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Do's and Don'ts of Software Process Improvement
#25: Don't Think You Need to Improve to be Maturity Level 4

by Pat O'Toole

Imagine that your 14-year-old son brings home a progress report indicating that he's well on his way to earning a D+ in math a mere four weeks into the new semester. In the past, his math grades have always been in the B- to B+ range, so you're obviously concerned and want to take steps to understand and rectify this situation.

You arrange a meeting with his math teacher and she informs you that the projected grade is based on your son's daily homework assignments, Friday morning quizzes, and first chapter test. Oddly enough, your son has only shown you one quiz - on which he'd received a B. Furthermore, he never seems to have any math homework leaving him ample time to play Halo 4, the new X-Box video game that he purchased about a month ago.

So, being a dutiful parent, you implement a couple of new rules to help your son get back on track.

  1. You insist on reviewing his nightly homework and weekly quizzes; and
  2. You restrict his video game playing to the weekends - after all his homework is all done (and reviewed)!

You speak to his teacher again and request that she correct each week's quiz over lunch on Friday so that he can bring it home with him the same day. This gives you the weekend to work with your son to address any special problems that he may be having. Your primary objective is simply to get your son back into the B range that both of you know he is capable of achieving.

After a few short weeks of close monitoring and parental coaching, your son has caught up to the rest of his math class and is performing at the expected level. In recognition of his accomplishment, you allow him to play Halo for an hour after school provided he keeps his grades up. Now if you could only get him to practice his trombone…

The preceding allegory is meant to illustrate maturity level 4 (ML4) behavior. At ML4, process stability has been achieved and historical data can be used to predict future performance. Deviation from historical patterns typically indicates a "special cause" that needs to be addressed to get the process back on track (i.e., "under control"). Note that ML4 is the only level in the model that isn't about improving anything; it's about consistently performing processes such that previously-achieved results are predictably repeated.

The story is also intended to depict ML4 organizations as "data hounds." As a general rule, ML2 organizations receive refreshed data about once a month; ML3 organizations do so about once a week. In contrast, ML4 organizations are capturing and consuming event-level data as it occurs. Just as Alan Greenspan uses housing starts, employment rates, and capital equipment purchases to predict the future direction of the economy, ML4 organizations use relevant "leading indicator data" to predict quality and process performance outcomes. Because they tend to monitor this process data even more closely than they do the project schedule, ML4 organizations have well-founded confidence that they will achieve the expected results, or have reliable early warning indicators telling them that things are going awry, motivating aggressive analysis and effective corrective action.

Note that in the story above, you were demonstrating ML4 behavior as you were simply trying to get your son back to his historically proven level of proficiency. At ML5, you would strive to assist him in achieving his full potential by taking additional measures - getting him a math tutor, sending him to math camp, etc. In addition, you might also buy Halo 5, which has mathematically-based challenges that, when solved, lead to the acquisition of more protective gear and firepower. (You've probably heard the rumor that Halo 6 incorporates a sound-receptor that provides even greater rewards when it detects the trombone being played, but that may just be wishful thinking!)

About the Author
Pat O'Toole is a Principal Consultant at Process Assessment, Consulting & Training (PACT). Pat is one of the most active SEI authorized CBA IPI and SCAMPI lead appraisers, and has led appraisals spanning all maturity levels, including one of the largest and most complex maturity level 5 appraisals ever conducted. He is a candidate lead assessor for the People-CMM, and is an SEI Transition Partner for the "Intro to CMMI" course, having taught the course more than 30 times. Pat is a Visiting Scientist at the SEI, and as such has taught the "Intermediate Concepts" course, the "CMMI Instructor" course, and has observed a number of "Intro to CMMI" candidate instructors. Pat also served as a member of the SEI's 12-person Expert Group for CMMI Interpretive Guidance project. With over 25 years of software development, project management, and consulting experience, Pat works with all levels of management, (S)EPGs, and Process Action Teams in establishing, evaluating, and sustaining their process improvement initiatives. He is a popular instructor who supplements standard training material with a vast array of case studies and humorous examples. For more information contact Pat at

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