The Software Factory Model Analogy – Appropriate or Not?

I felt compelled after some recent discussions to provide another blog post about the analogy I have been using in the title of this blog: The Software Delivery Factory model.

Let’s talk about the traditional way of thinking about Factories:
We start from the Wikipedia definition of factory system characteristics

  • Unskilled Labor – Now while labor arbitrage has certainly been a factor in the move towards a software factory model, I think we all agree that we are unlikely able to move away from at least a mix of experience levels and that we cannot sustain good software delivery without the right skills. In this model people are usually referred to as resources, but that’s for another post later. Inappropriate analogy!
  • Economies of Scale – By bringing together everyone involved in the delivery process and by centralising some of the functions like PMO we do see some economies of scale. Appropriate analogy!
  • Location – In the past this has been about factories being close to infrastructure like rivers, roads and railways, these days it is to be close to the right talent. This continues to be important as you can see in the move to India and China to get closer to large talent pools there, and also in Silicon valley where a lot of top talent is located these days. Appropriate analogy!
  • Centralisation – In a factory means for production were brought together which individuals were not able to afford (e.g. an assembly line or weaving machine). In software delivery we see heaps of small competitors taking on the big guys with sometimes more advanced open source technology. We also see a lot of distributed teams across the globe who work from different office or even home. Inappropriate analogy!
  • Standardisation and Uniformity – How often do we produce the same piece of software many times over. Not really that often. There are some cases where the same pattern is required for example for pricing changes, but more often than not each project requires a unique solution and is contextual to the client and technology used. Inappropriate analogy!
  • Guarantee of Supply – In a factory the work flows relatively smoothly and there are few hiccups if any in the production process. Looking at data from the chaos report and looking at my own experience, the smoothness of flow in software delivery is an illusion. And to be honest if I see a burnup or burndown graph that is smooth I suspect some gaming is going on. Inappropriate analogy!

So in summary the vote goes to it not being an appropriate analogy 4:2. It conjures up images of people sitting in their cubicles actioning work packages,

  • one person translating a requirement into a design handing it over to
  • the next person writing a bit of code
  • then to the next one testing it
  • and in all this no one talks to each other, it’s all done mechanical like people on an assembly line

In bad times software delivery in a factory model can feel a bit like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times

Some of my colleagues talked to me about a new factory model, so let’s talk about the characteristics of this alternative model that people point out to me:

  • Orchestration of complex production process – software delivery today does require the delivery of many individual components very similar to the complex production process that for example is required to build a Boeing Dreamliner. Most systems are built of many components who are developed by many different team sometimes even across many locations and organisations thanks to the offshoring and outsourcing models. This examples of a modern factory does apply to software delivery. Appropriate analogy!
  • Automated Tool chains – If you look at modern factories from Toyota or BMW, you see very few works and a lot of automaton chains. This is very similar to this little video on CD. In that regard I agree that software delivery should be like these modern factories. Appropriate analogy!

I guess a modern BMW factory is the right analogy for this model:

Overall we end up with 4:4 votes on this list. In my head the image of a factory is not that of empowerment and of people working together to achieve great unique outcomes, its one of mass production and that just doesn’t work well with my understanding of software delivery. I guess I will keep the name of my blog as it is and just look forward to many more interesting discussions about this topic.

Here are some thoughts from others on Software Delivery Factory models (and yes of course it is more likely I come across things that confirm rather than oppose my view – please call out references to opposing views and I will post them here):

3 thoughts on “The Software Factory Model Analogy – Appropriate or Not?

  1. Mark McLaughlin

    Good post Mirco.

    I hate analogies in most cases for this very reason. Sure there are almost always some relevant parallels you can find but usually it only takes a few seconds thought to find some things in the analogous system that are completely contrary.

    What is the factory actually for? It is there to deliver something that the business needs. If the business suddenly needs to do something very different how hard will be to retool the factory to do something else?

    This is an important aspect that I think you have overlooked. Businesses that have factories are not automatically guaranteed success. The world is littered with derelict factories. Software factories are not really that different in this case either.

    Factory style automation is good of course but if you don’t set up that automation for flexibility you can only fine tune a bit for further improvements without another major project. The point I’m making is that all too often I see automation seen as a goal in itself. It must always be kept in mind that the point of it all is to enable to business to do something.

    The business changes. The factory must not only be automated, but that automation should be flexible and adaptable to meet those changing needs. When building your factory it is a good idea to keep that in mind.

    Mark

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  2. Elida

    Excellent rеɑd, Freezing passed this onto a colleagսe who had previously been doing a little researϲh on that.
    And just bought me lunch as I stumbled upon it for him smile
    Thereforе ok, i’ll rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

    Like

    Reply

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