How reviews can be a success

How often did you run into a structured, well organized and secured review process? Probably your answer can be counted on the fingers of one hand. That’s strange, because reviews are definitely not a new phenomenon. Google for Fagan Inspections (1976) or check the history and books of Tom Gilb. Too bad because when we look around us there are enough development projects in which a healthy review process can add a lot of value to quality, cooperation and cost cutting.

First of all it’s good to focus on the purpose of reviewing activities. Nuances will differ per situation, but overall we see the characteristics of the PointZERO® vision in which early engagement is one of the main achievements to:

  • prevent defects (Right the first time)
  • fix defects in the phase in which they’re introduced (No faults forward)
  • get alignment and make the document suit your needs (Fit for purpose)

It’s  interesting  to get to know the reason why so many initiatives come to a grinding hold, but also to learn about the success factors in my situation. For one of Sogeti’s clients I implemented and facilitated for almost 5 years a review process in which about 960 participants reviewed about 1620 documents. More than 30.300 comments were logged.

To start with the ‘factors of failure’ of which I’ll mention my top-3. Do you recognize the following process?

Ad hoc review activities result in endless rework

The biggest factor is the lack of involvement. Second is the review process not being secured in the organization and third is letting the process to be watered down. The underlying causes are complicated procedures, changing priorities and an incorrect division of tasks and roles.

When I started the implementation of a review process at Sogeti’s client there virtually did not exist anything that looked like a review process. Some authors shared some of their concept documents along with a question for feedback, but it was unclear who responded when, via which medium the feedback reached the author and what happened with the feedback. A very simple process, stripped from all unnecessary steps, was created quickly. The moderator fulfills a central role in it. The moderator facilitates, administrates, inspires, assists, chases, reminds and reports. With this role in place, the challenge of securing the process in the organization is won.

A simplified review process

Now, how to ensure involvement in the review process? After asking around, the biggest profit in this specific situation could be gained in the requirements phase. In that phase we found a hand over moment, a language barrier caused by outsourcing and an important impact analysis which described costs, man power and solutions. Enough importance to improve on! After the identification of stakeholders and a short explanation of the simple review process we’ve started the review process for óne document type for the length of óne month. This was lengthened until today because of the apparent success of this review process.

What did it bring the client?

Advantages for the organization:

  • Discussions moved from form to contents which delivered more value for money.
  • Cooperation and understanding improved and with positive effects on the atmosphere in the work place and a more efficient way of working. The well known wall between departments broke down.
  • Insight in quality and trends using metrics.
  • Savings by preventing rework and fixing.
  • Possibilities to start activities earlier based on early retrieved information. This delivered savings in time.

Advantages for the authors:

  • No administrative burden. Fire and forget of the document towards the moderator. The author can set its mind to other activities or subjects because the moderator will take care of the review process.
  • One clear, timely delivered, sorted and de-duplicated overview of all comments.
  • A minimalistic review form stripped from any overhead information.

Advantages for the reviewers:

  • Announced reviews, no more ad-hoc reviews.
  • Fixed time lines, a recognizable and minimalistic review form and placing comments related to line numbers.
  • Fire and forget of the filled review form towards the moderator.
  • One overview of all review comments, their statuses and a short reaction of the author as feedback on the logged comments. With that, the reviewer also has the chance to accept or reject the rework or discuss the performed rework. This feedback-loop in practice seems to be missing often, while in my view it is one of the most essential steps in the process. The feedback shows that something happens with the efforts the reviewers put into the review process.

People who did not accept the review process at first (‘the moderator just costs money’, ‘I do not have time’ etc.) where accepted by me. I did not fight nor ignore them; if the review process would become a success, they must feel free to join as well. If it turned out to be a failure, these people probably have spent their time on more important activities.

My role as moderator was to be ridiculously precise in my administration and communication (using self-made tooling), to thank people for their efforts, challenge reviewers on their reviews performed and be flexible if possible and strict when needed on deadlines. The process became a success and the enthusiastic participants pulled, without hardly any efforts from my side, the opponents with them in their enthusiasm. Involvement was secured!

Then the last of my success factors: preventing the process to water down. As a moderator, the review process felt like ‘my baby’. I felt responsible for keeping the reviews a success. Apart from the flawless administration and the following reporting, I used my time to challenge and tickle the reviewers. Explaining over and over what the reasons of the reviews were, which results we booked and what role each individual had in that. Seriously picking up seemingly unimportant comments, putting out fires between authors and reviewers but also inflicting fires and triggering sensors of the reviewers when needed.

If you’re interested in the review process, please visit the Structured Reviewing Building Block on Don’t forget to click trough on the wiki! Feel free to contact me if you’re interested in my personal experience or if you want to have me as your sounding board.

Thijs-Jan Gerbrands is a Senior Quality Consultant. He works for Sogeti.

Simple review form
Simple merged review form

Note on these downloadable review forms:
Both forms can be handled manually, but my tooling can automatically merge and sort the individual forms into the single merged form. This same tooling automatically fills the dark blue headers and packages it together with the document into a personalized e-mail towards the reviewers.

And since details matter: the color of the form is blue to keep it neutral. A red form would unintended  and potentially inflict a mind set of ‘defects’ while reviewing is about helping each other to improve with feedback and comments. That’s also why I call it comments instead of defects. It’s not broken yet, so it’s not a defect.