Assembly Line vs. Release Pipeline

The manufacturing world has gone through many revolutions to reduce the ‘lead time’ and Release pipeline is an attempt to do the same in Software world.

I should not make things complex for those of you who are not much familiar with intricacies of manufacturing world. So, let me make your life simple.

‘Lead time’ is the time from when you asked something and when you get it. Let’s take example of restaurant which is Services world but all of us have gone though that experience. You give order to the waiter who is serving your table and the lead time begins. The waiter serves the order and the lead time ends here. Usually either you’d ask, or the waiter would give you an estimated lead time depending upon what you ordered. This time includes waiter conveying it to the Kitchen, Chef picking up pieces which are prepared or not, assembling the order, doing the presentation, waiter collecting it and reaching your table. You must have also experienced that some restaurants maintain same lead time regardless of how many customers they are serving vs. there are some who cannot manage it.

Reducing lead time is one of the main functions of management.

Okay, now back to manufacturing world from where this term originated. It is the time when you place an order and you get it delivered. This typically happens in a supply chain system and you, as a Customer usually don’t experience it. But imagine that you visited a furniture shop, looked at different sets at display, selected one and ordered it. The lead time begins, and it ends when your furniture is delivered to your home after manufacturing/assembly.

The manufacturing world has managed to reduce the lead time by doing lot of inventions and ‘Assembly line’ is one of them. An assembly line starts with nothing and pieces keep joining it until a finished product is reached. You might have seen fancy documentaries on how car manufacturing plants work and I happen to visit air conditioning assembly lines myself to see how this works. Here is one such video on youtube. If you see more machines than humans, beware the same will happen in software world.

Sorry for a long background but I hope I didn’t lose you and you are still reading.

Now same thing is happening in software world. Your customer reports a bug or requests a new feature and the ‘lead time’ begins. The time when fixed bug or enhancement reaches the production, the ‘lead time’ ends.

Remember, reducing lead time is one of the main functions of management.

One of the things have been to introduce a Release pipeline which consists of changing the code, building the code, test execution, deployment to production in stages, testing in production. The main thing in keeping the assembly line moving is to have different pieces ready, the steps to integrate that piece into whole project reproducible, and automated/skilled labor to do it and move it to the next step. In an assembly line, if a particular station is functioning slow, it becomes a bottleneck. Similar effort is required here to first set up the Release pipeline and then remove any manual steps to automation if they are slowing down it.

The picture is from this article.

For example, Microsoft Visual Studio Team Services (VSTS) defines a Release pipeline where artifacts are produced from different ‘Build’ definitions and then a ‘Release’ definition takes them to production. If you like, you can call them pieces being assembled together to build a product. Similarly Jenkins has a ‘Pipeline’ concepts where you can chain together any number of ‘Jobs’ in any combination to achieve the same. There are so many tools selling the same concept.

As you can imagine that manufacturing world has gained lot of benefits by introducing assembly lines and software world is thinking to do the same with release pipelines. Reducing lead time is obviously the biggest gain. So, any step that stops the automated delivery in this pipeline would raise alarms and that has been a prime reason to do more and more automated testing. Such that when one step is complete, self-tests can assure that this integration was complete and without bugs. This looks easy but is hard to implement. I plan to write in some future posts that why this is so tough and some tips on achieving this as we are going through this transformation.

Are you aware if your team has a release pipeline? Do you know what are it’s steps and who manages it? Do you think your team should move towards it?


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