Using Speed Boat for Process Improvement

A lot of organizations are using Speed Boat for process improvement. That’s a smart approach, as I’ll explain later. However, if you’re not yet using Speed Boat for process improvement, this post should give you the motivation get started. I’ll outline some reasons why Speed Boat is so useful and provide some tips for improving your use of the game for process improvement.


Process Improvement Goals

Just about every team we’ve met wants to improve their process. Sometimes, the process improvement efforts are direct, in that teams know their process just isn’t working well and they want a fresh perspective on specific issues. More rarely, we work with high-performing teams who are pleased with their performance but are still looking for ways to improve. Like Jerry Rice, the most prolific receiver in NFL history, they never believe that they’ve played the “perfect” game, and continue to strive for perfection. Most of the time, though, we’re brought in when a team is somewhere in the middle: they’re doing OK, but they know they can do better, and they aren’t sure what’s wrong or where to start when making changes.


Process Improvement Challenges

Traditional approaches to process improvement typically start with some picture or description of the existing process and use this as the foundation of discussion for process improvements. While this can be effective as a way of considering process improvement, it has a very severe flaw: it forces the team to frame their issues and their perceptions of their problems to the process.That’s a real problem, as processes do not stand alone: they are supported by a larger structural context, which includes everything from the physical environment to the appropriateness of the results produced by the process. More importantly, I used the plural quite intentionally in the last sentence: there are always multiple processes that exist in a company, and these processes can interact in surprising ways. Prematurely framing the issues in terms of a single process inhibits the team from exploring critical interactions with other processes.


The Pepsi® Anchor: Why Speed Boat Works So Well

A few years ago I was brought in to coach a struggling software development team. Quite naturally, we played Speed Boat. We framed the game as follows:

“This boat represents your development process. We know you want that boat to go as fast as possible. However, there are some anchors that are holding you back. On the anchor cards you’ve been given, write down one anchor per card. The anchor that you write down can be anything that you think is holding you back.”

As you may guess, there were a variety of technically oriented process anchors. However, my favorite anchor had just one word on it: Pepsi. Quite frankly, I couldn’t understand this anchor: How in the world could “Pepsi” be preventing him from working as fast and efficiently as possible? When I invited the person who wrote that anchor to explain its meaning, he said:

“Yeah, I’ll tell you what I mean. This company is just like every other company. You think that all developers like Diet Coke®. Well, not all of us like Diet Coke. I like Pepsi, and the lack of Pepsi is slowing me down. You want me to work faster and happier? Get me Pepsi!”

The intensity of his response suggested a few things. First, and foremost, he liked Pepsi! Second, and much more importantly, this anchor provided an avenue for the team to discuss the many assumptions the management team had made about how programmers like to work. We collected other anchors on this topic and the team realized that many of their perceived “process problems” were really environmental. And some of them, like purchasing Pepsi, were trivially solved.

This is why Speed Boat works so well to identify process improvements. By framing the problem using a powerful, abstract metaphor, you enable the team to think about any aspect of their process that might be slowing them down.


Dealing with Multiple Processes and Teams

Another benefit of Speed Boat for process improvement is that it can enable conversations between multiple teams that must work together. Consider, for example, a sales consider a sales team who needs to work with finance and legal on complex deals. I’ve played Speed Boat with sales teams, and trust me: Salespeople always write down anchors related to finance and sales. But guess what? When you play Speed Boat with the finance and legal teams, they always write down anchors related to the sales team.

I realize that you’re probably not thinking this is a surprising or breakthrough result. As teams about complex processes, and they’ll give you anchors that represent other teams. The breakthrough happens when you get sales, finance, and legal to play the game together. Since the focus is on shared success – winning the complex sale – you’ll still find anchors related to the other teams. But now, when you’re processing the anchors to understand the issues, everyone involved with a complete perspective and much deeper understanding of the problem.


Cutting the Anchors

Speed Boat is the game you use when you want to identify problems and/or opportunities for improvement. When playing this game, you want to avoid trying to solve problems. Trying to solve problems when playing Speed Boat negatively changes the psychology of the players and interaction model. To cut the anchors, first prioritize them using games like Buy a Feature, 20/20 Vision, or Prune the Product Tree. Then, work through how the teams can work together to improve their process using Remember the Future and Start Your Day.

Process improvement is never easy, but Innovation Games® can make it seriously fun.

I’d like to thank my friend Alistair Cockburn for motivating this post based on a phone call we had to process improvement last night. I realized that while Alistair and I had talked about software process improvements, our discussion had broad applicability to helping teams improve any process – from sales processes to market segmentation processes, so, I wrote this post.

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