A project orientation robs your engineers of Pride of Workmanship

In W. Edwards Deming’s 14 Points of Management, Point 12 is broken into one that applies to hourly workers and one that applies to management and engineers. It can be summarized as: “Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship.”

I work with a lot of clients who have done this to their engineers’ “pride of workmanship”. Let me explain…

When a software company is small (smaller than Dunbar’s Number) like a startup, people wear many hats. Developers handle infrastructure and do project management. As the company is more successful and grows, people begin to specialize. When an Ops or SRE team is formed, it’s often to handle infrastructure tasks. Because it’s not efficient to handle work through ad hoc requests and email, often a ticketing system is put in place. As the company grows, more tickets come in, and the Ops team works harder or expands to meet the demand.

Ultimately it is a futile attempt. Managers begin to concern themselves with how many tickets are being closed. Gamification begins. Hiring more people is expensive and doesn’t scale linearly. Often engineers lament that “if they could just (insert milestone here)” then they would be able to catch up. As much as we like to believe we’ve moved past the heavily discredited Scientific Management of Fredrick Taylor, this is almost exactly what we’ve recreated. In Taylor’s time, workers used to be paid for “piecework”. Under his thesis, if workers were paid per piece, they would produce more work subject to some formulas determined by management.

There were a number of problems with this approach in terms of quality, what an “average worker” could produce, etc. However, when we treat each ticket as a project to be completed, we are again trying to maximize the amount of “piecework” that is done, even if engineers aren’t being paid per ticket.

As we’ve discussed before, the solution is to move from a project orientation, to a product one. In a project orientation, we are trying to get as many tickets done as possible, and therefore, tickets meet the minimum bar that is required for completion. In a project orientation there is rarely time to build something engineers can be proud of.

In a product orientation, engineers are continually trying to empower and enable their colleagues with more capable self-service tools, because as John Stauffer likes to say: “the best service is no service.” These capable self-service tools enable engineers to take “pride of workmanship”. Because they are incrementally, continually improving the tools they can take pride in what they have built. There is always time to build something they can be proud of because the capabilities they deliver are what they work on every day. They become strategically differentiating value creation capabilities for the business.

If the competition is still trying to cross off more projects faster, well then they aren’t much competition at all.