Lean Process’ strength is being Honest and Humble

Lean process and methodology is important to me because I think it is central to the work that we are doing in the community.  Even more, it’s changing how my team at Dell creates and delivers products for customers?
This post may be long, but my answer to “why Lean” ends up being very simple: Lean process is honest and humble.
I believe Lean process is more honest because it assumes a lack of knowledge.  It’s more “truthy” to admit there are a lot of things that we don’t know (we can’t know!) until we’ve started doing the work.  It’s very hard to admit we don’t have answers for things until we are further along because we want to feel like  experts and we to lock deliveries.
The “building software is like building a house” analogy is often used to claim that Lean lacks the design “blue prints” that other processes have.  The argument goes that builders needed to understand how the entire house works with structural support, plumbing lines and electrical circuits and things like that.  However, if I was going to build a house I would still leave a lot of things to the last-minute.  The process of building a house evolves so that the basic outlines of structural elements are known. In a lot of cases the position of rooms, the outlets, air conditioning ducts, a lot of the functional components, even windows and doors while they are often placed in the design can easily be moved and changed as you go through.  You can do a walk-through of a house after it’s been framed out and make all sorts of changes and adjustments.  As things go forward in the design of the house things become more and more difficult to change. You are building a brick façade, moving the windows within the façade are very difficult. However, interior places they aren’t.  Likewise, I don’t want to order my life-gem counter-tops from the blue-prints – it’s much safer to order off actual measurements.
Software projects are also building projects. You build a façade, you build a structure and within that structure you have a lot of flexibility. As you go you make more decisions and your choices become more limited. But, that is the nature of building.  For that reason, saying “we don’t know everything we want” is not just good practice, it is much more honest.
But honesty is not enough for a strong Lean process.  The need for humility in Lean architects and business people really stands out.  The Lean process is humble because it starts with the assumption that we don’t really understand the value, drivers, interests and features that make our product special.
We need very strong ideas and a vision; however, we need to be motivated by making something that is significant to other people.  They are the ones who give it value.
We have to give up the idea that we can convince someone who our idea will be significant to them – we have to show and collaborate instead.  The most important thing in building any project and taking any product to market is listening to the people who are using your product and understanding what their needs.  Instead of telling them what they need;  show them something interesting, interact with them and get their opinion.
Contrast that to waterfall methodology where the assumption is that we can put smart people in a room, have them figure out what the requirements are, build a team, get everything ready to go and then start executing.  That assumption is highly optimized and seems very efficient, but it has a huge amount of hubris in the process.  The idea that we can sit down two years in advance of market need and identify what those features and capabilities are seems outrageous to me in the current technology market.  It is so much harder to try to get that information correct and then execute on it that get a directional statement and begin and then get feedback and interact, it is a world of difference between the two processes.
Ultimately, Lean process about having requirements that are less defined or well-known.  It’s driven by giving respect to the people consuming the product.  We can hear their ideas and their reactions.  Where the users’ input can be evaluated and taken in to account.  It’s about collaboration.
Humility it not just about listening and collecting feedback: it is about interacting and building relationships.
So just as our customers are building a relationship with our product, they are also building a relationship with the people creating that product. And that relationship is what drives the product forward and what makes it a great product and it is what gives you a strong and loyal customer base, rather than dictating, “This is what you wanted. Here it is. I hope you enjoy it.”
This is a completely different and powerful way of delivering product.  I believe that honesty and humility in a Lean process inherently creates stronger products and ones that are both faster delivered and better suited to their markets.

How Good beats Great and avoids Process Interlock failure

Note: This is part 2 of a 3 part series about the “process interlock dilemma.”

This post addresses how to solve the Process Interlock dilemma I identified in part 1. It is critical to understand the failure of Process Interlock comes because the interlocks turn assumptions into facts. We must accept that any forward looking schedule is a guess. If your guesses are accurate then your schedule should be accurate. That type of insight and $5 will get you a Venti Carmel Frappuccino.

The problem of predicting the future and promising to deliver on that schedule results in one of two poor outcomes.

  1. The better poor outcome is that you are accurate and committed to a schedule.

    To keep on the schedule, you must focus on the committed deliverables. While this sounds ideal, there an opportunity cost to staying focused. Opportunity cost means that while your team is busy delivering on schedule, it is not doing work to pursue other opportunities. In a perfect world, your team picked the most profitable option before it committed the schedule. If you don’t live in a perfect world then it’s likely that while you are working on deliver you’ve learned about another opportunity. You may make your schedule but miss a more lucrative opportunity.

  2. The worse poor outcome is that you are not accurate and committed to a schedule.

    In that case, you miss both the opportunity you thought you had and the ones that you could not pursue while staying dedicated to your planning assumptions.

Let’s go back to our G.Mordler example and look at some better outcomes:

The “we’re going to try outcome.”

The Trans Ma’am team, Alpha, Omega and the supplier all get together and realize that the current design is not shippable; however, they realize that each team’s roadmaps converge within target time. To reduce interlocks, Omega takes Alpha in the low power form and begins integration. During integration, Omega identifies that Alpha can produce sufficient power for short periods of time travel but causes the exhaust vent of the power module to melt. Alpha determines that a change to the cooling system will address the problem. In consulting with their supplier, Alpha asks them to stop design on the new supply and adjust the current design as needed. The resulting time drive does not meet GM’s initial design for 4 hour time jumps, but is sufficient for lead footed mommies to retroactively avoid speeding tickets. GM decides it can still market the limited design.

The “we’re not ready outcome.

The Trans Ma’am team, Alpha and Omega all get together and realize that the current design is not shippable in their current state. While they cannot commit each realizes that there is a different market for their products: Alpha pursues dog poop power generation for high rises condo towers (aka brown energy) and Omega finds military applications for time travel nuclear submarines. In the experience gained from delivering products to these markets, Alpha improves power delivery by 20% and Omega improves efficiency by 20%. These modest mutual improvements allow Alpha to meet Omega’s requirement. While the combined product is too late for the target date, GM is able to incorporate the design into next design cycle.

While neither outcome delivers the desired feature at the original schedule, both provide better ROI for the company. One of the most common problems with process interlock is that we lost sight of ROI in our desire to meet an impractical objective.

Process interlock is a classic case of point optimization driving down system-wide performance.

If you’re interested in this effect, I recommend reading Eli Goldratt’s The Goal.

In the part, I’ve discussed some ways to escape from Process Interlock. I’ll talk about four alternative approaches in part 3 (to be published 3/16).

The Process Interlock Dilemma – where Roadmaps get lost and why Waterfalls suck

Note: This is part 1 of a 3 part series. I have been working on this series for nearly six months in an attempt to make this subtle but extremely expensive problem understandable. Rather than continue to polish the posts, I will post series for your enjoyment. I hope that it is enlightening, humorous or (ideally) both. Comments are welcome!

I’ve been struggling to explain a subtle process fail that occurs every day at my company (Dell) and also at every company I’ve ever worked with or for. I call this demon “Process Interlock” and it is the invisible bane of projects big and small. It manifests by forcing well-meaning product managers and engineering directors to make trade-offs that they know are wrong because of schedule commitments. It means that product quality consistently drops to the bottom of the list in favor of getting in that one promised feature. It shows up when customers get products late because of prospect who decided not to buy demanded a feature a year ago. These are the symptoms of the process interlock dilemma.

Process Interlock occurs when another team depends on your team for a future feature.

That sounds pretty innocuous right? It makes sense that other teams, customers and partners should be able to ask you about your roadmap and then build your delivery schedule into their plans. That is the perfectly logical request that happens inside my group every single day. Unfortunately, that exact commitment is what creates the problem because it locks your team’s velocity into the future and eliminates agility.

Note: I was reading chapter 11 in Eric Ries’ Lean Startup as was surprised to find him making very similar arguments but from a different perspective.

To hopefully help explain, I’m inventing a hypothetical project from the car division of the G.Mordler company. GM plans to add time travel as an option for their 2016 product line. They believe that there is a big market in minivan’s that can solve the proverbial “are we there yet problem” by simply skipping over the boring part of the trip. The trans-dimensional mommy mobile (or Trans Ma’am) will be part of a refresh of their 2014 model. The addition of a time circuit and power generator developed two internal divisions, Alpha and Omega, support a critical marketing event for the company so timing is important.

Let’s examine four outcomes of how these two divisions turn their assumed schedules into rigidly locked conundrum.

Scenario 0: Ideal Case.

Alpha makes the fusion power supply and Omega is making the time circuits. Based on experimental data, Omega’s design calls for 3.14 Gigawatts to operate their time capacitor; however, Alpha’s available design is limited to 0.73 Gigawatts. Alpha expects to reach 3.5 Gigawatts in 9 months when their supplier releases an updated nitrogen cooled super conductor. Based on that commitment, Omega has enough information to make an informed decision about their timeline. Since Alpha commits to deliver in 12 months (9 for the new part + 3 for development), Omega expects to deliver a working time circuit in 20 months (12 for the supply + 8 for development). In this example, there are 3 levels of Process Interlock: Alpha interlocks with the supplier and then Omega interlocks with Alpha. From a PERT schedule perspective, the world is now under control! It’s a brand new day and the birds are singing…

Scenario 1: Meet Schedule w/ Added Cost

Unfortunately, we now have a highly interlocked schedule. In the best case scenario (the one where we meet the schedule), Alpha has just signed up to meet an aggressive delivery timeframe. They have to put heavy pressure on the supplier to deliver their part which causes the supplier to increase the price for the cooler component. When their product manager identifies available alternative markets (such as power generating pet waste incineration), they are not able to purse the opportunities because they cannot risk the schedule impact of redirecting engineers. Meanwhile, Omega understands that a critical part is missing for 12 months and decides to reduce staffing while waiting for the needed part. In the process, they lose a key engineer who could have optimized the manufacturing process to half the production defect rate. Overall, the project meets schedule but at added cost, reduced quality and missed opportunities. This happened because the interlocks eliminated flexibility in the schedule for upstream and downstream participants. GM meets the launch window for the Trans Ma’am but high costs for the upgrade limit sales.

Scenario 2: Meet Schedule w/ Lost Features

A more likely “on schedule” alternative is that Alpha’s supplier cuts some corners to meet the aggressive deadline; consequently, power generation for Alpha is not reliable. This issue is not revealed by load testing in Alpha’s labs or short time travel testing by Omega. Instead, the faulty generators fail in integration field testing accidentally sending a DOT test driver home during rush hour traffic. Fixing the problem requires a redesign of the power plant. The new design does not fit into space allowed by the Trans Ma’am design team causing the entire program, while delivered “on time,” to be considered a failure and not shipped. GM misses the launch window for the Trans Ma’am.

Scenario 3:
Miss Schedule

In the most likely scenario the project is late. The schedule for Alpha slips because supplier requires an extra three months to meet the Alpha’s specs. In a common turn of fate, the supplier’s specs would be sufficient for Alpha to proceed; however, Alpha’s risk manager bumped up the cooling requirements by 20% in order to ensure they had wiggle room in their own design. Because of the supplier contract requiring delivery per spec, the supplier could not ship a workable but contractually unacceptable product. Since the part is delayed, Alpha has to slip the schedule to Omega. Compounding the problem, Alpha’s manager is optimistic that it will work out and does not alert Omega until 2 weeks before the deadline. Omega, who has been testing their circuits using liquid sodium cooled nuclear fission power plants, attempts to make up the schedule delay by imposing 20 hour Mountain Dew fueled work days. The aggressive schedule results in quality issues for the time circuits so that they can only be used during Mountain-time rebroadcasts of Seinfeld. After an unsuccessful bid to purchase the Denver cable TV station KDEV, GM misses the launch window for the Trans Ma’am.

I realize these examples are complicated, but I hope they humorously illuminate the problem.

In part 2, I’ll show an alternate approach for GM that addresses the process interlock.

Post Script

Of course, for this example, the entire project plan is a moot point since we’re talking about time machines! I’m offering two likely endings for the scenarios above:

The Pragmatists’ Ending: Once the project is finally complete, the manager simply drives the car back to the beginning of the project. Over white Russian martinis and sushi, her future self explains how the painful delivery schedule cost her the best years of her life causing her to quit. Her replacement cannot maintain funding for the project so it is eventually scraped by G.Mordler six months before the working pieces can be assembled.

The Realists’ Ending: Once the project is finally complete, the manager simply drives the car back to the beginning of the project. Over lemonade vodka tonics and tapas, her future self provides a USB stick with the critical design data needed to complete the project on time and budget. When she examines the data, the resulting time paradox creates a rift in the Einstein-Jacob space-time fabric thus ending the universe.

Process (not a dirty word!) means knowing how you make decisions

“Process” is the least* understood business word.  I hear it talked about as something that must be added or introduced into various organizations so that they are more controlled.  Most typically, we tend to think of process as a synonym for “going to more meetings.”  So I want to set the record straight.

Process means knowing how your organization makes decisions.

There is nothing more to it than that.  If you know who will make a decision (the product manager), when they will make it (during the planning meeting), and what input they use to make the decision (a product roadmap) then you have a well defined process.  Ideally, you’d also know when you are able to influence the input (quarterly roadmap review or sprint retrospective).

Unfortunately, everyone wants to be able to make decisions all the time.  Making decisions all the time really means that you never make any decisions!  If there’s no agreed time, place, or person to make and communicate the decisions, it is impossible for anyone to know what’s the company is supposed to accomplish.

The default solution is to have meetings, meetings, and more meetings.  These meetings have lots of status updates, impassioned discussions, clever powerpoint slides and the appearance of consensus; however, they universally lack any commitment to execute work.  In the end, individuals doing work follow their own priorities or spin in the prevailing management wind.

So the next time someone suggests that your organization needs to work on a process, start by figuring out how you are going to make decisions.  After that, the rest of the process is just decoration.

* MRD ranks as a close second, but confusion is reduced since it’s as synonym and homophone for the French “merde.”

Screening Recruits for Agile Savvy

We’re hiring new managers and developers into my team and its important (to me) that we find people who will embrace our Agile processes.

Sadly, many people experience with the fluffy Agile decorations and not its core disciplines; consequently, interviewees will answer “yes, I’ve done Agile” and not really (IMHO) know what they are saying.

So I wanted to craft some questions that will help identify good Agile candidates even if they have no experience (or negative experience) with the process.

  • Explain a time that you did not agree with a design decision that was being made. [Good candidates will tell you that they had a healthy debate about it, made sure they were heard, and then supported the team decision.  Excellent candidates will give you a specific case where they were wrong and the outcome was better their suggestion.]
  • How have you handled the trade-off between shipping quality software and getting a release done on time? [Good candidates will be pragmatic about the need to release but own quality as their responsibility.  Excellent candidates will talk about implementing TDD and automation so that quality can be maintained throughout a release cycle.]
  • How have you made changes to your work habits based on retrospectives? [Good candidates will tell you about items where they had to acknowledge other people’s suggestions and change their behavior.  Excellent candidates will be excited about having ownership in their team’s continuous improvement and can give examples.]
  • Why are sprint reviews important? [Good candidates will say that it’s important for a team to show progress to other groups.  Excellent candidates will tell you that it’s how a team shows that it is meeting its commitments and getting feedback to improve the product.]
  • Is it possible to achieve the objective to be “ship ready” at the end of each sprint? [Good candidates will say that ship ready is a great target but only practical in the last sprints before a release.  Excellent candidates will explain that being ship ready is a core driver for the process that ensures the team is focused on priorities, quality, and breaking work into components.]
  • Tell me about the best performing team that you’ve been part of. What made it a great team? [Good candidates will tell you about having quality people or a very tight focus.  Excellent candidates will tell you have the shared goals of the team and how people gave up individual recognition to accomplish team objectives.]
  • What does it mean to for a team to be transparent? [Good candidates will talk about status reports and documentation.  Excellent candidates will talk about being willing to take risks and fail fast.]

If they can’t pass theses questions then go buy a lifeboat.  You’ll want it for that that waterfall you’re going to be riding down shortly.

Don’t confuse the decorations for the process!

Or “Icing is pretty, but you need a cake too!”

Good Agile Process books will explain in chapter 1 that the stand-ups, iterations, demos, retrospectives, long planning meetings, et cetera are all “decorations” for the process.  This is an important concept that gets completely lost when they spend the next 43 chapters talking about how the decorations are used to support the process.

The decorations are not the process!

Having stand-ups does not make you agile.  Doing work in sprints does not make you agile.  Using story- cards does not make you agile.  Doing retrospectives where people share honest feedback does not make you agile (but could help you become agile if you actually take the feedback).

Agile is a business discipline.

Agile teams have the discipline to focus on delivering a product that generates revenue.  Management supporting agile teams has the discipline to reward team work.  Product owners have the discipline to provide crisp actionable priorities.  Everyone has the discipline to be transparent and willing to adapt as the environment evolves. 

These disciplines are hard to build and maintain, but they are fundamentally valuable.  They are honest and practical.  They are revolutionary.

Now, if you embrace the agile disciplines then the decorations will reinforce your efforts like mocha fudge icing on a double-dutch chocolate groom’s cake.

Unfortunately, if you lack the discipline then the decorations become a whip used to micromanage teams into a long frustrating death march.  Sadly, I’m finding that this experience is the more common one in the industry. 

Bon appetite!

Won to End (1..N) Ranking

Or I can buy a new toothbrush in Newark

Our team had a breakthrough moment last week, we changed our MRD* into a prioritized (1 to N, no ties) list and immediately identified some artificial work grouping that would have jeopardized the whole release.  Within 5 minutes, we’d done more to rescue our release than the 4 weeks prior.

Working on a traditional MRD is packing to go on a vacation.  You’ve made great plans, you’ve read all the brochures, and you can visualize yourself on the sparkling white sand surrounded beach chair relaxing next to your partner under gently swaying palms. 

Paradise sounds great, but the cold fact of today is that you’re late for your flight and you have to pack everything into a single suit case. 

Remember the McCallister household in Home Alone?   They were so busy packing and rushing out that they left behind sweet defenseless Macaulay Culkin.  Treating an MRD like a suitcase makes you so focused on the little details and the deadlines that you and your team will likely miss the big picture.  And once you’ve started your team may not react to market changes because they’ve already packed their mental bags:  “honey, we can’t have dinner with the President tonight because you promised that we’d play tennis.”

Another frustration I have with MRDs is that they are classically adversarial.  “Why did you pack that?  If you’re bringing that yoga matt then I’ll need a polo helmet!”  The fault is not in the people, the very nature of the document creates antagonism because the document is considered a monolithic whole.

It does not have to be like this.

Creating product direction should be more like planning a road trip than preparing for a transoceanic flight.  We know where we want to go, the essential things we need and who’s in the car: that’s enough to get started.  We’ll discuss the roadmaps as we go so we can explore the interesting sites (“geysers, cool!”) and toss out the bone headed detritus (“infrared beachcombing metal detector?”) along the way.

It takes trust and discipline to free fall into this type of planning.

When my team ranked our traditional MRD items into a 1 to N list, the conversation immediately became more focused, birds began to sing, and we each lost 5 pounds.  Several things happened when we changed the list. 

First, we looked at the deliverable as a system, not just a collection of features.   “Yeah, mayo is not much good without the bread, keep those together”

Then we started talking about what the customer needed (not what we had to deliver).  “Rob, we know you like sweet hot banana peppers but those are really optional compared to slicing the bread.”

Finally, we found it much easier to compare items against each other (“yeah, the ham feature is more important than tofu move that higher” instead of “we can’t ship this product without both ham and tofu!”)

Once we had the list ranked, it was obvious to everyone which features were required for the release.   Our discussion focused on the top priorities and engineering was able to focus on the most import items first.