There are many concepts in Lean manufacturing that have applicability with software development “factories.” One example is the Andon Cord.
The Andon Cord concept involves using signals and alerts to indicate that a station on the assembly line has a problem. Alarms are activated manually by workers pulling a physical cord or automatically by the equipment itself.
Developed as one element of the Jidoka quality method and pioneered by Toyota and the Toyota Production System, the Andon Cord empowers workers to notify co-workers and management of quality and process problems across the assembly line—and even stop production.
While pulling the cord to stop production sounds crazy, if a defect is found and can’t immediately be fixed, then pulling the cord means stopping the problem from flowing downstream, where it will be costlier to fix and have a severe impact on the customer experience.
But the point of Andon Cord pulling isn’t only to fix problems. As part of a continuous improvement program, much of the “pulling power” comes from how it helps teams build quality into products and processes. When production stops, improvement begins.
Many would argue that the application of Lean management concepts such as the Andon Cord is more challenging in software engineering. With software, there are many more opportunities for defects, and testing for problems only occurs late in the development cycle. So late, in fact, that in some cases customers end up doing most of the testing.
But as the digital and physical world becomes inseparable, excuses and outdated practices are no longer acceptable. Just as we wouldn’t ask a customer to test air bag deployment in a car, we shouldn’t expect them to test whether a new software-enabled telemetry system is subject to security hijacks.
So having the power stop software development production line to prevent defects, security problems and safety issues during the actual development process makes perfect sense. But how do you start?
Automate Andon with Continuous Testing
In many organizations people are often afraid to speak up about problems. Even if bugs are suspected, teams will cover up problems by coding around them, even fudging tests. Owning up to problems doesn’t come naturally, so defects and crippling technical debt accumulates. DevOps practitioners need their own version of the Andon Cord: fully automated testing.
With DevOps promising software throughput at dizzying rates, quality must accompany the velocity. Fail here and the continuous delivery glass can only be half-empty. This is why the process must incorporate its own automated testing Andon Cord to prevent problems moving downstream. Automation must be comprehensive, providing maximum coverage at every stage in the software pipeline—from requirements definition to full production and including code quality, performance, security, compliance and test data. Then, when a test fails, the system must be capable of stopping everything until the problem isn’t just fixed but can’t happen again.
Eliminate Waste at the Source
If you’re pulling the cord but not making improvements you don’t have an Andon Cord. Consider a factory scenario where machine operators always have to sweep up dust that’s clogging production equipment—obviously, they should be eliminating the source of the dust.
Unfortunately, many software engineering practices involve lots of dust-sweeping.
When developers need access to dependent systems for testing, they might mock up test code. If QA needs test data in a hurry, it could copy production data but fail to mask sensitive customer details. In IT operations, staff console watch in the hope of gleaning signals from all the noise—the list goes on. Lots of sweeping without ever eliminating the source of the problem.
Fortunately, tools with Andon-like capabilities can help. Service virtualization techniques can emulate dependent systems to remove testing constraints, while automatically generating synthetic test data helps eliminate the possibility of costly compliance breaches. Modern performance monitoring systems also play an essential role. By providing performance insights before, during and after every software build, they help cross-functional teams swarm problems when the cord has been pulled by an automated test.
Build the Ultimate Cord – Customer Experience
If an organization considers itself in any way customer-centric, it will be able to “pull the cord” when it detects anything that detracts from the customer experience as delivered across multiple channels—web, mobile, call-center. The winners go further, using these events as fuel for continuous improvement programs.
This all requires some serious smarts, not at the least application analytics to monitor the customer experience in real time. Such advanced systems become the ultimate Andon Cord, since they treat every sub-optimal customer experience (e.g. functional issue, usage behavior, performance problem) as both a defect and opportunity for improvement. Through advanced analytics and integration this improvement could take many forms—such as immediately prescribing code improvements to developers, or support systems notifying customers when a poor experience is about to occur—maybe even (shock-horror) compensating them financially for any inconvenience.
A strong DevOps culture thrives when individuals call out mistakes and inefficiencies. Fail in this respect and organizations risk paying a heavy price, such as broken customer trust and lost business. Seek out automated methods that help you metaphorically pull the cord and keep on pulling it. Only then can teams truly excel in driving real improvements that will help business gain and retain customers.