As a product manager, it’s crucial to track cycle time as a key metric. Reducing cycle time not only leads to smoother delivery but also improves efficiency, facilitates faster learning, and ultimately results in a better product. In this article, we will explore the importance of reducing cycle time and provide eight effective strategies to achieve this goal.
What is Cycle Time?
Cycle time refers to the duration between starting work on an item and completing it. It serves as a valuable measure of speed and efficiency in product development.
Why is Reducing Cycle Time Important?
Reducing cycle time offers several benefits that contribute to overall product success:
- Faster learning: By shipping products more quickly, we can evaluate outcomes at a faster pace, enabling us to learn and iterate rapidly.
- Higher flexibility: Lower cycle time empowers teams to react swiftly to changes and adjust the direction of their projects more easily.
- Less waste: Faster delivery minimizes work in progress, preventing energy wastage due to multitasking and managing dependencies.
Moreover, cycle time serves as a holistic delivery metric, capturing the efficiency of various best practices, such as limiting work in progress, streamlining code review and quality assurance processes, and ensuring clear communication within teams and across departments.
8 Strategies to Reduce Cycle Time
Here are eight highly effective strategies to reduce cycle time, based on my experience working with different teams:
1. Automate as Much as Possible
Automation plays a pivotal role in minimizing cycle time. Leveraging Continuous Integration/Continuous Delivery (CI/CD) pipelines eliminates the need for manual integration work, enabling faster and more efficient delivery. Similarly, embracing end-to-end test automation reduces release time significantly, compared to manually conducting regression tests.
Remember, the more automated your delivery process, the better your cycle time.
2. Use Components
Once your product surpasses the initial Minimum Viable Product (MVP) phase, it’s time to establish a design system and adopt reusable components. Building pages using pre-existing components is akin to using Lego blocks—everything is readily available, and you only need to connect them correctly to achieve the desired result.
Begin by creating well-documented components for frequently used interface elements, allowing designers to prepare them meticulously. Developers can then utilize these components from a centralized repository, which may initially require more effort but promises significant long-term gains.
3. Optimize Code Review Processes
Code review can often become a time-consuming part of the development cycle. However, implementing minor improvements within this process can yield substantial results. Let’s break down code review into its three essential elements:
Time to First Review
The time it takes from opening a pull request (PR) to the first review greatly impacts cycle time. While immediate attention to every PR is impractical, a healthy time to first review should ideally be a matter of hours, not days. One effective tactic is to establish specific code review slots during the day, ensuring prompt initial reviews within a reasonable timeframe.
Time to Approval
Time to approval encompasses the period between the first review and obtaining all necessary approvals. Factors such as the number of comments, time to resolve those comments, and the required number of approvals can influence this metric. Minimizing the number of comments and reducing the time to address them aids in expediting the code review process. Additionally, it’s crucial to strike the right balance with the number of required approvals, tailoring it to your specific goals and team dynamics.
Time to Merge
The time from the last approval to merging the code signifies the time to merge. A healthy CI/CD pipeline should automatically handle this final step, minimizing delays and ensuring a swift merging process.
4. Optimize Quality Assurance Processes
While maintaining quality standards, focus on making your testing process as efficient as possible. Two tactics to consider are:
Shift Testing Left
Integrate a QA specialist into the process early on to avoid postponing testing until the final stages. Addressing potential issues sooner leads to quicker resolutions, as finding and fixing bugs during later stages can be significantly more time-consuming.
Build a Quality Culture
Quality assurance is not solely the responsibility of QA engineers. Encourage engineers to double-check and self-test their work before involving a dedicated QA specialist. This proactive approach reduces the chances of late-stage bugs, streamlining the overall quality assurance process.
5. Spot and Investigate Outliers
It’s essential to identify and investigate outliers—work items that significantly deviate from the median cycle time. By examining these outliers, you can gain valuable insights into potential bottlenecks or issues that caused delays. Analyzing outliers helps improve process efficiency and ensures a more streamlined delivery pipeline.
6. Reduce Technical Debt
Addressing technical debt is crucial for maintaining a healthy cycle time. Technical debt refers to the gap between the current state of technical excellence and the desired state. It can result from conscious trade-offs or oversights. Examples of technical debt include unfixed bugs, missing documentation, inefficient workflows, lack of test automation, and outdated libraries.
Discussing technical debt regularly and establishing guidelines for taking and reporting it can help manage and mitigate these challenges. By consciously monitoring and addressing technical debt, teams can maintain a healthy cycle time and prevent extensive delays.
7. Work with Smaller Pieces
Efficiently managing work items involves breaking them down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Larger tasks tend to take longer, introduce more risks, and involve complex processes. While not every work item can be split, the majority can be broken down into smaller pieces. Gradually reducing the maximum number of story points per ticket can be an effective approach. By aiming to eliminate the largest story point tickets and continually breaking down larger tasks, teams can optimize their cycle time.
8. Run Experiments
Just like you would experiment with the product itself, it’s essential to experiment with cycle time. Dive into your delivery process, formulate hypotheses, plan experiments, and analyze the resulting metrics. Small changes can often yield surprising results. For example, implementing a Slack bot reminder to catch up on PRs may initially annoy the team, but it can lead to significant reductions in code review time. Stay curious, experiment, and measure the outcomes.
By following these strategies and continuously refining your delivery process, you can achieve shorter cycle times, resulting in improved product delivery, increased efficiency, and faster time-to-market.
Remember, reducing cycle time is an ongoing journey. Embrace a growth mindset, collaborate closely with your team, and adapt these strategies to suit your unique circumstances. Together, you can enhance your product development cycle and create better outcomes.
Featured image source: IconScout
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