Time and Material Business Model is Injurious to Process Improvement

An incident in a large software development organization:

Here is a part of a conversation between a Sig Sigma Expert (SSE) and the Delivery Head (DH) in a software development/ maintenance organization where most projects were run on a T & M or Headcount based billing for their customers.

SSE: “Initial analysis shows that with minor changes in the processes and the use of some spreadsheet macros, we can eliminate some non-value add steps. This can reduce the effort required by 25% for the current mix and volume of work.”

DH: “But that will reduce my head-count and billing by 25%! My target this year for improving efficiency/ productivity is only 5%. Maybe we can implement the changes a bit every year, and not all at once. If I implement all these change right now, I will miss my revenue and headcount targets – these have the highest weight in my performance objectives.”

Another incident in a different organization:

A Project Manager’s project end bonus was slashed because she delivered her project at a much lower cost than what was estimated (the estimate was done by someone else). She was informed that her lower bonus was because the project total billing was much lower than the project estimate.

Both these incidents occured in situations where the projects were being run in a T & M (Time and Material) mode by a software service vendor organization.

The T & M mode of engagement basically shifts the cost related risks and benefits (cost overruns, cost efficiencies) to the customer, while the vendor organization has a steady return, and cannot make large profits or losses. The T & M mode is suitable in many situations – e.g., when requirements are unclear and likely to change, when the customer wants to work closely with the vendor team, when the customer wants more micro control (sometimes interference), or when the customer-vendor organizations are in the initial phase of establishing a relationship. A variation of this is Committed Head Count, where the customer and vendor agree on a fixed number of staff assigned to the customer’s work over a period, independent of the actual quantum of work. Another variation is the dedicated ODC (Offshore Development Center).

As against this, there is the Fixed Price (FP) mode, where the billing amounts and billing timelines are fixed based on an agreed value and agreed deliverables. The FP contract may have penalties and incentives built in (for delivery dates and/or  quality). Effort overruns are the problem of the vendor, and effort savings are additional profits made by the vendor. Variations of the FP model include billing by volume, quality and timeliness of work done. In such cases the vendor is usually free to utilize the staff in an optimal way (maybe on multiple projects).

Many engagements between customers and vendor organizations start off as T & M, for good reasons. However, they continue in the T & M mode, even when the FP mode would serve everyone better. This could be because of inertia, because no one wants to rock the boat, or because no one has examined the issue for that engagement.

Structurally, the T & M model does not create incentives for the vendor to initiate and pursue improvements that will reduce the effort and headcount. The software industry has got addicted to T & M model to such an extent that head count growth, and billable person-days have become stated performance objectives for senior executives in many software services organizations.

Maybe the title of this post should have been “T&M model kills process improvement”, like the changed statutory warnings on tobacco products. Or is that overstating the case?

Please feel free to share your views, experiences or queries, using the “comments” feature available at the top of this article/ post.

Notes:

Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, or association.


I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here. To get email alerts for new posts, click here to subscribe.

Book Review – “Fooled by Randomness” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

I picked up Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, on the recommendation of a mathematician (Vipul Naik, my son). I was expecting a heavy treatise on economics and statistics. It was however a very engrossing book written in a lucid and conversational style, with historical events and everyday situations used freely to provide insights.

Here is the book summary/ key insights (that I picked up from the book):

1)      Human beings are wired in a way that they are unable to intuitively handle randomness and chance.

2)      We are adept at explaining everything through a cause-effect; because we just can’t handle uncertainty. And a statistical correlation does not necessarily mean one causes the other.

3)      Ignoring rare events (outliers) in building prediction models is fooling ourselves – rare events are a part of the process and environment, and their impact is rarely understood or considered by people.

4)      We try to explain extraordinary successes as the result of brilliant strategy or business model or formula or leadership skills or intelligence; while it is often just dumb luck. This is more so of domains like stock trading, marketing, and running a business. We try to learn from and emulate the “winners”, without much success ourselves (by trying to implement the so-called strategies of successful people). Basically, according to the book, many of the winners are just lucky fools :-).

5)      Nice symmetrical probability distributions cannot be expected of any human endeavor (symmetrical distributions may be used to understand controlled situations like gambling – toss of a coin, or rolling of a dice). When we simplify probability distributions and approximate them to neat curves, the results that we get are unreliable.

6)      Though Monte Carlo simulations are looked down upon (“that is cheating, it is not statistics!”) by purists, it is still be the best way to model complex, real situations and understand the potential randomness of the outcomes, and can be used for informed decision making.

7)      Past performance cannot be blindly used to predict future performance. Hence, we should not overestimate the accuracy of our beliefs just because we have been successful in the past, we should reexamine our beliefs based on logic, and always have a backup plan.

One of issues with the book is that it lacks structure and tends to jump from topic to topic. The tone is also snobbish and contemptuous at places, and it may make some people (who are secretly think that their success may be attributable to luck :-)) annoyed or even angry.

The author Nassim Nicholas Taleb is Distinguished Professor of Risk Engineering at New York University’s Polytechnic Institute. He has been a mathematical trader, essayist, philosopher, and researcher. He specializes in understanding uncertainty, luck, probability, knowledge, and decision making. Taleb has been described as a dissident thinker, maverick, irreverent, iconoclastic, and unconventional.

Another book by Taleb in a similar vein is The Black Swan – this is an earlier book, and again very interesting to read. Taleb has also authored AntiFragile, The Bed of Procrustes and Dynamic Hedging.

I recommend this book very highly for anyone involved in high maturity implementation of the CMMI®/ People CMM® models.

For people who are looking for quick-fix templates and control chart macros, this book is not for you (as if high maturity practices can be implemented using quick-fix solutions :-).

Here are some details of the book, in case you want to get your hands on it:

By the way, you DON’T need a Kindle device to read a Kindle ebook.

Fooled By Randomness Book Cover

 

Title: Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets

Author: Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Publishing Date: First Version Around 2001

Publisher: Random House/ Penguin

Available at: Amazon.com, Amazon.in, and Flipkart

Available as eBook in Amazon Kindle.

 

By the way, you DON’T need a Kindle device to read a Kindle ebook.

Please feel free to share your views, experiences or queries, using the “comments” feature available at the top of this article/ post.

Also, please add other insights that you may have got from the book, using the “comments” feature available at the top of this article/ post.

Notes:

Nothing Official About It! – The views presented above are in no manner reflective of the official views of any organization, community, group, institute, or association.

Other book reviews uploaded on the same blog:


I am Rajesh Naik. I am an author, management consultant and trainer, helping IT and other tech companies improve their processes and performance. I also specialize in CMMI® (DEV and SVC), People CMM® and Balanced Scorecard. I am a CMMI Institute certified/ authorized Instructor and Lead Appraiser for CMMI® and People CMM®. I am available on LinkedIn and I will be glad to accept your invite. For more information please click here. To get email alerts for new posts, click here to subscribe.