Forget about Kanban

October 19, 2010

Let’s forget about Kanban. Just for a little while. Kanban is a great tool but once again we’ve (myself included) gotten carried away and started peddling a tool instead of focusing on the problems it is supposed to address. Five minutes after hearing about this great new process [sic], customers start asking for software tools to support it. The Kanban board is up on the wall with cool magnets and custom name tags before any process has been mapped. Consultants as well as customers are eager to sell and buy, afraid to miss the Kanban-train. This is a recipe for disaster.

So can we please forget about Kanban for a while and talk about the problems we want to solve instead?

Let’s talk about what we pay for our inventories in the form of work items residing in queues.
Let’s talk about what we pay for the delayed feedback due to work items not moving through our process.
Let’s talk about how our quality suffers from work items sitting in queues.
Maybe we could talk about how job satisfaction goes down due to developers not being allowed/able to move their jobs to a DONE-state.
We could even talk about team members suffering from stress because work is being pushed to them.
We could also discuss how the organization suffers from the increased costs and risks stemming from the extra overhead and long cycle times that are the results of working with large batches.
We could talk about how the old processes have gone into rigor mortis due to a lack of double loop learning.

There are so many interesting things we could talk about if we could just forget about Kanban for a little while. After we’ve taken a look at all those problems, I promise you that we can start talking about Kanban again. There’s even a slight possibility that Kanban could help us solve some of our problems. But for now, let’s just forget about Kanban.

“He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I read this quote on Twitter a couple of days ago and my spontaneous reaction was that Ralph must be right. We need to learn how to live with our fears and we also need that extra spice in our lives that facing a fear means. Then I began to consider my own life and how I live up to this standard. Do I face any of my fears on a daily basis? The answer felt lika a big NO. I wake up every morning and take my kids to kindergarten, go to work, sit at the office … Not a lot of dragon slaying there is it?

But then I began to think about what my fears really are. What is it that really really really scares me? What phenomenon puts a big lump of un-comfortableness in my stomach when it enters my mind?

The answer I came up with was that it must be the well-being of my kids. The worst thing that could ever happen to me would be if my children were hurt in any way or if their well-being was threatened. Having kids means that I have to face this fear every single day, but since we live a very protected life in a Swedish middle class suburb I don’t see too many immediate threats to their safety and my fear-facing-activities mostly become a “be careful walking down those stairs” or a “don’t jump in the bathtub”.

I presume though that this fear of mine is a common attribute to all parents wherever they live. We all want our children to have the best possible life. However, so many parents don’t have the possibility to provide their kids with even the basic necessities of life. There are millions and millions of parents not able to provide their children with a safe environment, with shelter, with food and with clean drinking water. These parents have to conquer my biggest fear every day in a very real way. Does this mean that they’ve learned the secret of life according to Emerson? I don’t think so. This is not adding that extra spice to their lives. This is not the adrenalin rush you get from climbing a ladder or petting a snake. This is just being scared in the worst possible way, every day. Being scared for the well-being of your kids.

There are so many issues that need to be addressed in order to get to a world where these people can be bothered with those luxury fears that I have to face. Not having a roof over your head probably means there are no stairs to fall down. Not having water to drink most certainly means there’s no bathtub for the kids to jump in. These people will probably have to keep facing their worst fears for a long time to come but since this day is dedicated to water, I thought I’d at least try to help some parent face one less fear by giving something to WaterAid.

Conquering our own fears is a good thing but I don’t think it is the secret of life. Helping someone else from having to face their worst fears on a daily basis might not be the answer either but I do think it’s closer to the truth. So if you have the possibility, I’d like to ask you to help someone else with their fears as well. And since we have the theme of water today, why not make it water related. Please share with a comment if you come up with a cool way to do this. If you have a blog you can always sign up for Blog Action Day.

Are you familiar with any unwanted side effects in your organization? Are your people working too much overtime because work is being pushed to them? Are incentive systems being played by the employees to maximize their personal gains? Are your customers usually unhappy because they aren’t allowed to change their minds about what they want? Are people notoriously late for meetings in your department? Are you always finding out that tasks won’t be completed on time at the last minute?

Did you ever wonder why any of this is happening?

The people working for you are acting within a system that you are supposed to nurse. That system, if it is a stable one, is what will affect your results more than anything else. The system (that you should assume responsibility for), is delivering outputs, good as well as bad. And guess what, you can consider all of the above problems to be the main goals of your work system. This is what you’ve designed your system to do.

I think that John Sterman put it quite eloquently:
“There are no side effects — only effects. Those we thought of in advance, the ones we like, we call the main, or intended, effects, and take credit for them. The ones we didn’t anticipate, the ones that came around and bit us in the rear — those are the “side effects”. When we point to outside shocks and side effects to excuse the failure of our policies, we think we are describing a capricious and unpredictable reality. In fact, we are highlighting the limitations of our mental models.”

It really doesn’t matter what your intentions were when designing the work system. Your good intentions are history and there is a road to hell that is paved with them. You need to consider the unwanted effects of your system as primary goals of it if you’re going to address them properly.

This is also known as the POSIWID principle, a term coined by Stafford Beer – The Purpose Of a System Is What It Does. It might sound fatalistic but is quite the opposite. Yes, the output of a stable system is approaching deterministic and can’t be changed, but – the system itself can be redesigned to deliver very different results. As a manager, it is your job to do this design and redesign when needed.

The most important part of a manager’s job is to design purposeful work systems.

Do you have a part about designing work systems in your job description? Is that a part of your formal training? Did you even know that’s what you are doing, or are supposed to be doing?

Learn to Value Waste

October 4, 2010

I recently saw a quote by John Seddon: “There are only two kinds of activities in a work flow: value work and waste.”.  This got me thinking once again about how we define waste. Since I haven’t read Mr Seddons book “Freedom from Command & Control” (yet) and this quote was taken out of context, I won’t argue against his intention and meaning with this quote but I will begin my own argument based on these words.

It sounds good; you either produce value or you produce waste. That’s how we’ve been defining our lean and agile work for years now. But, it is too much of an oversimplification. Learning and improvement efforts are an essential part of our daily activities that we cannot label as waste, at the same time as our customer won’t necessarily label them as value work. Learning and improvement efforts are by their very nature investments in the future and our current clients might not freely pay for our future prosperity.

Let us start with the learning part. In development work, mistakes are our biggest source of potential learning. Variability that’s traditionally considered to be waste is necessary in order to facilitate learning. Development is to a large extent about doing things for the first time and there are no shortcuts to avoid every possible mistake without introducing other forms of waste.

Improvement efforts are also parts of the empirical learning process. There are usually no guarantees that our efforts will actually become improvements. They’re undertakings striving in a positive direction but they do by no means provide any insurance of success. Should we label an unsuccessful attempt at improvement as waste. My answer is No! In the words of Thomas A Edison; “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work, I haven’t failed.”.

The agile movement has traditionally given the customer the entire responsibility of defining value work. Donald Reinertsen argues against this view in his book “Flow – Second Generation Lean Product Development“, saying that:
“This view is both economically incorrect and dangerous. In reality, value-added is a well-established economic concept. The value added by an activity is the difference in the price that an economically rational buyer would pay for a work product before, and after, the activity is performed.”

I agree with Mr Reinertsen, but I still think that this view of value work is too narrow. If we are members of a learning organization that is constantly working with continous improvements, we must also allow for activities that facilitate this learning as an investment in the future. The knowledge that we can display today is the fruit of activities done earlier and the customer reaping the benefits of these previous investments will have to pay for them by reinvesting in our future knowledge.

I would now like to paraphrase Mr Seddon:
“There are three kinds of activities in a work flow: value work, waste and learning.”

When we fail to learn – then we have definitely created waste, but allowing for waste creation in the traditional sense is often the only and/or cheapest way to facilitate learning in development work. What we do need, is to find an economically feasible balance between producing value work in the traditional sense in order to satisfy todays customer, and the learning necessary to sustain our ability to deliver value work in the future.

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