Monday, July 20, 2009

A true story about CMM

About a decade ago I worked for a major supplier of financial information in London. The company decided it wanted to improve its software development process and the answer to this problem was to adopt CMM - the Capability Maturity Model. Initially the become level 2 and then move on the level 3.

The little group I worked in interfaced to financial trading institutions in the City of London. My project in particular had to respond quickly to changes at the institutions.

The CMM roll-out was a akin to a neutron bomb in reverse. The people were left in place, but their processes and practices were replaced en-mass. Developers attended CMM training and instructed in how to develop software according to the new process.

The effect was devastating. One manager likened it to pouring quick setting concrete on the railway tracks of progress.

I went out and I bought myself a book on CMM so I could understand it. What I learned was that CMM was a way of measuring maturity. It was a meter, imaging it as a ruler. It was a way of assessing your organization. You could measure yourself as 1 CMM, or 2 CMM, up to 5 CMM. It was not a method of working.

The CMM body of knowledge also contained recommendations, “best practices” and examples of good practices but it was not itself a process. It was a meter for measuring your maturity.

From the book I learned that Watts Hymphrey advised companies to: focus on improving their processes first and let the CMM measures improve by themselves.

What I observed in practice was the destruction of working practices an processes. I never observed any attempt to involve those doing the work in process improvement. The consultants knew best. Opposition was to be overcome. Process improvement was something that was done to others.

This wasn’t the company for me and I left. The company was eventually certified as CMM Level 2 and was expected to move to level 3 in time. Time went by and I don’t think the company ever made level 3. I heard that internally CMM was recognised as a mistake and the work was quietly allowed to die. The company also announced major moves to offshore development.

Fast forward to 2009. I recently met someone who was an outside consultant to the company and advised them on CMM adoption. He told me that he, and the other consultants, had advised the company to build on the practices they had and improve them. They specifically advised them not to write new processes and impose them on people.

He also told me that when the company did its own retrospective on the CMM project it was seen as a mistake to have written and imposed new processes on developers. A far better way would have been to improve what was in place with the people who did the work.

So the moral of the story:
• There is a lot of good in CMM - and the more recent CMMI.
• CMM itself is not a process, it is a meter, it is a means of measuring yourself.
• The key is process improvement, focus on improving and the levels will come.
• Don’t replace, improve, evolve. Involve your own people.