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Fix it: The Pattern Goal of Leaving the System More Whole
FEB 02, 2015 11:18 AM
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Fix it: The Pattern Goal of Leaving the System More Whole

Agile CareersMy teaching engagements emphasize business improvement through changes to the work environment, its processes, and the product. In return, the attendees often deplore some organizational rule that impedes them from realizing my sometimes radical measures. I retort: “Fix it!” Great progress depends on removing the impediments that we feel stand in the way of great change. 
We like to be creative, but life is a flow of ongoing repair. Christopher Alexander tells us that each pattern is an act of repair that should leave the system more Whole than when we started. That’s the pattern agenda: that every person contribute just a bit every day to making the world more Whole.
Why does the world need repair? Many engineering fields are physical and suffer from the third law of thermodynamics: entropy. There is a more sinister force at work in complex systems like large-scale software development. Bits don’t break or wear out: they are delivered broken. And the changes in context around our software (requirements changes) break the way the system meets market need.
Toyota has a culture of zero defect tolerance. Toyota isn’t the only enterprise with this outlook, of course: the early American space program laid the international reputation of an entire nation on the success of its missions, so the cost of failure was very high: a human life. Early aerospace addressed the problem with ever-growing experience, but time and money were probably the dominant enablers of quality. In contrast, Toyota stops the production line now whenever a problem arises. And we fix it now.
Great enterprises have no bug-tracking systems—not because they are perfect, but rather because repair is Job 1. Good design bodes for good quality, but fixing bugs ties the knot. Not only is the customer happier to avoid product recalls but workers feel better about their jobs. (As of September 2014, the count of GM recalls exceeded the number of cars it has made.) Steve McConnell has shown that every software bug slows development and delays delivery; what’s worse is that a small bug may mask a killer bug. Fixing bugs now increases your velocity.
My clients take issue with the agile solutions I teach because they cannot envision that such solutions are even possible, at least where they work. I believe that one of the purposes of technical publication is much less to broadly spread new ideas than to spread the stories of how slightly clever common sense has prevailed to do great things in humble practice. This, too, is part of the pattern agenda. History, taught right, is less about learning from our mistakes than aspiring to reproduce our successes.
To show that this is much less about any magical technology than focused human engagement, I’ll often ask the class to form groups of three and to come up with as many possible solutions as they can in three minutes. I encourage quantity over quality. Almost always, one of the ideas has merit. People are great problem-solvers.
Again: Great progress depends on removing the impediments between us and great change. We like to externalize these impediments to protect our self-image. Most often, these impediments lie within. That’s one of the reasons that change looks hard, because it’s so hard for us to accept that there may be something lacking in our current selves that a little learning can solve. Learning is much more than knowledge or memory, but is rather the accumulation of these sometimes little changes in behavior. You don’t challenge your own habits often enough? Fix it.
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