Feedback loops will radically change your improvement cycle

Do you recognise the struggle of transforming your organisation? Where to start and what the aspects are that really make sense if you want to transform it into a high performing organisation? In this series of posts I want to address 5 principles that must be part of your organisational foundation and way of thinking. These are 5 crucial principles I’ve learned in the past few years from organisations that feel the urge to transform and are willing to make some sacrifices.

5 Crucial Principles that create the foundation of your high performing organisation:

  1. Flow in different forms is crucial to speed up your delivery
  2. Feedback loops will radically change your improvement cycle
  3. Strongly focus on the improvement of secondary processes
  4. Autonomy of teams cannot be given, it must be created
  5. The simplification of your products and processes will lead to faster value

Every post in this series will address concrete examples to find the principle in your organisation, an explanation why this principle matters during a transformation and finally, some practical suggestions to start today.

Feedback loops will radically change your improvement cycle

While we were young kids we learned to give feedback instead of having a fight if we disagreed. We’re grown up and it seems the older we get, the more we forget to apply this crucial principle in our work. We do not so often give feedback to each other or expect feedback from the systems around us.

This is strange because feedback between young kids will teach them to adjust their behaviour and improve in the system they are living.

In our environment outside our work there are many feedback loops built in. They have shaped our behaviour and the things we do. We have learned that a red light means we must stop. We have learned that if we see fire we know the candle or the gas cooker is too hot to grab. We see when our kids are ill or when our partner is angry. Feedback is all around us.

Some concrete examples

discoverSo, let’s go back to work. You are working somewhere in IT, in the business or in a company who already united both. What are the typical feedback patterns you should recognise? What is feedback in a large organisation? And what to do with this?

Feedback loops from your IT systems to your (DevOps) teams

This is an easy one, however, not used by many teams. Monitoring of your IT systems to receive useful information and insights in the behaviour of your system. Most of the time, teams have low level monitoring in place. Memory, CPU and disk space are carefully monitored. This is great because these insights can already help avoid the first wave of incidents which are fatuous.

To radically change your improvement cycle and stability of your systems you must go one step further. Measure the functional usage of an application. Can you monitor during the day and predict if the nightly batch will run successfully? Can you predict the number of users during the day, week or month and scale your systems accordingly? By understanding the impact of the users on the system you can design, develop and improve your systems based on what is really happening.

Feedback loops in the teams

This is probably the most obvious improvement cycle. However, this is hard to implement. Team who take themselves very seriously and want to improve take feedback amongst each other seriously. Stable teams and the confidence to say things out loud are crucial. A retrospective can be a useful instrument to have very frequent organised moments of feedback.

In their daily work, teams can give feedback to each other. When they are reviewing code, have a standup or simply discussing a new strategy. If trust is in place, feedback can flow and a conflict for the better is of great value.

Feedback loops from your backlog into your organisation 

What if you discover that there are too many different items requested at the same time? This will lead to a lot of switching between activities and dramatically drop the energy and productivity. Is there a feedback loop in place in your organisation? For example, every three weeks at the end of a sprint, or every quarter during a planning session?

Providing your stakeholders with the fact that the diversity impacts your productivity is very useful. It creates the opportunity to accelerate if they understand that simplicity and order in the backlog is very powerful.

Feedback loops from teams towards senior management

This is probably the most difficult one. Feedback loops to senior management are not so visible and are difficult to get in place. Years of absence have been preceded by this. Possible fear can hold you to experiments with this. If you want to improve your predictability you should avoid that time after time the management is pushing work into the team on a short notice.

An organisation who is not used to this behaviour must learn this. Teams have a big stake in this. They must give the feedback, push back and ask for more structure.  Management teams must learn to become more predictable too and send their requests much more openly.

The argument that teams in an Agile organisation should be able to switch time after time is nonsense. It says only something of the inability of the management to come up with a stable strategy.

This is why feedback loops are important

ideaThey are the foundation of the continuous improvement cycle.

It is very easy, if you believe continuous improvement is crucial to survive in the long run and adapt in the short run, then you need feedback loops. How would you determine what needs to be improved if a feedback process is not in place? You would be like a headless chicken not knowing where to go. If you have an area in mind, find a feedback loop that helps you to determine where to improve.

They help to visualise the bottlenecks

We have seen the importance of flow in systems. For example, continuous delivery pipeline orchestrators or production monitoring systems visualise where the problems are. You constantly see where the problems occur and what the weakest link is.

If your teams are making use of team boards or if you are working with an Obeya room <link> you see immediately where the bottlenecks are. Cards hanging there for days, or weeks should alarm you. This is crucial feedback, you must go, see and ask why this is happening. Coach teams to identify these bottlenecks and they will start to improve.

They provide insights in the systems behaviour

Can you imagine a team who is performing very well after intense coaching and they fall back as soon as the coaching stops? There is most probably a lot of things going on around these teams that influence them. They are even forced to go back into their old behaviour.

Do you recognise the pattern of management choosing a reorganisation to change their organisation? Go to the shop floor and ask if the work has changed, the collaboration, the way people speak, act or behave. I assume most of the time on the shop floor nothing will change.

Diving into an organisation from this point of view will provide you totally different feedback. Stop coaching teams and ask for feedback first. What is holding them today from tripling their performance? Teach yourself to observe and listen first.

They stimulate conversations based on data

If you have the ability to set up feedback loops based on real data your conversations will change dramatically. Our touchy feelings will be pushed back a little bit and you will move into a scientific approach of continuous improvement.

Most of the time we are clueless whether a certain improvement or decision will improve our organisation.

How to set up feedback loops

footsteps_icon_smallIf you want to improve your organisation in different ways and places you must apply different techniques to receive the crucial feedback. A software system requires different technology compared to a management team. You probably ask yourself the question where to start? My suggestions are to start at one place (keep the principle flow in mind), however, do not go very deep at every topic. Setup feedback loops from many places so you know where to start your improvements based on the ones that add most of the value.

Start using technology to build feedback loops

There is so many great software products available to provide you with valuable feedback. Systems to monitor your software in production is probably the most easy one. You operations engineer can simply install these tools, your developer can write the scripts if needed and there you go. Google around and you’ll discover the latest ones. At this moment the combination of Elastic, Logstash and Kibana (ELK) are used often. Splunk or Stackstate are also perfect capabilities to dive into the performance metrics of your systems.

Start small and simple, monitor your technical behaviour first like usage of CPU and Memory usage. After you have this in place, dive into the amount of concurrent users, parallel processes and finally, the level of business processes.

Go and see

To identify bottlenecks in teams the visual boards of teams can often tell you so much.

Let’s do a little exercise.

Imagine you are standing in front of a huge whiteboard with many post-its. You remember the last quarterly planning wherein all of you have decided to work on strategic change. The green post-its represent stories and features related to the strategic change. The yellow ones are for the legacy systems and the red ones are incidents that pop up.

You see the board, and observe chaos in the first place. Many items say “work in progress” at the same time, many different topics at the same time and last but not least, many items are marked with a sign saying “waiting for others.” You rarely see any green post-its, which represented the strategic change.

Alarms start ringing and you feel an upcoming panic attack, HELP! This is not going into the right direction.

The good news is you can see and feel it. You see the outcome of a certain process. Now is the time for the next step. The main question is what is causing this apparent chaos?

Ask why and listen

First of all, do not judge too early. Observing something does not mean you understand what is going on. Start asking questions and listen carefully. It’s almost like doing a root cause analysis. The first answer isn’t the real answer. Dive deeper, listen carefully what they say and ask “why” again. Is the first answer we have a capacity problem? Do not extend the amount of people, but identify the real reason. Most likely with a little order in the backlog, or with a reduction of technical dependencies, you can double the speed easily.

If you’re able to listen carefully you can identify what’s under the surface. By using this feedback you’re able to do an improvement that goes way deeper.

Create formal rhythms and structures to it make improvement easy

Continuous improvement is crucial to transform your organisation. To stimulate the continuous improvement cycle, feedback between people is an elementary principle. Trust, collaboration and transparency between people must grow time over time. Teams who can setup formal structures to share this feedback are teams who will become powerful teams.

If you apply scrum or are working in a stable devops team you will most likely execute a retrospective every 2 or 3 weeks. A fixed moment where you reflect on the way of working, but also on personal qualities and behaviour, gives valuable input for improvements.

Since a management team is also just a team, I can highly recommend to set up these structured rhythms for them also. Support with explorer maps (read more) will be very powerful.

Feedback loops and the relation to other aspects.

Setting up feedback loops or having benefits from them is something that is part of a bigger picture. Only creating feedback loops is not enough. These are some thoughts that are strongly related to them:

  • Spreadsheet filled manually are not equal to dashboards, most of the time they only satisfy the management while the reality is different
  • Feedback loops can stimulate the need to do weird experiments and go out of the box, for example by experimenting with new technology, a new product offering or going into a whole new way of collaboration between business and IT.
  • Gather feedback from the limitations of the secondary processes. If you can remove these, all teams can go fast forward.

In a lot of transformations, it is not the primary goal to improve the secondary processes. And this is very strange. Secondary processes like risks, finance and HR often impact all your teams and people. Improvement in this area solves a lot of barriers.  In the next post, I’ll show how crucial it is to improve secondary processes.

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2 thoughts on “Feedback loops will radically change your improvement cycle

  1. Hoewel dit verhaal een focus heeft op interne feedbackloops ontbreekt er in mijn ogen een feedbackloop in je verhaal die wel degelijk een grote impact kan hebben op de organisatie. De feedbackloop met je eindgebruikers! Deze draagt bij aan alle doelstellingen binnen deze blog en raakt ieder niveau van de beschreven feedbackloops. Ik zou deze toch graag willen benoemen in de context van de weg naar een ‘high performing organisation’.

    Door als team in te zetten op een goede feedbackloop met je eindgebruikers en deze feedback ook daadwerkelijk een sturende factor op je backlog te laten zijn coach je als team je organisatie in het klantgericht werken. Belangrijk onderdeel hierin is om je stakeholders goed mee te nemen in de feedback die je als team ontvangt.

    Dit kan vrij eenvoudig; laat de stakeholders de feedback die je ontvangt zelf ook lezen.

    In mijn ervaring krijgt het team als gevolg hiervan meer vrijheid om zelf keuzes te maken en maken stakeholders keuzes op basis van een breder perspectief. Een uitdaging die hieruit voort komt is het vinden van de juiste balans tussen functionaliteiten belangrijk voor de organisatie en functionaliteiten aangevraagd door gebruikers.

    • Hi Thomas,

      dank voor je reactie, dit aspect zit er inderdaad helemaal niet in. Ik deel je mening dat het echt in elk aspect verweven zit/kan worden. Een goede aanvulling dus.

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