This story may be apocryphal, but I’ve heard that it’s possible to trap a monkey by putting a banana in a bottle where the mouth of the bottle is just big enough for an empty monkey hand to fit through, but too small for that hand to fit back through while holding the banana. The monkey has to choose between letting go of the banana and freeing its hand. Some monkeys probably let go, but many hold on long enough to be caught.
So what does this have to do with Lean Thinking and Lean IT? Well, sometimes we have to let go of what seems like (and may actually be) beneficial to us in the short-term in order to reap the benefits produced by taking a less-intuitive course of action that will produce much greater rewards over the long-term. This may seem obvious in theory, but it’s much harder to put into practice, especially when under pressure to meet short-term targets. The naturally tendency is just to keep pushing (or pulling in the case of the monkey) harder, putting more effort into what we are already doing, even though it’s clearly not working.
Harvard professor, Chris Argyris, addresses this issue with a simple, but useful conceptual construct called Double-Loop Learning. In what he calls Single-Loop Learning, we can get caught up taking the same action over and over again even though we are not getting the results we want. We respond by working even harder, but nothing seems to change. It’s possible that the approach we are taking worked in the past, but that the environment has changed. Or it’s just as likely that there was never any causal link between our actions and the results that we experienced.
Double-Loop Learning encourages us to step out of this “trap” and examine our beliefs and assumptions. Are we sure that there is a causal relationship between the action we are taking and the results we are looking to achieve? Are the results we are trying to achieve an end in themselves, or are they a means to achieving more important long-term objectives? Is our current behavior contributing to our long-term objectives, or would be better off taking a different path to achieve those ends?
The classic example of Single-Loop Learning is reducing expenses through layoffs in order to improve a company’s profitability. This strategy is so effective in the short-term that it is simply irresistible to the heads of many organizations. But clearly this strategy is self-limiting (if they intend to stay in business) and, most likely, counter-productive to their long-term objectives of growth and sustainability. Instead, what results is an endless cycle of purge and binge in reaction to macro-economic forces. Taking a different approach is not easy, but it’s better than being a monkey.
It is necessary to develop a strategy that utilizes all the physical conditions and elements that are directly at hand. The best strategy relies upon an unlimited set of responses. – Morihei Ueshiba
I’ve been practicing the Japanese martial art Aikido for many years now and for some time I had wondered about the meaning behind a series of three stone sculptures in my dojo: one representing a square, one a circle, and another a triangle. I looked into the Aikido literature and found that although these figures have a symbolic meaning attached to them within the context of Shintoism, which in turn had an influence on the development of Aikido, it’s not clear how they were to be interpreted in relation to the martial art. Since then, I’ve developed my own theory about it and was surprised how well it fit with the core principles of Lean IT.
Let’s start with the square. In Aikido I believe that this represents the stability achieved by maintaining the proper stance and moving from your body’s center of gravity. In Lean IT, there has to be a constancy of purpose and core values from which all other action proceeds. Without it, it’s too easy for an organization to be “knocked” off course by short-term thinking.
Then there’s the circle. In Aikido, circular movements are very common. There are many reasons for this, but one is that circular motion is inherently fluid and adaptive; there is no fixed beginning or end. In Lean IT, there is the Deming circle, or wheel, which represents the effort to continuously adapt and improve.
And finally, there’s the triangle. My belief is that this represents the ability to focus one’s force and energy. This focus is what gives Aikido moves their power. In Lean IT, the relentless focus on eliminating waste and improving quality is what transforms a good company into a great one.
While this might not be a revelation to you, I hope that it provides a useful context to think about Lean Principles without getting caught up and distracted by a long list of tools and techniques. In the end, Lean, like Aikido, is much more powerful than a set of scripted solutions; it is a process of learning, through experience, to adapt to whatever situation you find yourself in.
You can beat horses; they run faster for a while. – W. Edwards Deming
In the effort to eliminate waste, we might be ready to assume that one of the goals of Lean IT is to eliminate employee “downtime,” thereby maximizing the use of our “human resources.” This sounds to me like a return to good old-fashioned mass-production thinking (though even Frederick Taylor knew that workers could produce more when given frequent breaks). Ethical considerations aside, I believe that this approach is both self-limiting and counter-productive. Even a machine run at full capacity for an extended period of time is more likely to reach a point of diminished output or catastrophic failure. Humans aren’t machines, of course, and when we treat them as if they were, we grossly undervalue their potential and artificially limit ours.
At the heart of the problem may be the way we define waste. Normally, we define waste as any (unnecessary) activity that does not directly provide value to the customer. I suggest that we also consider whether something indirectly adds long-term value to the customer, the employees, or the shareholders. Of course, there is the opposite danger that such a broad definition of value might lead to well-intended justifications for all sorts of unnecessary activities. Nonetheless, I feel that there should be enough “slack” built into the system to accommodate both normal fluctuations in demand and the need for knowledge workers to experiment with new ideas, technologies, and methods.
The exact amount of extra capacity available for these purposes could be adjusted to the demands of the industry you’re in and the technologies you’re using . Obviously, the more dynamic the industry and the technology, the more need there is to continuously learn and adapt. Lean IT is a continuous process of improving capability, not merely reducing costs, and a relentless pursuit of cost savings can lead to the very traps that Lean was created to avoid.
A system is a network of interdependent components that work together to try to accomplish the aim of the system. A system must have an aim. Without the aim, there is no system. – W. Edwards Deming
Some Japanese companies use the term “True North” to refer to their core organizational aspirations. Not to be confused with short-term objectives or goals, these long-term aspirations represent the fundamental reasons why the organization exists. The navigation metaphor might seem contrived, but I believe what’s important here is the sense that there is a fixed destination and that the organization must continuously adjust course to navigate towards it.
It’s all too common for organizations to gradually “drift” off course if their goals are not fixed and clear to everyone. Small, seemingly harmless compromises can, over time, undermine the best original intentions. Ironically, it was Toyota, the poster-child of Lean Manufacturing, that was recently the subject of investigation for having cut corners on quality and safety. In his testimony to the US Congress, the CEO of Toyota, Akio Toyoda, admitted that the company had lost its way:
I fear that the pace at which have grown may have been too quick and the company’s traditional emphasis on quality was lost.
We pursued growth over the speed at which we were able to develop our people and our organization, and we should sincerely be mindful of that.
It’s no coincidence that Deming chose “Constancy of Purpose” as the first of his “14 obligations.” A consistent, clear purpose should guide decisions made at all levels of the company. Of course, it’s possible for the purpose to change, but that should be a conscious strategic decision, not something driven by the latest fad or last quarter’s sales. True commitment to a long-term purpose makes it much easier to align the actions and decisions of everyone in the company. Such alignment, in turn, is what enables a company to outperform its rivals.
These days most companies can claim to have a “Mission Statement,” but very few manage to instill its stated values into the culture and day-to-day decisions of the organization. Employees are quick to learn what management really values by the actions it takes when faced with difficult decisions. Conversely, challenging times can provide management with a great opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to the organization’s stated values.
What is your company’s True North? Have you drifted off course? Are the actions of management congruent with the values it espouses?
Computers are useless. They can only give you answers. -Pablo Picasso
Every now and again there are news reports declaring that “intelligent machines” have finally arrived that will take over much of our lives and replace the need for humans to perform even the most sophisticated tasks. Of course, we’ve seen this scenario played out for decades in science fiction books and movies, but the reality never lives up to the hype. While computing capability (processing power, storage, and bandwidth, etc.) continues to increase at nearly exponential rates (more or less following Moore’s Law), our ability to productively harness it for personal and social good has not kept pace.
That’s not to say that we haven’t done anything with all that capability, but too often we’ve squandered it on entertainment and avarice. There’s nothing inherently good or bad about technology, and how we employ it says more about who we are, and what we value, as individuals and as a society. In thinking about this topic, I was reminded of a prophetic passage from Norbert Wiener, the man who coined the term “cybernetics,” in “The Human Use of Human Beings,” first published in 1950:
Let us remember that the automatic machine…is the precise economic equivalent of slave labor. Any labor which competes with slave labor must accept the economic conditions of slave labor. It is perfectly clear that this will produce an unemployment situation, in comparison with which the present recession and even the depression of the thirties will seem a pleasant joke. This depression will ruin many industries–possibly even the industries which have taken advantage of the new potentialities. However, there is nothing in the industrial tradition which forbids an industrialist to make a sure and quick profit, and to get out before the crash touches him personally.
So what does all this have to do with Lean Thinking and Lean IT? I propose that at its core, Lean IT is fundamentally about how we can leverage the unique capabilities of both human beings–with our ability to imagine and create–and machines–with their ability to process data and perform repetitive tasks–for the good of our organizations and society as a whole. When man and machine work together in this way–the latter augmenting and extending the physical and mental capabilities of the former–towards a meaningful purpose, we are able to accomplish great things.
However, as Wiener predicted, the spread of automation has reduced the value of traditional human labor, and has required each one of us to reconsider how we will contribute our unique talents towards the goals of our organizations and society. I believe that how we think about machines and, in turn, how we treat our fellow human beings, will have an enormous impact on our future as a society. And I believe that Lean IT provides a framework that both leverages the machine and respects the individual. There’s no turning back now; welcome to the machine.
Setting realistic work-in-process (WIP) limits for each operation helps to maintain a steady flow of work.
I’ve never actually seen a python swallow a pig, and I’m not even convinced that it’s possible, but I know that it would not be a pretty sight. Talk about work-in-process!! Nonetheless, this is how a lot of teams that haven’t adopted Lean IT or Agile practices still operate when it comes to moving work through the various stages of a project. The result is that one function is completely overloaded while the others wait and bide their time, knowing that when the “pig” finally reaches them they’ll be on the hook to “digest” it as quickly as possible.
Some companies try to improve the situation by simply adding resources, especially at the beginning of the process. The problem, as they see it, is that they need to be able to swallow an even larger “pig.” I don’t want to gross anyone out, but the obvious answer, at least in the agile/lean world, is to swallow just one bit at a time. In this way, work is constantly flowing through the system at a (more or less) steady rate, and no single function (except, perhaps, the true bottleneck or constraint) is unnecessarily overloaded.
Setting realistic work-in-process (WIP) limits for each operation helps to maintain a steady flow of work. Once those limits have been reached, then additional work is (normally) not allowed to enter into the system. Forcing more work into the system when it is full would be like jamming paper into a fax machine to make it go faster, not a recipe for success. Better results are achieved when we focus our attention on why the work is backing up and how the throughput of the overall system can be improved. Keep work flowing smoothly and your team will never have to swallow a pig whole again.
A goal without a method for achieving it is useless. - Deming
Deming often used a simple game involving red and white beads to demonstrate the effect that the inherent variability of a system could have on the perceived performance of individuals working within the system. Each player would take a paddle with dimples on the surface and dip it into a box of colored beads. When the paddle was removed, there would remain a mix of red and white beads on the surface. These would be tallied up and the “performance” of the player for that round would be determined by the number of red beads. Deming would sometimes praise or chide the player based on his or her performance. And often the players themselves would get caught up in the need to outperform the others. The irony, of course, is that their behavior had no (controllable) causal effect upon the outcome of the game. The variability was in the system itself.
When you manage by objectives or quotas, what is it that you are really managing? Certainly, some folks are more competent than others, and some work harder, but until you’ve designed a system for success, you’re dependent upon either luck or heroic effort to reach your goals. Of course, anything you do might work some of the time, but that’s very different from a process that is both repeatable and predictable. Only in the latter context is it really possible to distinguish individual performance from the variability inherent in the system itself. That’s why Deming suggested that managers replace the practice of Management By Objectives (MBO) with Management By Planning (MBP). It’s simply not enough for a manager to set goals without also defining a plan and a process for how those goals are to be met. Without such a framework in place, setting arbitrary goals is more likely to lead to gaming of the system and other behaviors that do not benefit the organization.
When IT folks are used to being treated as second-class business citizens, it’s much harder to get them to reach out to their colleagues outside of IT.
It seems to be in vogue these days to write Enterprise IT off as simply a business expense to be contained. Sure, it’s still necessary to have technology and some folks to maintain it, but it doesn’t offer any more strategic advantage to the business than air conditioning or plumbing. Unfortunately, this may be true more often than we’d like to admit. It’s not that IT lacks the potential to add enormous value for competitive advantage, but that it hasn’t lived up to that potential for many businesses.
So who’s to blame? Well, I think that IT folks are partly to blame for not reaching out enough to the people they serve. And not just through formal surveys and report cards. I mean really getting out there and spending time with them, over lunch or over a couple beers, and listening to what they have to say. Also, getting out onto the floor where IT services are being “consumed.” And not just the desktop support staff, but everyone, including developers and the CIO.
When this does not happen, and most of the time it doesn’t, then it’s not surprising that IT is perceived at an entity apart from the business, something that’s necessary, but not valuable. In defense of IT folks, this perception is now so entrenched in many corporate cultures that it’s difficult to change. When IT folks are used to being treated as second-class business citizens, it’s much harder to get them to reach out to their colleagues outside of IT. Instead, IT can sometimes feel like its own insular world existing inside, but apart from the rest of the business.
The first step is clarification: everyone in the organization must understand the aim of the system, and how to direct his efforts toward it. -Deming
Probably the most important thing that Kanban brings to an organization is that it makes the work visible, often in the form of post-it notes migrating from lane to lane across a whiteboard. Although there are now plenty of software programs designed for implementing Kanban, I believe that this type of implementation is still the best because the work is represented by something tangible (a post-it) that requires physical interaction (picking it up and moving it) and because it’s easy to experiment with process changes by simply re-drawing lines or modifying WIP limits. In addition, the physical board encourages meaningful face-to-face discussions where issues can sometimes be resolved in minutes instead of hours or days of back an forth emails.
Making the work visible also encourages managers to focus on the work (the baton), not the workers (the runners). It’s important to have competent, motivated employees, but even the best employees can’t be productive if the system within which they are operating is not designed and managed to keep work flowing efficiently. To use the running analogy, you wouldn’t expect the baton to move forward quickly if the runners had all sorts of obstacles to climb over and the course was not clearly laid out. How could you properly judge the performance of a runner under those conditions? Is it any wonder that the runners might feel demoralized under such conditions? First, focus on how the work gets (or does not get) done. Only after the process is clear, stable, and efficient is it really possible to evaluate the performance of the individuals involved.