Agile / Lean or Common Sense and Permission To Change?

As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 3-4 years studying agile methodologies and most recently lean concepts and principles. I have most recently been reading a couple of books by Ricardo Semler, who runs his company in a completely democratic way – doing away with all top down authoritarian management principles and allowing the employees to make decisions on dress, salaries, where they work, when they work, and most importantly, how they work.

I remember when I had first read the book Agile Software Development with SCRUM by Ken Schwaber and Mike Beedle and I had sent an email to my manager with a link to the book and the small sentence fragment “common sense codified”. We began experimenting with Scrum within my group, but it was very difficult to get other groups on the same page. We wound up with a lot of sprints that ended when things left development and entered the “normal corporate process” to finish things up and get them to production. We also had a lot of conversations around whether what we were doing was “standard process”.

As I started reading books on TPS and Lean, the same thing occurred. It struck me how most of the things that are characterized by “lean” are just common sense principles explained in such a way that they sound like a “process” that manager types can “buy into”. But really, they work because they make sense – and people have the permission to standardize and then change their work rather than having things written down and subsequently treating these processes like they are set in stone. You can’t change them unless you go through an agonizing approval process up the management chain.

Over the years, I’ve read and listened to many podcasts talking about the same things going on in other companies. People struggle to be able to change the way they work because they have to get “management buy-in” to take action. So much wasted effort just to try something new.

Interestingly, once the “buy-in” occurs, over and over again people try to “implement Scrum” or “do XP”, mostly by the book, and do not throw out things that do not work for the group. For some reason, we all think we have to be a part of some “methodology” in order to be effective.

One of the most fascinating things about Semlers company is the explicit trust and ability to control ones own destiny that the employees of Semco seem to receive. I ran across a particular section of the book where he was talking about the process improvements that “just started happening” due to this culture change and I found some interesting similarities to lean that I thought would be interesting to highlight. He starts off with:

The factory committee spun off groups that studied the plants products and how the workers made them, looking for ways to save time and make improvements. These teams weren’t created by Semco; they formed spontaneously, as the bracing winds of democracy swept through the food service equipment unit, and often met after hours or during lunch.

Interesting, employees actually wanted to do a better job and self organized because they could.

He goes on, talking about some of the changes:

One group restructured the dishwasher assembly line, changing it from a sequential assembly process to a batch concept in which dishwashers are assembled in twos and threes by teams of workers that do many different tasks and spend the time between batches prefabricating the components they will soon need. They also came up with a system in which all the parts for the dishwashers were stocked in open racks in the middle of the factory. Metal tags, green on one side and red on the other, hung on each rack, and the workers would flip the tags when they saw it was time to reorder, ensuring a steady supply. This was a big improvement on the traditional assembly line, in which dehumanized workers have no role in decisions regarding the production process.

What we see here are people electing to move from an assembly line to, basically, work cells implementing small batches of inventory with workers that are skilled in multiple areas. They even set up a “Kanban” system, though I doubt they knew it, where they had visual cues of when parts needed to be supplied.

Note that not once in these paragraphs does he mention the word “lean”. There was no implementation of “lean”, no “lean” or “continuous improvement” initiatives. This just seemed to make sense to the people doing the work and since they were allowed to do it – and knew enough about the overall process rather than just their small piece of the overall process (i.e. they were multi-skilled), they were able to see the obvious and execute it without all of the red tape – and get great results for the company.

He goes on:

The strength of these groups was their diversity. They included factory workers, engineers, office clerks, sales reps and executives. They didn’t have a formal head; whoever showed the greatest capacity to lead got the job, calling meetings and moderating discussions. In more than one group, a shop-floor worker guided professionals. Instead of a seniority system, or boxes on an organizational chart that guaranteed power, the groups were held together by a natural system of collegial respect.

Again, you hear this a lot in TPS. People are trained from the bottom up in the company and have skills in multiple areas. While there are “leads” that are responsible for a product line, everyone has the ability to lead when they are the most skilled for the job at hand.

The only vague reference to lean that Semler makes in this passage is the following paragraph, where he draws similarities and differences between what Semco did and TPS (though Toyota is not explicitly stated):

There are similarities between this system and the Japanese approach to organizing manufacturing operations, but also important differences. In our groups, younger members didn’t automatically submit to their elders. Moreover, once a team decided an issue, it stayed decided. There was no approval needed to make a change. Then again, there were no special rewards for new ideas. It was a spontaneous process; people participated only if they wanted to.

As I read this it really got me thinking. In most of the process agile / lean related books that I’ve read there seem to be a few common themes:

  • Trust people to do the right thing for the company
  • Give them freedom and authority to work the way they want to
  • Push decisions down the chain as far as possible
  • Work in small batches and change things that aren’t working
  • Allow those who are capable of leading to lead, no matter what their title or position is
  • Put quality checks in place – whether it be test-driven development, or quality checks at each step in an assembly
  • Fix problems at the core and stop the line as quickly as possible – in development this would be TDD and automated builds. Once a problem is found, find the root cause and put a test or quality check in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again
  • and finally, Trust people to do the right thing for the company

One more principle that I would add would be “tolerate mistakes”. Many of the issues that I’ve come across with other groups is that if they make a mistake they feel they will be punished. I’ve had great success with my team in articulating that I know mistakes will be made, but I want them to be made once, a lesson learned, and things put in place (usually automated) to ensure they won’t happen again. I’ve found that if people know it is expected that mistakes will be made, and everything doesn’t have to be perfect, they are more receptive to trying something new.

But I digress.

What Semler’s story shows me is that if people are given the freedom to work the way that is most effective, they will. More than that, if you invest in them with trust, they will want to do these things as their commitment to the company will obviously go up based on how they feel they are treated.

Semler uses a key phrase throughout his books that is repeated over and over. “Treat people like adults”. Semco, Toyota, Amazon and Google seem to do a really good job at this, as I’m sure most high functioning companies do. Read this article called The Google Way: Give Engineers Room and you will see the same concepts outlined in the excerpts on Semco that I have just written about. It seems to be a common theme.

So my real question. Is methodology and process really the answer, or is it deeper than that? Is it the way we treat employees that cause inefficiencies? If it is, if we took this base principal of trust and actually implemented it, would our employees come to the same conclusions as companies like Semco, Toyota and Google?

I think they would, because the principles and processes implemented by these companies are really just common sense without all of the complications of “process” and authoritarian management. They encourage workers to work outside their “box” and learn what they need to learn to be more effective. I would guess these employees feel valued, because they can constantly improve themselves rather than just “be the guy that puts the screw in the hole”. When you are allowed to improve yourself, your commitment rises to those who “allow” you to do so. What you wind up with is a highly efficient company that can change on a dime because people are allowed (and encouraged) to change and improve.

Most interestingly, the processes wind up looking “agile” or “lean”, without all the cruft of trying to follow a cook book.

Am I officially becoming a hippie, or does this line of thinking make sense? Let me know if I should go join a commune.

Organizational Features of a Lean Plant

I’m reading The Machine That Changed the World : The Story of Lean Production by James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos. It is an extremely interesting book.

I ran into this small paragraph yesterday that for some reason stuck in my head as something important:

The truly lean plant has two key organizational features: It transfers the maximum number of tasks and responsibilities to those workers actually adding value to the car on the line, and it has in place a system for detecting defects that quickly traces every problem, once discovered, to its ultimate cause.

I’m telling you, the Poppendeick books are great, but there is nothing like going right to the source for an explanation of lean. I’m about 100 pages into the current book and I am absolutely fascinated at how much of todays current corporate structure (multi-level, many people with very specific task sets or responsibilities) is based on things that Ford and Sloan did with their companies.

In IT, this management style is manifested through all the different groups one hears about all the time from people in the field: Development, Infrastructure, Business Analysts, Quality Assurance. Each its own little silo, with its own responsibilities – and never should one group know how to do, or be privy to, the information in one of the other groups. Handoffs occur between the groups via very large documents.

Sometimes it goes further than that. I was talking to a friend once (who worked at another company, BTW) who told me about how their DBA’s were responsible for uptime and performance of the database and had decided that developers were not allowed to use ORDER BY clauses in their SQL because it effected the performance of the database. These developers were actually forced to sort their results within the application, rather than use the capabilities of the database, adding additional complexity to an already complex application. Worse, management seemed to buy into the decision, as I don’t think I would have been hearing about the situation if it was overruled. Ridiculous.

Another quote from the book, same page:

In old fashioned mass production plants, managers jealously guard information about conditions in the plant, thinking this knowledge is the key to their power.

Again, shocking how much of this mentality you read about in corporations not even connected to automobiles. This sounds like just about every company I’ve talked to people about (or worked at) over the years.

I’ve come to the decision over the years that ultimate transparency is the key to breaking down silos. It only breaks down your silo, but hey – thats a start, and at least you are setting an example.

Its definitely very beneficial, I’m finding, to read about things that are completely outside your profession to give you some distance from what is being taught. The lessons flow in easily this way, because you don’t have the predisposition that you “already know how things work”.

I recommend to anyone in IT to pick this book up. Its absolutely fascinating.

Starbucks Green Apron Book

Photo by rbieber

Did you know that you could just walk into your local Starbucks and request a "Green Apron Book", that outlines the principles of Starbucks? I heard about this little booklet from a recent book I had read about the company and went in to my local Starbucks and asked for a copy. I was a tad surprised when the employees were extremely happy to give one to me. There’s something to be said about a company that is not afraid to share their core principles with their customers. There’s much more to say when they do it so enthusiastically.

I was totally impressed with being able to walk into my local Starbucks and get a copy of their “Green Apron book” after reading The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.

I did find another review of the book and it was really cool to me that the reviewer offered the same observation that I did around the structure of the Starbucks principles:

After reading it that afternoon, what impressed me the most was the absence of rules. In their place were suggestions, goals, and the empowerment to make every customer’s experience a memorable one. It was at that moment that I realized the significance of Starbucks’ philosophy—not only for business, but for life in general.

This really parallels my thoughts on what I had read:

One thing that comes out fairly strong in most of the books I read about Starbucks (and Toyota as of late) is the acknowledgment of senior managements importance in setting the culture, ideals, and principles of the overall business while giving the “people doing the work” the ability to act within the framework of the principles.

Another cool thing I noticed. When you dig down into the detail of the Be Welcoming principle, you find the following:

Get to know your customer by drink or name.

This completely impressed me – because I experienced it. As a matter of fact, it impressed me so much that I wrote about the experience in the post “ Reaching “Norm” Status – The Ultimate in Customer Service” back in March of 2005.

Books: The Starbucks Experience : 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary into Extraordinary

For some reason, if there’s a business book related to Starbucks, I just have to pick it up and usually wind up going through it as quickly as one of my favorite mocha’s.

This week I ran across The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary by Joseph Michelli. This book is the result of an 18 month study of what makes Starbucks work by the author.

Starbucks has been one of those companies that completely fascinates me. From everything written about them, they are run a lot differently than most companies one reads about. Their commitment to their customers, employees, and communities in which they reside is really unparalleled in the business world and I am constantly wondering how they make it work.

This book gives you some insight. In it, Michelli outlines the 5 principles that the Starbucks leadership team instills in its “partners” through tons of training and consistent modeling of behaviors by senior management.

  1. Make It Your Own – Starbucks goes to great lengths to educate their employees on their products. They also allow their employees (or “partners” as their called) to do whatever it takes to ensure a positive experience by the customer of the company. Each employee is encouraged to take action as if the company were his own.
  2. Everything Matters – Starbucks employees are trained to pay attention to the smallest details. Within this principle the author makes a distinction between “above deck” and “below deck” activities. The “below-deck” activities are those which the customer does not see. Great care is taken at Starbucks to pay attention to the “below-deck” activities. Traditional business find it “OK” to cut corners on below-deck activities to cut costs. Starbucks views these activities as just as important as customer facing ones. It is understood at Starbucks that in order to deliver quality, you have to deliver it at all levels of the business. Any compromises can relax “quality awareness” throughout the organization.
  3. Surprise and Delight – Cote actually addressed this principle fairly well in a recent posting where he talks about how companies can “unexpectedly delight him” by doing things he wouldn’t expect but are useful to him, the customer (see the “Making My Life Easier” section). At Starbucks, one of the primary principles the company is built on is cultivating this ability to delight customers and go beyond their expectations. The book gives some really good examples of this type of behavior.
  4. Embrace Resistance – This principle is all about accepting feedback, both positive and negative – and using the negative feedback to feed into the business to find lessons to improve. The company finds all feedback important. A recent example of this is its response to Oxfam America and its efforts to get Starbucks to use its leverage to stand up for the Ethopian Coffee Farmers. Rather than ignore the feedback, Starbucks responded – constructively and calmly, explaining its position on the issue. Accepting and responding to feedback is built into the core principles of the company.
  5. Leave Your Mark – The final Starbucks principle is built around being involved and contributing to the communities in which it resides. Starbucks has a strong commitment to contributing to the community around them. This chapter focuses on the social aspects of the company, including its activities concerning the environment and various social issues.

To me, these seem like some pretty solid principles to build a business on. It almost seems “too ideal to be practically possible”. One thing that comes out fairly strong in most of the books I read about Starbucks (and Toyota as of late) is the acknowledgment of senior managements importance in setting the culture, ideals, and principles of the overall business while giving the “people doing the work” the ability to act within the framework of the principles. It seems that the more I read about these two companies, the more there is in common between them at a high level.

A book that I would be really interested in reading would be a book focused on the IT practices and principles in both companies. It seems to me that it is really easy to push down authority in a company which is distributed across the country, while that same practice in a corporate environment (especially IT, which is traditionally looked at as a “necessary evil” and liability rather than an asset) would be a little harder to foster this type of culture. I would be extremely interested to read an honest, detailed descriptions of how these areas of the company are run within the context of the overarching principles.

But here I go, digressing again. I thought The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary was an excellent book and would recommend it to anyone managing people. It documents an interesting framework for running a business and is full of great examples of each principle to illustrate application of the principle to “real life” in a business.

Lean Principles from the Source

I’ve started reading The Toyota Way: 14 Management Principles From The World’s Greatest Manufacturer by Jeffrey Liker. I’ve figured that as my curiosity peaks on Lean Development and Lean Principles in general, I might as well go to the source.

Chapter One opens with a quote from Fujio Cho, the president of Toyota Motor Corporation from 2002. I read the quote and thought I’d post it up here.

We place the highest value on actual implementation and taking action. There are many things one doesn’t understand and therefore, we ask them why don’t you just go ahead and take action; try to do something? You realize how little you know and you face your own failures and you simply can correct those failures and redo it again and at the second trial you realize another mistake or another thing you didn’t like so you can redo it once again. So by constant improvement, or should I say, the improvement based upon action, one can rise up to the higher level of practice and knowledge.

Toyota is thought of as one of the most process oriented companies around, and yet they still acknowledge that you do not know everything up front and build that into the process. A book that starts out this way has got to be one interesting read!