The importance of pulling the cord

Anna Fletcher Morris
By Anna Fletcher Morris under Agile 24 August 2016

It may seem counterintuitive, but sometimes the fastest route to completing a project is to stop.

In tackling a complex challenge, like building high quality software, there will inevitably be difficulties to overcome. Ignoring difficulties in one area of a project, sometimes under the guise of ‘deprioritising’ them, in order to carry on work in another might seem like a good idea - after all, it allows the team to keep ploughing forward. In reality, though, that decision is highly likely to cost you in terms time and resource - maybe not right away, but it will.

In contrast, taking a step back and pausing to understand the root cause of a problem might be the last thing you want to do - especially with a deadline looming. However, in order to tackle a problem effectively, and prevent the same thing from happening in the future, a brief pause to re-evaluate can save you invaluable time and money overall.

Pulling the cord

As one of our TAB principles, ‘Pull the Cord’ is a familiar phrase inside TAB HQ. In short, it means that calling out a problem as soon as you see it is an individual responsibility and the mark of a good teammate. If we don’t do it, there is no guarantee someone else will. Ultimately, it is far better to stop temporarily and figure out how to fix the problem, rather than letting it go unspoken as it potentially snowballs into a much larger issue.

The notion of pulling a mysterious cord is inspired by Toyota’s lean manufacturing, which focuses on reducing waste. In their factories, a physical cord (known as an andon cord) runs above the assembly line. Any worker - no matter what - can pull it to bring the line to a halt if they spot something going wrong.

For Toyota, it is imperative to stop production when a defect arises as this stops the defect continuing down the assembly line and amassing wasted time and materials.

The same rings true at TAB. If a defect arises, it’s imperative that we catch it as early as possible. However, our ‘defect’ might be anything from a bug in an app, to a security concern - even a cadence that just isn’t working for a team. This practice doesn’t just minimise waste, it also ensures a better outcome or output by preventing us simply building over and on top of problems.

In fact, we can - and do - take the principle of pull the cord and transpose it to almost any environment. Everyone can relate to those moments where an issue was ignored for far too long, and took more time and effort to solve the longer it was left to fester.

So why don’t people pull the cord?

If pulling the cord is so important when it comes to minimising waste, why is it that so often issues slip under the radar?

One element is that people associate ‘the messenger’ with being shot. Self-preservation kicks in, and we hide an issue or deny its existence to avoid any risk to ourselves. Often, people will hope that a problem will simply resolve itself to absolve them from having to be the messenger at all. Unfortunately, problems rarely vanish on their own.

Concern about being blamed isn’t without some justification. In many working environments, there is still a culture that makes people afraid to speak up for fear that they will be punished for the problem. For this reason, the act of surfacing issues can feel detrimental to us as individuals - despite actually being a positive step in the long-term.

Fostering a culture that actively encourages pulling the cord

Changing a team or company’s culture requires continuous, conscious effort, and constant reinforcement of the importance and value of pulling the cord. The aim is to establish the habit as the new norm within teams.

It is important to note that this culture cannot be learned through osmosis. In order to really establish this practice, it is imperative to have buy-in from everyone. While there are no quick fixes or checklists to follow, here are some key factors that can help enable this change.

Solve problems, don’t blame people - teams cannot function effectively if finger pointing is the go-to reaction when things go wrong. If there are negative repercussions whenever an issue is raised, people will stop raising issues - but that doesn’t mean the issues stop.

Prove that you trust your team - ensuring a team is comfortable enough to pull the cord when necessary requires trusting them to get the job done. If you give them a goal and encourage them own their work, they will be more comfortable about speaking out when something isn’t going well.

Practice empathy - rigid hierarchies can hinder an individual's ability to empathise with others in their team, especially with more senior team members. This can lead to the more junior or inexperienced team members shying away from pulling the cord. The team will be stronger as a whole if leaders empower and encourage others to speak up.

Invest in team time - it’s far easier to be honest with someone you know well than it is with someone you barely know. For this reason, the importance of the team getting to know each other, away from the working environment, cannot be overstated.

Stay humble - pulling the cord can sometimes mean admitting you are wrong, and to some, this can feel like a personal failure. When people are prideful, they are generally more averse to pulling the cord. Ultimately, people will lose a little time if they raise a potential problem only for someone else to explain how it is not actually a problem at all - in the process, they also gain valuable knowledge. On the flip-side, a team will lose a lot of time, and morale, if they have to rush to rescue a problem late in development. It is therefore crucial that the success of the team is held in higher regard than the success of the individual - it’s one of the reasons why at TAB, we encourage everyone to serve the team first and check egos at the door.

Make it safe to fail - no-one enjoys failure, but problems are valuable opportunities to learn. Inspecting and adapting a challenging situation means that we can learn from our mistakes, and ensure they don’t happen again. Retrospectives encourage everyone to pin-point the negative (and the positive) aspects of the team in a safe environment, free of blame. Establishing this transparency means pulling the cord can become second nature to the team.

Remember that change requires time

Changing learned habits or going against instincts doesn’t happen overnight. As a result, coaching a team to feel comfortable enough to pull the cord will take time, but it will be worth it.

This will require an upfront investment in the team’s time, and a continuous commitment to embedding greater transparency, autonomy and accountability. As you begin that process, it may feel like output and productivity is going down when you don’t see those bums on seats, or faces in front of computer screens. However, taking the time to invest in fostering the right team culture not only saves time in the long run, but it also means your teams will create better products.

While we practice this day-in, day-out at TAB to reinforce our own culture, we also work to embed it within our clients. This ranges from a team-by-team basis to full scale, enterprise-wide transformation. Get in contact with us here if you would like to learn more.