Excellence doesn’t come from Cost/Benefit analysis

Many organisations strive for excellence, talking about and planning for becoming a Center of Excellence. However, many of those organisations seems to be stuck in a culture of Cost/Benefit analysis.

But noone has become an expert, a top level athlete or world artist by calculating the return on investment on reading a book on a subject, practicing six hours a day or painting picture after picture.

We do these things because, in our heart, we belive it is the right thing to do.

I believe it is the same with excellence, we can only become excellent if we truly believe in the actions we take. Just as a simple example, there probably would never be a framework for automated acceptance testing if you did a cost/benefit analysis before implementing it. It is just to hard to calculate the benefit, the return on that investment. And particularly so if you only consider the current project…

Excellence comes from a burning conviction to become better!

4 Replies to “Excellence doesn’t come from Cost/Benefit analysis”

  1. I kind of agree with you Thomas on this. But still you typically need to convince a number of stakeholders with different interests (including some P&L-oriented managers) along the way to a sustainable improvement. I tend to think of this process as the building of a *case* for your idea, much like in the proceedings of a court of law. You need a number of “admissible evidence” that you weave together into a case for your idea. Some evidence may be in money terms, some in terms of other types of benefits. (A passionate presentation will go a long way too.) And once on the path toward the ultimate goal you need to keep the fire burning. -A

    1. Good comments, Arto. And nice to hear from you again! I like the bit about “a passionate presentation”!

      I tend to think about this as one case where lack of communication of vision and direction also sometimes puts decisions “in the wrong hands”. Of course there are different levels of decisions, but agile and lean puts much of the decision making in the team since that is where the best knowledge of the issue tend to be available. What I often see is that teams have not been given the mandate to take improvement decisions except on a very small scale.

      Let’s talk about the decision to invest in development of an automated testing framework. This might be a large investment, and in many cases this decision will be delegated upwards. It would then be prioritized according to business value, which with all probability put it a fair bit down the backlog, because in the context of cost/benefit analysis, particularly in the lifespan of a project, it will be hard to present “admissible evidence”. Such evidence could also risk putting unnecessary need of detailed knowledge of technical details on managers.

      Sometimes a team will cause this because they think an automated testing framework is only valuable if it is “complete”. So they calculate the cost as one (big) cost. As they are sure that this is outside their mandate they will push the decision upwards. I strongly believe that excellence, and any improvement at all, need to be based in teams and team members. And if the team was truly expected to deliver quality, tested, valuable software, they should have the mandate to take this type of decision. Of course they could not choose implement this in a way that prevented them to deliver quality, tested, valuable software for a long period. So they need to learn to do this kind of improvement in a gradual fashion.

      But improvement is a gradual thing. There are no quantum leaps, but you can always make a small improvement over the current state. And this is continuous improvement.

      Of course then the team need to be aware of some important visions, such as the expected lifespan of the product they are working on. If the product is expected to live just another year, this is a different scenario that if this was the next generation of their cash-cow.

  2. I’m all for small steps of improvement; in fact, if you can’t implement a small improvement then you surely can’t implement a big one. Basically I think the need to build a case for an improvement is similar to the need to build a case for a product development effort. You have to convince yourself and your managers that the investment will be profitable. You can develop small products during your lunch hours, under management radar, but it’s a bit of a challenge to develop a whole new car during your lunch hours, even if done in small increments 🙂

  3. Agreed! And maybe I’m focusing on the “convince yourself” here. But as you point out, sometimes there are bigger steps, or maybe strategies, that you find possible. And then you surely should find whatever facts you can to support the decision.
    But maybe that is not how I think about Excellence. To me Excellence is something much bigger than simply improvement to the max. Excellence must lay in the hearts of every employee, so it is built on trust (in that everybody is indeed striving for excellence), and belief (in that you can see what things bring excellence).

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