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Soul of an Engineer #8

This Issue: Invisible WIP, Goodhart's Law, Mass Produced Art, Changing Nature

Amarinder Sidhu
Amarinder Sidhu
2 min read

Invisible WIP

WIP stands for “work in process”. In manufacturing, it represents items as they move from inputs to a finished product to be shipped into customers. WIP is the first place to look for troubleshooting persistent issues of missed production dates, quality issues or shifting priorities.

Software development as a whole is not the same as manufacturing. But an Agile delivery sprint, within a larger project, is definitely a manufacturing pipeline. If your software teams are having consistent issues of delivering sprints as planned, or if the work is of low quality, or if the scope changes constantly during sprints - you may have the case of the "Invisible WIP".

Supporting ad-hoc sales calls and production support requests are examples of invisible WIP.  A knee jerk response is to go after the team with vague exhortations- ask them to work harder, pay more attention to quality issues etc.

A diagnosis of invisible WIP rarely happens.

Before you do anything, make all the WIP visible. Your team can only be held accountable for all the WIP. Once you do that, eliminate all invisible WIP that is constraining the actual work output.

For enduring results, equip and empower your team to say "no" to all the invisible WIP.

Goodhart's Law

Metrics (aka measures) are foundational to scientific management. But all metrics become ineffective over time, and eventually get gamed.

A social scientist, Charles Goodhart, shared this insight as a throw-away line at a conference in 1975:

“Any observed statistical regularity will tend to collapse once pressure is placed upon it for control purposes.”

A British anthropologist, Marilyn Strathern, later summarized it to what is now known as Goodhart's Law:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

Metrics gaming is rampant in modern world. For example to improve their ratings - hospitals avoid complicated patients; schools cherry-pick students; police redefines policing standards.

Goodhart's Law is a powerful reminder against the modern metric fixation.

Source: Goodhart’s Law Rules the Modern World

Mass Produced Art

Ever wondered who makes the identical art displayed in stores and hotels?

A Chinese village, Dafen, has "assembly lines" for painting, which churn out millions of paintings every year and employ thousands of artists. Instapainting reports:

"Painters in the largest studios spend hours painting individual brushstrokes or features on hundreds of canvases—exactly like how a worker in a Ford plant once spent all day tightening one screw on hundreds of Model T cars."

We will never run out of our desires to acquire cheap stuff, I guess.

Source: How Do You Paint 10,000 Paintings a Month?

Afterthought: Changing Nature

Oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee on our fallacious approach to cure illness.

“It is a peculiar modern fallacy to imagine that solution to illness is to change nature—i.e., genes—when the environment is often more malleable."

Source: The Gene