What holds you down?

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What holds your efforts at improvement down?

Big Visible posted a great photo / poster a few weeks ago with their article Velocity Is Like A Helium Balloon. While their focus is Agile development, the thinking behind it can be applied to just about any area of improvement.  

Attempting to directly manipulate team velocity is risky and often counterproductive. It can result in the team simply increasing their story point estimates or in taking shortcuts of quality and design so they can get a better number. Such actions damage the utility of the velocity as an input to planning and hide reality from the decision making process. Rather than worry and work over making velocity go up, remember this: [Velocity is like a helium balloon. It will rise on its own, if nothing is holding it down!]

In this case "velocity" is a measure of how fast things are getting done.  It is one way to measure the output of the system in which the team is operating.  Of course the real measure is value delivered to the customer.  (All sorts of assumptions about working on the right things and the larger process in which development is happening.)  Similarly, in other environments, there are internal measures that provide a signal as to how the system is operating.  But they had better be tied back to creating value.  Making more products that just sit in the warehouse to improve "machine efficiency" ratings does not create value.  Activating more projects into the portfolio to keep people busy doesn't help - finishing projects is what your customers care about.  These, and many other examples, tend to create knock-on problems related too much work in process.  You need measures that relate to systematic benefits, not local optima.  

The reason this graphic struck me is the last part of the caption, if nothing is holding it down.  As I mention above, the measure MUST look at the right thing.  But with that, what kinds of things prevent your measure from improving?  What actions are you taking to change the system so that your measure improves?  Did the action have the expected impact?  If not, what made it better or worse than expected?  Is the process working as anticipated?  Are their policies that prevent the process from working as smoothly as expected?

What is it about the system that prevents your balloon from rising as fast as you want it to do?

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