Yesterday I got a package from Dr. Dobb’s Journal with three copies of the January edition, confirming that not only was my latest article in print, but it was a front page feature, huzzah! The article itself can be found online here. My sister-in-law Barb said that it sounded “Drier than toast” so don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I do manage to mention my wife and marijuana grow ops in the first sentence, so really, you knew it had to go downhill from there.
The rest of this post will be dedicated to reprinting an email exchange I just had with a DDJ reader in the States, in anticipation of the fact that he might not be the only person to ask his particular question. Future respondents can thus be directed here, saving the tubes literal hojillions of electrons. [Editor's note: Firefox 2's sexy new spellcheck doesn't like the word hojillions and recommends, instead, "gazillions." I love you Firefox. Pat, pat.]
AC wrote (name changed because I haven’t asked permission):
Just read your article in DDJ about green threads, and would like to see about trying it out sometime … except – you never showed an example of one in your article, so I don’t actually know what one looks like (ergo can’t try it out).
Is there any chance you could share a (generic) one so I can at least see what it contains, how it is structured, etc?
My reply (as usual, much longer than the question it answers):
Thanks for the note. I’m glad the article at least got you interested enough to want to engage in the process, and I apologize for not including an example. DDJ caps my word count, and IBM’s lawyers would probably cap my ability to disclose any of our internal threads since we view our focus on integration as something of a competitive distinguisher. All of which I think you neatly anticipated with your parenthetical “(generic)”.
As I mention in the article, the first time a green thread appears in print, before all the elaboration work is done, is on a powerpoint slide, and that’s really as much as it takes to express it, at the highest level. The key is to ensure that a) you’ve spoken with all the key stakeholders, most particularly (though not exclusively) your customers, so that you know you have the right focus to begin with, and b) that you are considering the entire end to end task flow. With that in mind, we could develop examples from other parts of business that IBM has no direct stake in.
Take, for instance, buying a car. If I were the CTO of an auto company, and I was interested in applying green threads to my technology base, I would first start with the key scenarios. We’re in the business of selling cars. Let’s imagine that our analysis indicates that a key flow for us to optimize is the first time buyer experience. Being first time buyers they have no brand loyalty and they have no existing information within our databases. They are also probably the most likely to walk away if the purchasing process takes too long, or if too much legwork is required. So the first step, identifying the green thread, might look something like:
First Time Buyer
Understand and look for process improvements in the IT flow for a first time buyer, from the time they first sit down with a sales agent to the time they drive a new car off the lot.
This simplicity is deceptive because, as I describe in the article, the next step is to engage all the owners/architects of the various IT systems and actually walk through the process. I imagine (IBM has relationships with various auto manufacturers but this is just my own imagination speaking here) that they have ERP systems for inventory tracking and manufacturing requests, CRM systems for managing customer profile information, as well as half a dozen sundry systems to do with warranty tracking and other administrative details. They likely also have systems for interacting with government agencies around licensing and pollution controls, and systems for interacting with credit bureaus and financing services. Exploding out the process for this green thread may take, as I mentioned, hundreds of pages. It’s probably also the first time that the owners of these systems have ever had a chance to really speak to one another about the way their systems are used together.
What happens as an automatic result of this process (the CTO or the green threads team can act as facilitators and note takers throughout, but the people tend to start talking on their own once they see how the process works) is that the technology owners start to understand their business context better, and they also start to quickly identify the pain points that are inevitably the result of this many disparate systems, e.g.:
- Why do three of our systems use Driver’s License Number as the unique ID, but two use SSN? If we asked for that information on the first piece of paper, we wouldn’t have to force them to fill it all out a second time on the second piece of paper.
- Why do we enter in custom manufacturing requests (model, colour, trim package, options) into a web based portal only to find out that some clerk at the head office manually picks up the phone for each request and calls the order in to the appropriate plant, each of which has a different request process?
Obviously focus is key so that you don’t attempt to solve all problems under the auspices of one green thread; even my manufacturing request example above might be over-reaching – there might be a separate green thread devoted to custom manufacture if it’s suitably robust as a process.
Obviously too, this example is superficial since it’s the result of an email worth of speculation about another industry, not the distilled result of consultation with subject matter experts. Furthermore, I chose an example which isn’t actually a software development company, though to be fair, most large enterprises end up housing miniature software development companies within their offices to handle bespoke development wherever it is needed.
I hope the example wasn’t so superficial as to lose the meaning; please let me know if I’ve muddied, rather than clarified, the waters. Thanks again for your interest.
PS – As I should hope it goes without saying, everything here represents my own viewpoint and does not necessarily reflect that of my employer. I’ve clearly been hanging around lawyers too much lately.