Management & Quality - The Ax Sharpener Parable



How to become an Axe Sharpener

Abraham Lincoln once said that if he was given four days to chop down a
large tree, he would spend the first three days sharpening the axe. Sadly,
for the great majority of organisations there are few axe sharpening
activities taking place when it comes to developing software. It is usually
the case that managers say "There's a deadline or schedule which must be
met. Quick! Get the rusty old axe out of the garden shed and let's get
chopping straight away".

Most managers think that if you're not coding, your not working, and nothing
is being built. All those 'fancy dan' activities, like doing a proper
Analysis and Design, Estimating, Planning, internal and external Project
Coordination, Testing Plans, Quality Procedures, and especially the keeping
of Metrics use precious resources which could best be employed in code
cutting. These managers are, of course, Woodchoppers. Their projects will
always be over budget and probably over time too. You can tell projects
which are going to go wrong. The Project Managers think of their developers
as code-cutting machines and do not allow their time to be used in any other
way. Every minute is precious. Every minute spent on coordination or
axe-sharpening activities is a minute wasted.

The reason why they think this way is understandable. Most of the pressure
put on Managing Directors is financial pressure as regards software
projects. How much will it cost? Is it cost justifiable? Where is the
project against budget?

This translates at Project Management level to time pressure which they feel
and which they apply to members of the project. There is no mechanism for
applying Quality pressure. It is a strange conundrum, that organisations
that concentrate on money or time get projects which are not finished within
budget or time. Those that concentrate more on quality measures, i.e. those
that spend time on axe sharpening activities, are more likely to deliver a
project on time and to budget.

The organisations which concentrate more on axe sharpening activities are
also more likely to keep their best people. There is nothing worse for
morale, for people, than to be working on a project which they know is going
to be late and over budget, and which because of time and money pressures,
the product they are creating is becoming of poorer and poorer quality.
Imagine going into work every day to work on a project that is, or will be
soon, considered by the organisation to be a failure. How easy would it be
to work overtime on it? Would it not be better for your career for you to go

It is a well known scenario. Because of fewer axe sharpening activities,
like a detailed Analysis and Design and Project Coordination, the project
comes under more and more time pressure. People have to do overtime. More of
the axe sharpening activities are cut. The project is in even greater
crisis. People have to do more and more overtime. Suddenly, the number of
days lost to sickness starts to rise. CVs start to get sent out. The
not-so-good people start to moan and groan about their lot, but they stay at
the company. Some of the better people start to leave. They do not like to
work on a project which 'is a shambles', and they are more confident about
being able to succeed elsewhere. The project is now in deep crisis. The
management decides that, to save time, some of the code testing steps should
be cut out. The day of reckoning is at hand. The project explodes. It now
cannot be hidden from the senior management that the project, instead of
being " a week or two late, but we expect to be able to catch up", is going
to be months late and 50% over budget (this will increase). It is now out of
control. Most of people's intellectual effort is now going on 'why it's not
my fault'. Some projects will be cancelled now. Others may be considered to
have gone too far and have spent too much to stop. Either way, at the very
least, reputations will be ruined for ever.. At worst, heads will roll at
every level. Managers at all levels will try to save themselves by blaming
those who work for them, or their suppliers.

No lesson, however, are learnt. They change the people and not the
processes. They hire a new woodchopper and retain the rusty old axe. The
cycle will begin anew.
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