Thursday, 13 October 2011

Lean and Kanban 2011 BE - A narrative

The day before the Lean & Kanban 2011 Benelux conference started I was still undecided as to whether I should head for Antwerp that evening as planned or take an early train the next morning (my Sunday was proving to be busier than I had envisaged). I eventually plumbed for the riskier option of the early train (departure 6 am), which was possible because my colleague had gone to Antwerp as planned and secured the room in our hotel. I had unwittingly set a marker for myself; early rises and mental gymnastics would define my week. I had also exercised real options.

I arrived in Antwerp as scheduled. Having had just enough time to catch up with my colleague, register and marvel at the industrial aesthetics of the revamped hangar where the conference was taking place, I settled in for the first keynote: “Rethinking Deming” by Don Reinertsen. Given the context, it seemed that someone was spoiling for a fight. Those of us who enjoy (intellectual) confrontation, especially when peppered with rhetorical flourish, were not disappointed. Not knowing Deming (or statistics) as well as I might I took the whole thing at face value; food for thought. I did however enjoy his trashing of the red bead game (“an entertaining con”) and identified with some of his reservations about the deeper (“terrifying”) implications of some elements of systems thinking (the well-designed system aims to totally emasculate the individual). Reinertsen also introduced the idea of random drift – an accumulation of (random) events affects events in the future (by changing the system through incremental feedback) – I'm sure if this idea was developed, chaos, tipping points and complexity theory generally would quickly come into play.

For the rest of the morning I followed a case study. Three different speakers (or speaker pairs) took us through their experiences with specific transitions which they had guided or were busy guiding. This session delivered plenty of practical know-how and it was followed by a lively discussion. Although I had hoped to pick up some pointers on dealing with that most difficult element of change processes – the sceptic - we didn't get much farther than a version of “build it and they will come”. Which is fine, but it introduces a chicken-an-egg problem; how to demonstrate without investing?

After lunch on day one I followed the Real Options and BDD/Testing track. The notion of Real Options appeals to me, as do its cousins set based design (which Michael Kennedy talked on on day 2) and BDD. Here again however I was left wondering how to convince the sceptical that set based design/real options was worth a try as an economically sound way to realise value (when not given the opportunity to actually demonstrate).

As if in tune with my concerns generally on aids to persuasion, Mark Robinson brought the afternoon to a close with a refreshingly old-style presentation in which he used an ingeniously simple spreadsheet to demonstrate the effects of various WIP limits on throughput. Limiting WIP is anathema to many managers as they think it will reduce their efficiency, which it might, but I feel its efficacy we should be after and not total(ly illusory) efficiency.

Dave Snowden delivered the afternoon keynote. The gist of his talk (and I do his erudition, learning and sense of humour no justice by summarising it thus) was that context should be instrumental in determining appropriate action and that only well understood theory could help us decide what to do when faced with varying contexts in practice. Snowden continued in the combative spirit displayed by Reinertsen in the morning keynote by energetically stepping on some absolutist toes, claiming for instance that systems thinking was Talyorism by another name. His message was that kanban is not Truth and neither is Lean, nor is it Scrum, or anything else for that matter; context determines truth. Whereby Snowden of course cleverly laid claim to the Truth (There is no Truth, only truths). I was enjoying myself thoroughly!

On day 2 Alan Shalloway's opening keynote was also informed by the tension between the individual and the system. For the sake of argument he had chosen to state that it was “all about the people” but the point that he was actually making was that it is all about the interplay of individuals and the system which they inhabit/cause to emerge. Complex systems and their constituents co-evolve. Matter is both particle and wave. Man is both nature and nurture. It's all about the feedback.

After lunch I attended Bob Marshall & Grant Rule's double session on understanding effectiveness and the possibilities that Rightshifting delivers for managing same. This was all so completely new to me that I won't trouble you with half formulated thoughts on it. Suffice it to say that I am busy studying the Marshall model and hungrily consuming anything I can find on chaordic organisations.

And then there was Jim Benson, what a delight this guy was! He's allergic to powerpoint and delivered his utterly engaging and frequently funny talk strolling back and forth between two flip-charts; one was his kanban and the other was his whiteboard so to speak. As he spoke and wrote and drew, he moved sticky notes appropriately on his planning chart thereby breezily guiding his impressive delivery while keeping his process & progress transparent to all. It was a virtuoso performance in the application of kanban. The subject matter was substantively different to that which had come before too; we were talking the psychology of kanban.

I liked Benson's idea of existential overload. As I mentioned, my week was to be one of short nights and heavy cerebral exercise - my 2 days at LKBE were followed up by three days of CSD training with Ron Jeffries and Chet Hendrickson. At one point during that training Ron, in explaining one of the positive side effects of test driven development, told a story of how TDD had effected his wife's (!) life for the better. Ron, as he was sure many of the programmers in the room were too, was smart enough to keep many things in his head at the one time, and be dealing with many issues simultaneously, and investigating a few options in different areas from various perspectives all at the same time while also wondering how he might approach that other problem but that if his wife came to ask him what he wanted to eat for dinner that evening at that precise moment, that he would suddenly yell at her at the top of his voice that he was damn well THINKING, HOW COULD he know what he wanted to have for dinner?!?!?!? TDD allowed Ron to deal with things; start something, develop it, finish it. And so on. It helped him keep a clean, clear mind, with plenty of room for dealing with unexpected pleasantries like an invitation to dinner from his loving spouse.

On the other hand, I was troubled somewhat by another phenomenon that Benson mentioned; the Zeigarnik-effect. According to studies conducted by Bluma Zeigarnik we retain memories of unfinished work better than we retain memories of that which we have brought to completion. That strikes me in a way as a slightly depressing finding. If completion is equivalent to success and that which is unfinished represents failure, and we remember failure at the expense of success, then we're doomed to be pretty miserable animals aren't we? But if that's what the science says... Luckily there is somereason to doubt the veracity of Zeigarnik's findings but that doesn't take away from the general guideline; getting stuff done feels good.

Most interestingly, in the light of the undercurrent of (largely good natured?) tribal nettle throughout the conference, Benson spoke about methodologies as liberation theologies: Our life sucks because we're oppressed by some methodology-or-other. But, then some-NEW-methodology-or-other comes along and liberates us, we feel good because we are free and we decide some-methodology-or-other is okay. But as time goes on, we get all caught up in the rules, aren't going anywhere and are feeling all oppressed again. He called it the cycle of Liberation, Redemption & Addiction, which he laid on top of the story arc; Birth, Life & Resolution, which he laid on top of the kanban lanes; Ready, In-Progress & Done. It was all getting very universal.

John Seddon - “It's the system stupid!” - delivered the conference's closing keynote. He came to wipe the floor with everybody who had gone before and did that with an abrasive elan. Reinertsen had upset him, Snowden was full of it, other systems thinkers hated him. He really didn't care because he knew nothing about software development except this one thing; if you did as he said you should, you would do it better! What he said was, "Study, study, study!"

Surely safe-to-fail probes, set-based design and real options, OODA loops, PDCA cycles, and/or study, study, study are all variations on the theme of “inspect & adapt”. In order to inspect meaningfully and adapt successfully, systems must be extended incrementally via short iterations - it's all about the feedback stupid!

There will always be a better way to do things.


  1. Thanks for the mention, Ciarán!

  2. Brilliant
    You inspired me to come the next time !
    I have delighted by proxy.

  3. What a kind thing to say Paulus, thank you!