A Vignette of Kaizen

Don’t tell my kids, but we bought an absurd present for Christmas, and I spent a few hours putting it together and hiding it in the attic. It is called a Pickler. As I assembled it, I went through several rapid improvements in my approach to building it, and I am going to connect back to Kaizen or continuous improvement hopefully.

I have a pretty small office constrained by a futon couch and my lovely sit/stand desk. So I didn’t have a large area to assemble this. Moving was awkward and, at times, frustrating as I’d contort half around my desk and chair to build this thing.

The meat of this was attaching 21 rods to frames. These rods came in three lengths that varied by about four centimeters. That’s enough that if you look at them side-by-side, you can tell, but at a glance, you might not. It was easy to grab the wrong rod and not realize it. In the beginning, I had them all piled up. I would grab a rod, then compare it to the length of the first one I attached. After I grabbed the wrong one for the second time, I moved all the ones I didn’t need elsewhere. That was my first improvement. I removed one whole source of mistakes.

Now, attaching the rods to the frame involved one of those tiny hex keys that you use for furniture you self-assemble. I attached the first rod, and then the second. Each screw took 30-60 seconds. By the second rod, my hand was hurting. In theory, I could switch hands, but remember the short space? It was pretty hard to flip myself or everything around to make that happen.

I decided to get my drill.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a hex bit to drive these things in. So I needed to decide if I wanted to spend the next 2-plus hours hand turning these screws (Two screws per rod, 21 rods), or go to the store and buy a bit.

I went to the store. That took about 40 minutes.

I want to pause right here because this was a significant decision. I effectively stopped the line of work. I stopped the execution of my tasks. Instead of turning those screws by hand, which was the plan and something I could do, I stopped. I made a bet that taking those 40 minutes would result in better results.

When I got the drill bit set up, I could install a rod in about five seconds. I assembled the 21 rods and the entire structure in the next hour.

I’m not a handy person, but I thought of writing about this because when I’m at work with development teams, I watch them repeat many things over the course of days and weeks. Often the refrain goes, “That’s the way we always do it,” or “We don’t have time to deal with this right now.”

Except you always do.

The magic in improving isn’t just about innovation. It boils down to the willingness to pause while you attempt something different. So here’s areas I see many groups turning their screws by hand for you to take a look at doing something different about:

  • Waiting for code reviews
  • Multi-day or week testing cycles
  • Brute-forcing through a problem instead of asking for help
  • Bespoke deployments, failover, and rollbacks
  • Environment debugging

I bet more than one of these stings. Take a break to try to make it a little better before you go back to turning those screws by hand.