“No, Dorothy, You’re Not in Kansas Anymore”. NCR’s Success Story on the Road toward Customer-Focused Process Maturity
Do your software developers have a mature development process? If they don’t, how does it affect your ability to do your job? What would it look like to work inside an organization that is functioning at Level 3 or Level 4 of the Software Engineering Institute’s Capability Maturity Model (CMM)? These were some of the questions I had in mind when I met with Mike Lewis, the senior information engineering manager at NCR in San Diego, CA.
Mike (who serves as a member of the CIDM advisory council) invited to the interview three of his information engineering managers, their Web coordinator, members of the engineering quality organization, and the senior director of quality systems realization. Right away, I knew something was different. How often do we find senior managers taking two or more hours to talk about the relationship between engineering development and information engineering. Yet, here they all were, anxious to tell me not only about their successes but also about the long and sometimes rocky road they have traveled to earn their process-maturity stripes.
The NCR management team started looking at their ISO certification process back in 1990. At that time, they were primarily engaged in hardware manufacturing, which was a natural fit for a standard ISO model. When they moved from hardware to software, they embraced CMM. Starting out, they encountered the objection we often hear voiced by immature organizations: “Won’t following processes stifle creativity?”
What NCR learned was that following processes does not stifle creativity. In fact, effective processes, judiciously applied, actually free staff members to be more creative than ever-and help get products to market faster and more successfully.
No Easy Path to Process Maturity
The NCR managers are quick to explain that the path to a mature organization is not an easy one to follow. The essential ingredient, it appears, is support from the top levels of management, especially the engineering managers. The quality people pointed out that they can talk process until they are “blue in the face”; however, not until the senior management is fully committed will people’s fears be overcome. Without genuine management support, technical staff often view quality efforts as the flavor of the month.
It helped in building a mature process to have the support of NCR corporate. Senior management promoted and continues to vigorously support a structure they call Program Realization Teams (PRTs). The PRTs are cross-functional teams, including information engineering members, that decide on the direction for new and continuing products. Everyone is an equal team member because the PRTs recognize that the whole product is more than a collection of separate components. Their decision-making process is driven by a focus on quality and customer satisfaction.
Although the PRT process is not necessarily linked to process maturity, the realization that products are multi-faceted in their development and delivery contributes to a recognition that repeatable processes are a significant ingredient to success. If an organization truly sees the benefits of multi-faceted product delivery, then it must find ways in which otherwise disparate teams like product development, testing, information engineering, manufacturing, support, and others can work in an integrated fashion. The processes of individual teams must dovetail with a comprehensive high-level process that enables the right product solution to be delivered to customers.
A Unique Link Between the CMM and Customer Focus
The PRT process at NCR is only part of the success story. The CMM gave them a starting point to develop sound processes for all facets of product development. To become a Level 3 organization in the CMM means that software development must have in place a well-defined and articulated product-development life cycle process, a comprehensive quality testing program, and a management philosophy dedicated to ensuring that processes are always followed. A Level 3 organization has in place a repeatable process that ensures the quality and timeliness of its deliverables. That means that they consistently deliver to customers on time the right product, thoroughly tested and functioning, and meeting all the agreed upon customer requirements.
To become a Level 4 organization, not only must all the Level 3 activities be in place and consistently applied-the organization must also measure its results. That means having quality metrics in place, consistently applied, and taken seriously by all members of the management team and staff.
Despite its focus on process, the CMM does not automatically ensure an outward focus on the customer. The CMM is not generally viewed as a customer-focused methodology and can easily become internally fixed on efficiency gains rather than effectiveness.
NCR has combined its commitment to CMM with a strong focus on the customer, ensuring an outward focus. And, with a mature development process firmly in place, they no longer have to frantically try to beat out fires. Instead, they have the time to focus on customer needs and partner with customers to identify those needs.
I was amazed to learn, for example, that senior managers in this NCR group take direct calls from customers. They provide the knowledge, leadership, and vision that has enabled the customer focus to succeed.
Their high process maturity levels have enabled them to introduce an interesting quality metric called “content attainment.” They measure how much content they have been able to include in a release cycle. Information engineering is part of the content attainment metric. The information engineering managers explain that because they estimate so well, they are more likely to add content rather than delete it at the end of the life cycle. Note that this content is added within the original time-to-market goals.
New Processes and a New Customer Focus Led to Consolidating the Documentation Groups
Before the focus on process maturity, customer requirements, and the need for total product integration, the NCR Southern California information engineering groups were fractured. They had five or six documentation groups in place, all with their own ideas about how to do the job.
As the company moved toward a more mature development process, the managers found that the dispersed documentation groups had to come together. All the information they produced goes to the same customers. If that information is written and organized differently, the customer is confused.
The old groups were also closely attached to individual engineering development groups. Although this close attachment gave them access to technical information, it also meant that writing quality was almost entirely devoted to accuracy. When the groups consolidated, calling themselves information engineering, and took on a customer focus, they found that engineering was not their only source of partnering. They now partner extensively and creatively with their end-users and with internal groups that are close to the end-users, such as field service and customer support.
In fact, we found in the 1999 Ratios Study that the NCR Southern California information engineering team has a unique development methodology. The information developers tend to interact with more different members of the product development team than we saw among the other participants. Technical communicators in other organizations interact almost exclusively with engineers; we found that Mike Lewis’ staff had a very diverse network of contacts. When we first asked Mike about it, he said, “yes, we do things differently.”
Customer Satisfaction with Information Products Moving to New Heights
Mike’s managers informed us that their consolidation and focus on the customers has made a difference. When they started out on the road to a more mature process, their customer satisfaction was low. Since they implemented their new customer-focused process model, their customer satisfaction percentage has moved from the low 60s to the low 90s. In fact, their customers frequently tell them that they are absolutely dependent on the documentation to get their jobs done.
To achieve these gains, Mike’s writers work hard on customer partnership. They have many opportunities to interact with customers, from the Partner Advisory Committee to the Service Focus Committee. From telephone calls, site visits, and committee meetings, they find out how their customers need and use information resources.
The road has also been challenging for the information developers. They had to go through a cultural change with the rest of the company. That change meant building a common language for understanding what all the development team members do and how they need to interact through the development life cycle.
As part of the cultural change, they had to learn to listen to the customers. Since they have moved to higher levels of process maturity, the customers have noticed the difference.
The Best Place They’ve Ever Worked
One manager explained that she had joined NCR after having worked in many other companies. Her view today: “This is the best place I’ve ever worked.” Why? Because it’s so organized; everyone knows what’s expected. They meet their deadlines because they know what has to be done. Note that this manager’s point of view illustrates something we have noticed recently-when customer satisfaction is high, employee satisfaction is also high.
The information developers report that they have fewer surprises along the way when they work with a mature product-development organization. Plans are made and followed; they are able to identify documentation requirements and prerequisites early in the life cycle. All team members have a mutual understanding of the impacts of their decisions on others involved in the process. The information developers are involved in early planning in which quality goals play a major role.
The information engineering group finds that they have the ability to make their processes more efficient through tools and technology. That way, good processes account for as little overhead as possible. For example, they have recently automated the review process using Acrobat Exchange. They are putting their status information on an Intranet site.
They have also become much better at estimating the resources they need for new projects. Because the engineering projects are relatively stable, the information engineering managers find that they can make better estimates. Their estimating metrics include risk assessment based on assumptions and dependencies. Their estimates include back-up plans if the risks require changes.
Because they estimate more effectively, they can meet their deadlines without stressing the staff. They have the ability to plan their capacity requirements and prioritize so that they can continue to work with a small, lean staff.
How Can Your Organization Achieve Success in Process Maturity?
The participants in this conversation warn that the road to process maturity and customer focus can be painful. They point out that it’s wise to start small and achieve an early win. You have to address the perennial question of your staff members: “What’s in it for me?” NCR pointed out a steadily decreasing number of crises that people have to overcome.
It’s important to recognize and applaud successes. It’s important to encourage competition among the teams in achieving higher maturity levels (the engineering managers at NCR rose to the challenge). It’s important to keep selling the business values and the people values of a better process.
Sustaining a move toward process maturity requires, as one of the quality managers pointed out, a huge amount of marketing, a continual focus on why process is important. And the selling job doesn’t stop once you’ve achieved Level 4. You then move your team to the next level of challenges. You need, as he mentioned, to “climb the hill again.”
Review the Information Process Maturity Model (IPMM)
Remember that the IPMM is specially designed for publications and training organizations. It follows levels similar to the CMM. If you need a copy of the most recent article on the IPMM, check the Comtech website at .
Recognize that the NCR success story encompasses the entire organization, not just technical publications. I’ve often pointed out that it is difficult to sustain a level of process maturity that is more than one level ahead of the larger organization you are in.