and having to throw half of them away. Taking a lean development approach doesn’t necessarily have to do with cost efficiencies, or even doing things cheaply; rather, it’s about building in a wasteless way.
For companies looking to shrink iteration cycles, the first step in this process is to identify the key metrics that you are trying to influence. The metric needs to be actionable and influenceable — not a vanity metric. For example, while measuring the total number of customers visiting a website could be a good indicator of a product’s popularity, it doesn’t help inform how a product is actually performing. A better metric may come from speaking directly to customers and your sales team to understand the intent to buy or use the product. In the past, my team has built products that we hoped would increase a vanity metric such as revenue, but when we didn’t see an immediate increase in sales, we spoke to customers and found that they were in fact planning to include the product in their future plans. So we kept building and iterating and low and behold that product did end up significantly impacting longer-term revenue.
Based on these metrics, the next step is to think about solutions to moving that metric in small iterative steps vs. a massive multi-month undertaking. The idea of building Minimum Viable Products gives those involved in the building process a better understanding of whether or not they are on the right track towards creating a great end product. By taking small iterative steps along the way, you have a higher chance of building something that users will use — as opposed to disappearing for a few months and returning with a solution.
With the great resignation upon us, big bang product efforts will suffer the most. Long release cycles can result in a lot of tribal knowledge being built up between each cycle, leading to a greater knowledge gap risk with every builder on the team. Shrinking the learning time will allow for more formalized institutional knowledge and less tribal knowledge. This will make it easier to ramp up any new engineers, while also reducing the amount of knowledge that disappears when an engineer leaves.
Taking a lean approach not only optimizes development processes by eliminating wasteful practices, but it can improve retention rates and contribute to building better, quality products for customers in the long run. By shrinking the problem down, it becomes easier to understand and focus on the solution; this removes the risk of staff leaving because it can offer a sense of achievement in the little wins along the way. Moreover, the sum of all these small iterative lessons will eventually result in a much larger and more impactful solution. By focusing less on one massive product release and more on building in incremental steps, you learn more about how a customer might use your product and continue to build off of what will help move that needle forward in the end.
Rob Fan is CTO of omnichannel ad exchange Sharethrough.
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