IT Automation, Absurdity, and the 5 Whys

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Automation is a way to improve a process by reducing or eliminating the need for manual effort. It can improve the speed or accuracy of a repeatable process, freeing your resources to focus on more nuanced work.  Automation can also help make it easy for anyone to jump into a process with little to no prior knowledge.

The value of automation is clear, but it’s often difficult to determine what should be automated — and in what order. The 5 Whys is a helpful thinking tool that we use at LeanKit to help uncover the root causes of problems and prioritize them in a methodical way.

Humans are Terrible Robots

Most IT team members I know are excited about their field because of the interesting problems that need to be solved.  Unfortunately, a lot of their time is spent on tedious, repetitive work that’s neither fun nor interesting — but still needs to get done.

Let’s face it — humans are terrible robots. We get bored and frustrated when we have to perform repetitive work. It’s especially annoying when we have to rework something because of a mistake we’ve made.  That is, if we can spot it —  human error can be hard to track down. For this type of work, you can alleviate your stress by letting the automation robots handle the repetitive and tedious stuff.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about evil robots taking over our jobs — robots are terrible humans, too. There will never be a shortage of problems in our field that require the creative problem-solving that only humans can provide. Adding IT automation allows the team to focus on problems that add value and require creative problem-solving — while improving the speed and accuracy of the more repetitive tasks.

Identifying Friction

Building out automation in your organization can be overwhelming. Analysis paralysis can happen when trying to decide where automation can add value.

One way to find the key spots where automation adds the most value is to focus on removing unnecessary friction. Friction can be anything that bugs the team, is time consuming, isn’t clear to everybody, needs to go away, or requires sharing knowledge that isn’t easy to share. Once the main friction points are identified and prioritized, determine a way that automation can help reduce friction in that one, specific spot. Keep iteratively exposing and automating away friction until you run out of sensible action items.

These common friction points are opportunities for automation in many IT organizations:

  • Repeatable tasks
  • Tedious tasks
  • Tasks that don’t require critical thinking or problem solving
  • Tasks with a high margin for human error

The 5 Whys

The 5 Whys is a thinking tool you can use to find the root cause of a problem. Starting with your problem, you ask “why” until your answer becomes absurd. It’s an iterative way of uncovering action items within a larger problem.

Early on, my team had a problem: All of our delivery tasks were manual. This friction made delivering bug fixes to QA — and consequently, to production — painfully time consuming. Instead of relying on assumptions to brainstorm solutions, we used the 5 Whys to map out the underlying cause of the problem.

The problem: Delivering bug fixes to QA is hard

Why? — It’s time-consuming to produce new application release candidates
Why? — Build steps need careful attention
Why? — If you make a mistake, you have to start all over again
Why? — There’s a specific build sequence for delivering successful release candidates
Why? — That’s how mobile platforms work
Why? — Because …

At this point, the answers to “why?” are absurd. This thought exercise shows that one reason delivering bug fixes to QA is hard is because there’s a specific build sequence that must be followed. This means that if we could add automation to ensure build steps happened in the correct sequence, we would have an easier time delivering bug fixes. That’s just what we did.

Since then, we have continued to iteratively work through our friction points. What began as a series of small scripts is now a growing automation system. We have build automation, test automation, and deployment automation. We have even simplified how QA creates and receives test builds by having chat bots do work based on simple chat messages. If you can send a chat message, you can run our testing pipeline.

Continuous Improvement

It’s easy to see the business value of automation in an IT organization, but it’s just as easy to become overwhelmed by the amount of work you might have ahead. Take a step back. You won’t solve all of your problems in one fell swoop, but that’s okay! Focus on continuous improvement.

Address one automation opportunity, and allow your process to show you the next friction point to address. If you take this iterative approach to building out automation, you can prevent wasted effort, boost the health of your team, and eventually eliminate some struggles from your team’s process.

Chris Riesgo

Chris is the Mobile Architect at LeanKit, where he leads the team that develops our Android and iOS mobile applications. In 2015, he was named a Xamarin MVP for his outstanding contributions to the developer community. Connect with Chris on Twitter @chrisriesgo.

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