Sunday, November 21, 2010

Feeling like a hero should be your sign, something is wrong

I was reading the following post on "Work Around Cultures" and got to thinking how many places I have worked or listened to friends of mine talk about their jobs and how all but one of the places I have worked and a fair number of the places that my friends work fall into the category of "Work Around Cultures".  Now to be fair - the post is about Medical work places, but I believe it to be just as applicable to the software companies that I have worked for in my career.

The article points out that there are several consequences to what the author calls "Patch-It" work arounds.

1) Increasing medical error
Work-arounds lead to interruptions, which in hospitals are associated with errors and accidents. They increase the cumulative workload for nurses; higher workloads are associated with worse patient outcomes.

The same sort of issue can be found in IT departments and operations groups where work-arounds lead to interruptions and errors due to the work-around not being well documented or understood.  Consider the following: a work around is done by one person, the next person that works on that system has to remember that a work-around was done or know who to go talk to about the work that had been previously done in order to work with that system.  This can lead to errors and mistakes.  Granted - the mistakes made are not generally life and death but can be costly nonetheless.

2) Wasting resources. 
Individually, work-arounds don’t appear to waste much time, but studies have shown that required hunting and fetching eat up as much as 36 to 60 minutes per 7.5-hour shift.

As you can well imagine from #1, when you need to make a change to a system or need to make an operational change having to find an individual who made a work-around can be costly in terms of the time required to go track down the needed information.  It would be my speculation that the amount of time wasted would be very similar to the numbers indicated in the article if not more.  Having to deal with the work arounds will cause people a great deal of hassle trying to figure out what the work around was meant to do and who put the work around in place in the first place. 

3) Promoting employee burnout. 
Persistently lacking resources required to do one’s job takes physical and psychological tolls that lead to nurses’ burnout.

Again leading from #1 and #2, you can well imagine that people would eventually get very tired of having to go track down work arounds and the people that performed them.  I can hear everyone I have worked with in the past saying something like "... I was not hired to do this, I was hired to X..."

4) Creates a work-around culture. 
When work-arounds are common, people are less likely to seek system improvements.  There’s an insidious aspect to the culture that causes people to dismiss notions of improving things and learn to live with imperfection.

Work arounds seem to beget work arounds similar to telling a little white lie that you then need to cover up with another little white lie or even bigger lies.  I believe having to work around things in an IT culture equal to the idea of technical debt.  There may be a good reason to incur debt and to perform a work around as long as you make the space and time to go and 'repair' the work around.  Left in place how ever, work arounds can be a drag on the culture and lead people to believe that things will never get fixed.  Worse - people my start to believe that the work arounds are EASIER than working to actually fix the underlying problems.

The article points out that having a work around culture can be compelling to people because it provides a way to get the job done.  Paraphrasing and translating from the article the work arounds provide a way for the worker to 'get the job done', not involve the manager (keeping managers and works happier), and foster a hero like feeling.  The work around culture however is terribly detrimental to the organization because it can translate into a compiling list of work arounds that might never be solved, possibly leading to the need for "The Big Re-Write" of the developed software.

“There’s an insidious culture of ‘That’s just the way it is around here.’”
     — Anita Tucker

Managers can help alleviate this by setting a tone that indicates that they would like workers that report to them to report issues that they find.  Doing so has to go hand in hand with actually doing something about the reported items but in most circles doing something about reported issues is the easy part.  I personally work always to make sure I am attempting to address the root causes of problems and not just tossing a band-aid on problems.  I don't like to repeat work I could have saved myself from doing it better or right the first time.  What does your work culture support?  If where you work would rather you patch it, work around it and ignores the root causes ... it might be time to look for a new job.
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