Playing ‘support’ is a term from the world of gaming. I know this because I am young and hip and down with the kids. I'll also happily admit I'm really into video games!
Support, in this context, means working in a way that improves the chances of your teammates doing well, as opposed to focusing on your own performance. In the thick of the game, your character is on the field, improving performance ratings of other players, casting recovery spells on them and removing obstacles from their path.
You’ll notice a strong link between playing a supporting role in a game and playing it in real life at the office. I’m part of the Quality department at CRITICAL Software and our role in the organisation is to continuously monitor and correct any deviations from our policies, procedures and objectives. We are always looking for ways to improve, so we can steer our engineering teams towards better and better results. This means that I’m not battling on the ‘front line’, instead I’m making sure that the tools and processes our engineers are using are ready and growing ever more powerful.
The two things that the rest of the company sees the Quality department doing most are ‘maintenance tasks’ and ‘process improvements’. These are the two types of tickets that we have in our issue tracking system. This is hosted in full view of the whole of the organisation and we invite our colleagues to contribute with continuous improvement suggestions regularly. Unsurprisingly, we’re always looking to build on quality in this department!
Unfortunately, both of these activities relate to two concepts that don’t get the love they deserve, in my opinion.
Let’s start with maintenance…
Most people prefer to think about how to break new ground rather than how to improve what’s already there. While perhaps less exciting, existing systems, institutions or facilities have to be maintained. That’s just how it is. At the turn of the millennium, in the world of business and technology, ‘innovation’ had become the buzz word. Calls for innovation abounded and literature that focused on innovation was being written by the bucket load. Take this quote from the Wall Street Journal: “More than 250 books with "innovation" in the title have been published in the last three months, most of them dealing with business.”
That was then. Nowadays it’s more about disruption. “Disruption is the new black." We all want to be cool disrupters but, if you look at what engineers actually do, most of them spend their time just keeping things going.
Maintenance is necessary. It’s also hard. In the engineering world, when you are trying to create the next big thing, maintenance can feel really unappealing! Nonetheless, you can’t win a game with a team who all want to be the sole hero. You need to get tactical and play as a unit. Sure, the glorious cavalry can swoop in, but you also need a strong infantry in the centre to maintain momentum, plus the healers powering up your troops and the shamans back at base, casting spells to confuse your enemy.
Maintenance and repair have quite the impact on people’s daily lives but, despite this, they are easily forgotten. To ensure nothing gets cast aside, we pick up every maintenance task using our integrated management system.
Now let’s talk about process improvements.
These tie nicely into another concept that I appreciate a lot: incrementalism. People say that “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I quite agree… For a good example of the power of incrementalism and continuous improvement, we can take a look at a team playing another kind of game – Great Britain’s cycling team competing at the Olympics.
Prior to the year 2000, Great Britain had just one gold medal in cycling. At the 2012 Olympic Games in London, they had eight. In Rio in 2016, they had twelve medals, six of them gold. This dramatic increase in performance is linked to the appointment of Sir Dave Brailsford as the team’s Performance Director who was hired in 2003. Sir Brailsford imposed a philosophy called ‘marginal gains’.
He explained it like this: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you would get a significant increase when you put them all together. The idea was to produce at least a one-percent improvement in every facet of the enterprise. From the mechanical – like installing a tyre perfectly straight on the rim... To the physiological – like managing the riders’ nutrition and choosing the best massage gel.”
Of course, there’s no point in doing anything on the periphery unless the absolute critical elements, which are going to account for perhaps 50% of the performance, are in place. But as Quality Manager at CRITICAL, I can appreciate a methodology which encourages a certain mindset and a specific approach.
Since we began our process improvement project, we have considered and completed more than 700 improvement suggestions and I like to think this ties into with our ever-rising customer satisfaction scores! By continuously improving what we do, we continuously improve our output for the customer and the happier they get.
In the Quality Department, we want to continue building a culture that encourages the whole organisation to work as a unit. We already know the value of a collective approach and where we can 'power up' our engineers and processes, you bet we will!