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January 22, 2015

Book Review: "The High Velocity Edge" by Dr. Steven Spear

By Gene Kim

In this blog post, I am going to tell you about the book The High Velocity Edge by Dr. Steven Spear. This book has influenced me tremendously, and especially for the two major projects I’m currently working on: the upcoming DevOps Cookbook (which we finally completed our first manuscript draft, which early reviewers will see sometime this week) and the upcoming 2015 State Of DevOps Survey (in collaboration with Jez Humble, Dr. Nicole Foresgren, Puppet Labs and PwC).

I actually read this book three years ago, but after taking Dr. Spear's two-day “High Velocity Organizations” workshop in July at MIT, I not only reread the book, but I ended up highlighting nearly a third of the book!

I had countless a-ha moments while reading the book, which made obvious some of my own gaps of knowledge about DevOps, where I had to go research more. Dr. Spear's model provides an underpinning theory of what capabilities are prerequisites for sustained high performance, and provides a causal model of why it works.

In what has to be one of the neatest book forewords I’ve ever read, Dr. Clayton Christensen (author of famous book Innovator’s Dilemma) wrote in the book foreword:

“I honestly think that history will judge Steve Spear’s doctoral thesis to have been the finest, most impactful thesis ever written at the Harvard Business School, and that includes my own doctoral work on the phenomenon known as disruptive technology.”

In short, I not only highly recommend both Dr. Spear’s book to anyone interested in real-life analogs of effective systems of work, as well as his two-day workshop at MIT. (I wrote up my notes and posted them here: Day 1 and Day 2)

(The next blog I'll be posting is my interview of Randy Shoup, who was formerly a Director of Engineering at Google, and the Chief Architect at eBay, where I had the privilege of filling in some of my DevOps knowledge gaps that became evident after reading this book.)

Why Is This Book Important?

Why is Dr. Spear's book so important? Because he is credited for being first to decode the Toyota Production System, as part of his doctoral thesis at the Harvard Business School.  He describes the causal mechanisms that explain how Toyota has achieved and sustained their amazing performance spanning decades, and then generalized these principles to explain how other high-performing (or high-velocity, as he calls them) organizations have replicated their results in different industries and in value streams outside of manufacturing.

The organizations he has extensively researched include Aisin (which is in the Toyota supplier network), the amazing safety and profit record at Aloca, amazing lead time reductions in healthcare organizations, and many more.

One of the stories that resonated with me the most was the U.S. Navy’s Nuclear Power Propulsion Program, which has provided over 5,700 reactor-years of operation, without a single reactor-related casualty or escape of radiation. By continually test their assumptions of reality into the daily work of design and operations, they enabled a true culture of learning, and turned those learnings into systemic improvements that prevented future failures.

This is all a gross over-simplification of this marvelous book. Here is Dr. Spear's model, which states precisely what he asserts must exists in every high-velocity organization.

(And which I assert must also exist in every high performing DevOps organization. I'll list many concrete examples in the next post on Randy Shoup, and you'll certainly see this addressed in the DevOps Cookbook.)

Dr. Spear's Model

Dr. Spear writes that high velocity organizations differ from other organizations in two areas: structure and dynamics.

Each are described below.

Structure: Managing the Functions as Parts of the Process

Dr. Spear writes:

There is a structural difference between the high-velocity organizations and those chasing them that creates potential for speed. While high-velocity organizations put great effort into developing the technical competency of various functions, they are equally and always concerned with the way the work of individuals, teams, and technologies will contribute to (or impede) the process of which they are part. The process orientation of high-velocity organizations is in contrast to the “siloization” of so many other organizations in which the departments may talk of integration but tend to operate more like sovereign states. In high-velocity organizations, functional integration is not just pretty talk, it is the nuts-and-bolts of management at all levels every day.

This will surely resonate very strongly with any DevOps practitioner. It has been widely observed that DevOps organizations abhor silos, create shared goals between the entire Dev and Ops value streams, favor inclusiveness and empathy between functional roles — not just resulting in nice people being nice to each other, but achieving amazing outcomes.

Dynamics: Continually Improving The Pieces And The Process

Dr. Spear writes: "While designing perfectly safe systems is likely beyond our abilities, safe systems are close to achievable" when the following conditions are met:

  • Capability 1: Seeing problems as they occur

    • Complex work is managed so that problems in design are revealed
    • They see problems as they occur, through relentless testing of assumptions
  • Capability 2: Swarming and solving problems as they are seen to build new knowledge

    • Problems that are seen are solved so that new knowledge is built quickly
    • Improvement of daily work is prioritized above daily work
  • Capability 3: Spreading new knowledge throughout the organization

    • The new discovery of local knowledge and improvements are turned into global improvements, shared throughout the organization
    • Learning is fed back to prevent future failures
  • Capability 4: Leading by developing

    • The job of leaders is not the command and control, but to create other capable leaders who can perpetuate this system of work

My next blog post will interview Randy Shoup, which will describe how these capabilities manifest themselves in high performing DevOps organizations.

- About The Authors
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Gene Kim

Gene Kim is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author, researcher, and multiple award-winning CTO. He has been studying high-performing technology organizations since 1999 and was the founder and CTO of Tripwire for 13 years. He is the author of six books, The Unicorn Project (2019), and co-author of the Shingo Publication Award winning Accelerate (2018), The DevOps Handbook (2016), and The Phoenix Project (2013). Since 2014, he has been the founder and organizer of DevOps Enterprise Summit, studying the technology transformations of large, complex organizations.

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