Drive out waste

For service, give me a rude but efficient New Englander over a friendly but slow Southerner any day. I’ve been made fun of for shutting the dishwasher door with my foot while simultaneously stretching the other way to grab something out of a cupboard, but it just makes sense to me to do things in parallel unless they have to be serial. I fume when behind people who wait until the cashier tells them the total before beginning to fumble for their money. So I ought to be all for one of the defining characteristics of Lean: driving out waste.

And I am, but… it’s a dangerous tool when used as an excuse by the inhumane. For an illustration, go to my favorite passage from my favorite Shakespeare play, King Lear. Lear has given over his power to two of his daughters, Goneril and Regan. He and a hundred rowdy knights are staying with Goneril, who wants him to dismiss half of them. He pitches a fit:

                                              … thou are a boil,
A plague-sore, an embossed carbuncle,
In my corrupted blood. But I’ll not chide thee …
I can be patient; I can stay with Regan,
I and my hundred knights.

But Regan agrees with her sister:

                                        … what, fifty followers?
Is it not well? What should you need of more?

… and then goes a step further:

                                        … I entreat you
To bring but five and twenty: to no more
Will I give place or notice.

Lear is shocked, repudiates her, and decides to stay with Goneril, saying to her:

                                        … I’ll go with thee:
Thy fifty yet doth double five and twenty,
And thou art twice her love.

But Goneril is remorseless:

                                        … Hear me, my lord;
What need you five and twenty, ten, or five,
To follow in a house where twice so many
Have a command to tend you?

And, in what I consider one of the most devastating short lines ever written, Regan adds:

What need one?

Then comes Lear’s great ineffectual cry and descent into madness:

O reason not the need! Our basest beggars
Are in the poorest thing superfluous.
Allow not nature more than nature needs,
Man’s life is as cheap as beast’s. Thou art a lady:
If only to go warm were gorgeous,
Why, nature needs not what thou gorgeous wear’st,
Which scarcely keeps thee warm. […]

                                    … touch me with noble anger,
And let not women’s weapons, water drops,
Stain my man’s cheeks. No, you unnatural hags!
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall–I will do such things–
What they are, yet I know not; but they shall be
The terrors of the earth. You think I’ll weep.
No, I’ll not weep.

Regan and Goneril were driving out waste. Those knights really were a rowdy, drunken gang of good-for-nothings. But waste was just an excuse. R&G really cared about personal power, not waste. And so will many people marching behind the Lean “banner with a strange device: muda!”

Now, as Jonathan Kohl would point out, many people marching behind the Agile banner do the same: they use Agile as another club with which to beat people. I’m less worried about Agile, though, because its base rhetoric is more explicitly humanist. Lean is more likely to be an attractive nuisance because the idea of driving out waste appeals to executives who find it less work to remove waste than to convert it into value—executives who get license to act sociopathic because they have a fiduciary duty to treat business as a machine for maximizing shareholder value, externalities be damned. I worry about Lean in a business culture where we are trained out of empathy for Lear, damned fool though he surely is.

11 Responses to “Drive out waste”

  1. Corey Says:

    as a rude but efficient new englander (masshole to be exact), I agree! :)

  2. Jonathan Kohl Says:

    I agree with you. A Lean club is much more troubling to me than an Agile one. Yet another manufacturing paradigm in software doesn’t make a lot of sense to me when we are designing something.

    Some of the concepts of lean are good, but it’s easy to get carried away and force out creativity and create burnout by being over zealous. I’ve seen teams try to get velocity to be just where management wants it, and burn through good, creative people. I am personally much more careful with velocity measures than I was in the past. Reading DeMarco’s “Slack” alongside the Poppendieck’s “Lean Software Development” might be a good way to find balance.

    Taking old manufacturing and management concepts, (lean, TQM, theory y, z management et al) and trying to directly apply them to software development is going to lead to some growing pains, even if we prefix the “new” ideas with “Agile”. We need to apply some of these concepts with care. Since we are using some old concepts as our new cutting edge, we have the benefit of finding criticism and problems that others experienced that we can use for our own thoughts and application. In the case of Lean, we have:
    - “‘Lean production’ may also be a lean toward injuries”
    - “Lean Manufacturing in the Auto Industry: Kaizening Ourselves to Death”
    - “Alternatives to Lean Production: Work Organization in the Swedish Auto Industry”
    (thanks Jared Quinert for introducing me to this)
    - and many others
    We also have the benefit of seeing how things have played out since some of those publications were written. In the case of the Swedish auto industry, they were rescued by other manufacturers. One was GM, often decried as a classic theory x style of company when I was in school (they were huge innovators in modern management many years ago.)

    There are tons of case studies for manufacturing in lean we can learn from, but of course our manufacturing takes place when the DVDs are burned or the images are downloaded from our web sites. Caution in application is needed, or we may end up using a new Taylorism with a different hammer, under the guise of “employee empowerment” or some other good idea misapplied. Driving out waste might mean driving out creativity, software craftsmanship, innovation and as Brian would say, joy in our work.


  3. Chris McMahon Says:

    But just think of all the other wonderful things we software people have gotten from the manufacturing arena, like ISO9000 and Six Sigma!

  4. Jason Yip Says:

    I actually am more worried about Agile than I am about Lean, especially after attending a Lean Summit. The Lean community seems to have a very strong sense of learning, problem solving, and humility, especially with the more experienced members. Meanwhile, though perhaps not for all, I have a concern that the Agile community has a greater tendency for arrogance and elitism. I talk to Lean manufacturing people about software development and they are interested in understanding. I talk to Agile software development people about manufacturing and they dismiss it as just manufacturing. It’s the whole “(Smart) people over process (for stupid people)” attitude.

    As for the real defining characteristic of Lean, that would be Respect for People and Continuous Improvement.

    Lean is about people, not waste:

  5. Scott Bellware Says:

    I totally agree with you that Humanity is an absolute and non-negotiable necessity, but I think that the Respect that is in Lean’s DNA is a more effective lens with which to focus the desired humane treatment that everyone deserves, and the quality of production that is required.

    If I were one of those executives with an agenda to reinforce with an Agile club, I might read your post an excuse to allow the sub-optimization of a software team and a software effort by encouraging Respect to be thought of by programmer folks as a one-way street.

    I’m one of those programmer folks who thinks that we’ve still got a lot to learn about practicing Lean and that we’ve got a lot of cultural hang-ups getting in the way. I’m not saying that Humanity is a lesser concern, but I have observed that a focus on it that eclipses a focus on holistic, two-way, superseding Respect can be just as great a cause of waste.

    Executives are going to swing whatever club they can lay their hands on as long as software development efforts keep being as failure-prone as they are – even agile software efforts, even ones with executive-friendly on-site customers.

    I think that Lean provides a lot of missing pieces to Scrum/XP teams and we might even find that we can forge better relationships and greater shared meaning with executives if we have at least some common methodological ground.

    Maybe I’m dreaming in Technicolor, and I’m not trying to excuse Taylorian management’s sense of entitlement to remote control, but I’ve seen Agile used to excuse a lot of poor development – even under XP. I believe that an earnest effort toward Lean production and Lean organization could very likely lead to a betterment of agile development.

    I don’t agree with the executive billy bat, but I understand it, and I’ve wanted to use it myself a couple of times to put some cracks into programmers’ own sub-optimizing entitlements that are enabled by opportunistic uses of agile doctrine.

  6. Henrik Mårtensson Says:

    So, you all agree that human values are of paramount importance. Why not prove it? Then it will be possible to build a good argument. (For the record, I agree, but having consensus and having proof are two different things.)

    There are tools that can be used to evaluate the importance of valuing people in software development. For example, you can use The Logical Thinking Process (TLTP), a Theory Of Constraints tool, to show how the values of agile are logically necessary to produce software that brings maximum Return On Investment. (Or you may end up proving something entirely different… To be effective, you need to let go of your own preferences, and just go where the data takes you.)

    In order to prove the logical connections of the TLTP diagrams, you are going to need behavioral analysis tools, such as Action Maps (Argyris), or ABC Analysis (Braksick).

    Once you have a good, logical argument, you have a big obstacle - logic may tell you what to do, but it won’t change people’s behavior. To make the shift in an organization, the Kotter change model comes in handy, possibly supplemented by the IMPACT (Braksick again) behavior change model. My preference is for the Kotter model, heavily augmented by TLTP.

    If you want to change behavior, you need to find the right levers. Most managers who behave badly do so not because they are psychotic, but because, from their point of view, it is the rational thing to do. To change the behavior, you need to change the frame of reference.

    The same principle applies to developers, of course. In those cases where agile was used as an excuse for poor development practices, which behavioral reinforcers were used to promote agile behavior? I bet few, none, or reinforcers that work against the desired behavior. (The last one is very common.)

    In case you are interested, here are my webcasts on organizational change: Please let me know if you find them helpful.

  7. tomm Says:

    A couple points:

    * I don’t like the credit given to management that they are maximizing shareholder value. I think we need to try to shift the language to show the reality: that management has the incentive to increase shareholder value for the short-term. Their compensation model encourages damning long-term viability at the prospect of a quick buck. How is this maximizing value? It seems to me that the only time companies talk long term is when they are promising that that positive trends won’t ever be corrected or when they are proposing a way forward out of bankruptcy. Perhaps there’s a correlative w/ the business attitude towards (agile) software?

    * Multitasking usually isn’t beneficial unless there’s access to multiple processors. Given that we have one brain, I think I’d take a “slow” Southerner with a sophisticated continuation engine over a thrashed multitasking N.E. executive anytime. I want to scream every time I have to have a technical discussion with a P.M. that can’t go move than 5 minutes without looking at their BlackBerry (or a Rails weeinie that can’t go 2 minutes without looking at their iPhone.) That’s probably my Southern bias talking though…

  8. Jason Yip Says:

    See also

  9. Dave Nicolette Says:

    An engaging and well-written piece, but maybe much ado about nothing. Abusus non tollit abusum. Lean won’t cause anyone to become sociopathic. Executives who lack humanity are already that way. I think lean and agile go together nicely.

    I hope you have one of those buttons you can press when you’ve fallen and you can’t get up. Stretching to close the dishwasher door with your foot while reaching for something in a cabinet is a great way to bust your tailbone, when you fall atop the shards of the glass you almost grasped at the limit of the stretch (see Dao De Jing chapter 24). Sounds like you’re using a putative desire for “efficiency” to justify mere “impatience.”

  10. Brian Marick Says:

    Jason: your link shows what worries me. The utility of a practice isn’t just the value gotten by those who do it right; you also have to consider the negative value gotten by those who will misuse it. ‘Course, Dave could be right and they’d misuse something else if they didn’t misuse Lean/Agile/whatever. I’m not sure of that. Sometimes ideas enable people.

    Another way to think of it. In US law, there’s something called an “attractive nuisance”. IANAL, but you can get in trouble if you have an unfenced swimming pool, some child sneaks into it, and drowns. You’re supposed to have enough sense to know that could happen and guard against it. But that doesn’t mean that swimming pools aren’t good things, and I don’t mean that Lean isn’t a good thing. But I worry - not conclude - that it could be an attractive nuisance.

  11. Notional Slurry » links for 2009-10-23 Says:

    […] Exploration Through Example » Blog Archive » Drive out waste "Now, as Jonathan Kohl would point out, many people marching behind the Agile banner do the same: they use Agile as another club with which to beat people. I’m less worried about Agile, though, because its base rhetoric is more explicitly humanist. Lean is more likely to be an attractive nuisance because the idea of driving out waste appeals to executives who find it less work to remove waste than to convert it into value—executives who get license to act sociopathic because they have a fiduciary duty to treat business as a machine for maximizing shareholder value, externalities be damned. I worry about Lean in a business culture where we are trained out of empathy for Lear, damned fool though he surely is." (tags: lean agile business-culture agility Taylorism management social-norms social-engineering worklife) […]

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