DevOps? I can’t even open the wrapper!

Many organizations have failed – or are failing – to deliver value through their services because they can’t “unwrap the soap.”

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English is not my native language. One of the best gifts I ever received from a very kind soul back home was a trove of comic strip paperback books that I got at Christmas sometime in the ‘80s. These were paperback books from mainstream American comic strips like Beetle Bailey, Hägar the Horrible, Hi & Lois and others.

Reading is the best way to immerse yourself in another language, but reading comics brings you the visual too…and on top of that, they’re fun (win-win!).

In any case, there was one that came to mind recently that captures what I’ve experienced at client sites that reflects what I’m seeing in the industry at large.

I’ll try to summarize a several panel-long strip into a paragraph. This is from the Hi & Lois strip (date unknown). Ditto, one of Hi and Lois’ twins, gets home from playing outside. He’s not seen in the beginning of the strip. Lois tells Hi to help Ditto get ready for dinner and bed. This means a shower.

Hi is seating in his easy chair reading a newspaper (no cellphone, or iPad – this was the ‘80s) and proceeds to tell Ditto what he needs to do. This while never taking his eyes off of the paper.  “Place your clothes on the dirty pile.” “Wash behind your ears.” “Don’t use too much water!” And so on. Cut to the last panel of the strip. There stands Ditto in front of Hi, still filthy and he asks (I’m paraphrasing), “can you please help me get the wrapper off this bar of soap?”

I’ve never forgotten this strip, for some odd reason. But I’ve had it in the back of my head for a while to write about it. Here’s why:

We’ve been told we’re in the age of speed. Software is eating the world! Agile and DevOps have kicked ITIL to the curb...but wait! ITIL v4 is coming, and it’s different! And on and on. Still, many organizations have failed – or are failing – to deliver value through their services because they can’t “unwrap the soap.”

So, what’s the soap?

The soap is whatever delivers value, you see (and you thought that I was going to say ITIL). Soap will take you from dirty to clean. There’s value in being clean, right? There’s a whole lot of stuff that needs to happen around getting clean though.

In the comic strip, while his father was telling him everything he needed to do, poor Ditto couldn’t even get the wrapper off the soap. He wants to but for many reasons he can’t. I think about my LinkedIn feed on any given day and I see post after post of “you should do DevOps,” “build your CMDB,” “Agile!” But yet, you go into many organizations and they’re still in incident/problem/change land and they’re struggling at it, too. The wrapper is still on the soap!

Where am I going with this? Value is the most important thing we can deliver to ourselves and our customers. Many things need to work in unison to deliver the value we’re looking for. What does this mean for IT? How do we “take the wrapper off?”

Recognize that you’re working with a system which is the sum total of everything required to deliver value. There are the technical pieces, of course…but even the non-technical pieces (which often are more important).  There’s plenty of literature on systems thinking out there…

Tried to just hop in the shower without taking your clothes off? There’s both a process and a capability for that – a very important distinction for me. The “process” of removing one’s clothes is largely the same, with certain variations, but the capability of one’s ability to remove a piece of clothing varies.

Babies can’t take their clothes off without help. Same thing in IT. You may have a good documented process, but the organization’s capability to deliver upon the process may change depending on many factors. Recognize the difference between both and pick the appropriate standards and frameworks to focus on the improvement of both.

Sometimes you don’t have everything you need to have the ideal value proposition. Sometimes all you have is soap and water…and maybe not even hot water. But, if you recognize that you need to improve, all the while delivering on the processes you do know and capabilities you have, that’s a good start.

Do you want to start with service operations? Great! Start with what you have, but keep an eye on other elements from other lifecycles that you might want to improve at some point.

Recognize the bare minimum – the absolute least you need to deliver value. Do you need to have a luxurious spa every time you want to shower? You could, but it will cost you! This is typically an issue on the tech side nowadays, but not as clear in the people/process side of the house. Are your people doing what they need to do? Note that I’m saying “doing” and not “doing correctly.” Those are two very different things!

Learn, adapt, move! Think back to your childhood. Think back to the way you did things then and the way you  do things now. Depending on who you are, you probably can nail a good shower in under 15 minutes flat (less if you’re in a hurry). Why? You’ve learned, you’ve improved, you’ve developed a process and a capability that works for you and delivers value to you.

No doubt at some point someone has given you feedback, and you’ve learned from that feedback (and isn’t that one of the principles in DevOps?). You’ve learned, you’ve improved (ITIL’s CSI comes to mind, yes?). You get the point. Identify those situations that will help you improve and act upon those improvement points as you encounter them. Not learning is the biggest mistake you can make!

Finally, if you bring in someone from the outside to help you, try to find someone that gets it. And by ‘it’ I mean the ability to help you understand value. The ability to find all the pieces in the puzzle and help you build upon your capabilities to deliver value. The ability to unwrap the soap so you can deliver value.

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