which change caused the effect?

I decided to keep this month entirely free of work – the plan being to spend the time catching up on those home improvement jobs that have slid down the pile since James was born. Sunday we made a good start, spending a couple of hundred pounds on paint and light fixtures and stuff. But then Monday morning I was struck down by the sickness-and-diarrhoea bug that baby James had last week. So I’ve already lost three of my 10-12 available days (taking into account the school holiday, weekends and childcare days). Now Donna looks as if she’ll succumb to the virus, and James has been refused back into nursery until he’s completely well. Both the girls had a wee touch of it over the weekend too. So our whole family has virtually ground to a halt – I’d like to find out why.

Our first thought was James’ new nursery. He went in for a 1-hour taster session a couple of weeks ago and came back with a cold that lasted a fortnight. And then two days after he started full-time, he comes down with the s-and-d bug. Today the nursery confirmed that they have “three or four” babies his age down with the same thing. So James brought it into the family from nursery, right?

Well, there are other possible causes. During the same time-frame we took delivery of an old chest-freezer that was coated an inch think in slime and mould, and an old piano that’s full of dust. Either of these could have brought germs into the house too. Donna also started back at University last week, and so could have brought in the virus from there (last year – her first – we all caught Fresher’s Flu). Or one of James’ older, stronger sisters could have brought the bug home from school.

Too many things have changed in the last ten days, and any of them could have brought a new strain into the house. Or maybe all of them did, which is perhaps why we’ve been so badly affected this time. We’ll never know.

And my point is? Well, aside from having a good moan (which I needed), this whole episode got me thinking about process change. I know the metaphor is a bit stretched, but bear with me. We had a long period of relative stability, followed by a whole slew of changes at the same time, followed by an undesirable effect. And now we don’t know which change (or changes) brought about that effect. So we can’t easily undo it, or prevent it from recurring. So on software projects, I like to hold weekly retrospectives with teams, at which we try to restrict the changes for next week to one or two. Then we can observe and analyse the effects, keeping ourselves more in control of the process and its variables.

Regular change and regular reflection keeps the process healthy and the effects understandable. Punctuated equilibrium lengthens the feedback loop and also makes root cause analysis near impossible.

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