Small steps, big benefits

New Thinking 15 December 2014 Ed Stewart

I've been using visual models extensively to support testing on my current project, guided by Lean principles throughout the creation and evolution of these models.

Now I’m reflecting back on how I applied the principles and the benefits we’ve been able to realise from them. Two principles in particular stand out: Amplify learning and See the whole.

The project I’m on is part of a major programme of work involving multiple related product streams, both customer facing and internal. It involves a reasonably complex and specialised domain which was completely new to me when I joined the project. At the outset, I started a visual model to capture my knowledge of the domain and my specific product stream as it grew. The model closely represented my understanding at any given time.

This made it a powerful tool for amplifying learning as it meant I could see areas of the domain or product where I had less knowledge compared to others. These recognised deficiencies became focus points for further learning. I also recorded any specific questions I had within the model as they arose. Seeking answers to these helped me drive my learning forward and expand the model outward.

As my model expanded, it better enabled me – and others on the test and project teams – to see the whole context surrounding the product. This may seem like an obvious point – of course, a visual model helps us see the whole. But there's more to it than that. Seeing the whole isn’t just about understanding more things, it’s also about understanding things more – more deeply, more fully.

One way to do this is to look at the same information from different perspectives. I mapped detail from the product specification directly onto a model of the product structure. This let me see pieces of information that related to the same product elements, but which had been distributed through completely separate sections of the specification document.

By changing how I looked at the information, I could quickly spot gaps and conflicts. The same issues would have taken much more time and effort to find if I had only been jumping back and forth through a linear document, or working solely from a mental model.

My efforts to amplify learning directly improved my ability to see the whole. Looking back, I see this same cumulative effect across the other Lean principles I’ve been able to apply. Seeing the whole better myself helped me assist others to do the same. This deeper, shared understanding helped us build integrity in to the product and the test approach and has empowered the team to make better, quicker decisions. Myriad opportunities have arisen to eliminate waste at all levels throughout the test effort – these are all intertwined with other applications of Lean principles.

The benefits from applying one Lean principle flow forward and can be leveraged to empower the next. Being Lean is like walking: one step flows into another, driving you forward and continually improving your position.