Discipline * Skill = Craftsmanship

I’m sure you recognize this problem. You are in a hurry, and you skip the routine of checking whether you have all your belongings with you when you leave your house. Half an hour later you’re driving back to the house, snarling and cursing because you forgot your wallet, and now you’re even more in a hurry than you were before.

I believe discipline is one of the two crucial dimensions of craftsmanship. How would you rate a pilot who regularly forgets to check the engines? Or a surgeon who sometimes doesn’t take the time to wash his hands? Or an actor on stage who sometimes doesn’t know his lines? As a consumer, or a patient, would you accept the excuse “Sorry, I was in a hurry?”

The importance of discipline in any craft is evident. Gerald Weinberg wrote about the Boomerang Effect of people not following procedures: some part of quality assurance is skipped, which leads to an increased number of problems in a shipped product, which leads to an increased number of problems reported by customers, which leads to more emergency interruptions, which leads to bigger time pressure on the development team, which leads to more procedures being skipped. We all know from personal experience that, ultimately, skipping discipline makes you go slower, not faster.

In the same vein, Mary and Tom Poppendieck described that a software development team cannot go fast without building quality into their product. Skipping checklists and procedures only seems to make you go faster, at first. But quite soon, the lack of quality in your product will wear you down.

Weinberg described six maturity levels for following processes:

  1. Oblivious: “We don’t even know that we’re performing a process.”
  2. Variable: “We do whatever we feel like at the moment.”
  3. Routine: “We follow our routines (except when we panic).”
  4. Steering: “We choose among our routines by the results they produce.”
  5. Anticipating: “We establish routines based on our past experience with them.”
  6. Congruent: “Everyone is involved in improving everything all the time.”

Weinberg used these six levels to classify organizations, but I prefer to classify only individual people for specific activities. Whatever happens to an organization is an emergent result of the interaction between people, many of them having different levels of discipline for different activities. I am sometimes complimented for my discipline at book writing, which may be at level 5 (anticipating) or even level 6 (congruent). But at the same time, if you hear someone cursing and yelling, it could be me going back for my wallet, an activity that is apparently still at level 1 (oblivious). (Or it could be my spouse. Amazingly, while I was rewriting this paragraph, he returned to retrieve his wallet, after having left the house ten minutes earlier…)

A similar arrangement of six levels was introduced by Ross Pettit of ThoughtWorks, who named his levels Regressive, Neutral, Collaborative, Operating, Adaptive, and Innovating. The meaning of Pettit’s six levels is somewhat different, but, like Weinberg, he seems to be indicating levels of maturity in selecting and applying processes.

The second crucial part of craftsmanship is skill. A skilled software developer can still be undisciplined, while a disciplined developer is not necessarily skilled. Therefore it seems to me that a person’s skill level is another dimension in which we can rank maturity.

There are two similar approaches to indicate the skill level of craftsmen and craftswomen. The guild system, which stems from medieval Europe, lists three ranks for people practicing a particular craft: apprentice, journeyman, and master. This system is practically the same as the Japanese Shuhari variant which describes the three stages of practicing a martial art: Shu, Ha, and Ri. In both systems, people ranked at the first level are learning fundamental techniques; people ranked at the second level focus on exceptions and reflections; while no hard thinking is needed, and everything just comes naturally, for the people at the third level.


(In this figure you can see that I'm a better driver than a writer. I've been driving for 20 years, while I've only been writing for 2 years now. But my daily discipline in writing is better.)

When we draw the two dimensions of discipline and skill we have arrive at a useful diagram for craftsmanship. It nicely depicts that maturity can be measured in two directions. One can lose his skills through old age, physical injury, or technological advancements, and one can lose her discipline through demotivation or distractions. Craftsmanship requires both, and therefore managers need to take care of both dimensions.

(top image by jared)

This article will be part of the book Management 3.0: Leading Agile Developers, Developing Agile Leaders. You can follow its progress here.

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