Wednesday, March 21, 2018

What does Lean offer IT?

Lean is inherently agile. But more importantly, the Lean leadership model is desperately needed by IT organizations. Lean is by definition a thinking system that applies to all levels of management and work, and goes beyond simple team-level agility. Software is, of course, fundamentally all about thinking. Most importantly, Lean emphasizes value over ceremony, and cuts the waste out of one-size-fits-all frameworks and scaling mechanisms.

Lean focuses on value over ceremony

The Lean motto is “Perfect value from a perfect process with zero waste”. Lean expects you to constantly think about why you are doing whatever you are doing. With every activity we ask, “what is the value to the customer in this?” With every activity we ask, “is this the best way to do this? The easiest?” With every activity we ask “are we learning something from this?”

Regularly cadenced activities occur because they are useful for the team in their pursuit of value, to improve their work, or to learn.

Lean is based on the scientific method

400 years ago, Francis Bacon wrote Novum Organum and the Scientific Age began. The idea that we could observe nature, collect data, form hypotheses, conduct experiments, examine the results of those experiments, and then repeat based on what we found out, changed the world. Lean builds on that legacy of discovery and improvement.

The first thing a team or organization does when they begin to adopt Lean is create a Visual Management System (VMS). (I always recommend starting with a physical system if at all possible) In other words, observe nature - the system of work as it is. We then conduct experiments (e.g., Plan, Do, Check, Act) to try to improve. Based on the results of those experiments, we modify how we work, conduct additional experiments, etc.

For IT, getting the work “out in the open” is critical to measuring the work process, identifying bottlenecks, revealing waste, determining priorities, instilling a sense of urgency, and eliminating magical thinking.

Andon Cord and Jidoka

Bugs. Defects. The perennial plague of IT and software. Lean inverts the traditional attitude towards mistakes and problems. A Lean Leader wants to hear about problems (Jidoka). We want to “stop the line” (pull the Andon cord) and address the underlying problem whenever anyone has a question or is unsure of anything about the work process or environment.

Jidoka encourages team members to raise any issue, any time, and considers “no problem” to be a serious problem. “No problem” means people aren’t asking questions, or are making too many assumptions, or are simply guessing. 

We would much rather stop now and address the issue – even a false alarm – than deal with a failure in production.

One-Piece Flow, Best Practices, Cross-Functional Teams

The Lean concept of “one-piece flow” is extremely helpful for IT teams, especially early on in team formation. “One-Piece Flow” means the whole team works together on one work item from beginning to end. This provides a number of benefits:
  • ·         Everyone learns the standard way of work, and expected best practices
  • ·         Everyone learns how to work with each other
  • ·         Everyone learns what everyone else contributes to the work
  • ·         Everyone learns something about how to do each other’s’ work (implicit cross-training)
  • ·         Everyone learns pairing and swarming behaviors
  • ·         The team can collectively look for waste and how to improve the work process
  • ·         “Work in Progress” limits are never a concern
  • ·         Any delay is immediately visible (“pain is a signal that a fix is needed”)

Gemba Kaizen and the Only Job Management Has

The team’s Visual Management System is their Gemba, their place of work. Lean teaches management to “go and see”: go to the place of the work, don’t make the team write up “status” or the unholy “Red, Yellow, Green” reports.

An effective VMS shows the entirety of the work, warts and all. The Lean Manager can see where blocks and problems are for the team, and can immediately address them. There are usually issues beyond the team’s control, that only management can solve. 

In addition, there are often “over the horizon” things the manager knows (based on their experience, organizational knowledge, overall strategic intent, etc) that can be brought to bear to help the team.

This attitude is the Lean model of management known as “Gemba Kaizen”: the only job of management is to make it easier for the worker to deliver value.

Most important thing for the team to finish today

Finally, perhaps the most valuable thing Lean offers IT is the ability to establish a Sense of Urgency. For a Lean IT team there is only one question to be addressed at their daily synchronization meeting (“stand up”): What is the most important thing for the team to finish today? The team does not need to discuss status, or whether they had ice cream for breakfast. All that information is seen on the VMS. This mantra focuses on the team dynamic, not individual contribution. And most importantly, finishing. Immediately. Right now.

This is the practice of “walking the board”. Looking at the VMS, what work item is at the finish line (that we can now finish)? What can be moved to the finish line? Etc.

Lean is Harder

Lean is harder than other “agile” methods because management can not wash their hands and tell teams, “Go and be Lean”. The House of Lean is fractal and recursive, applying to management and leadership more than delivery teams themselves. It is not something that “those people” do by following some “off the shelf” or “one size fits all” framework. But the very reason it is hard – that everyone must think – is what drives its benefits.

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