Sunday, September 25, 2011

My Key Takeaways from the TedxToronto 2011

Anybody uses the Internet probably knows what Ted is, and has probably watched at least a single Ted video that has inspired them.

Your Failures, and Your Vulnerabilities Are Critical to Your Success
Perhaps one of the most important themes that I took away from the conference was that your failures are more important than your achievements. Learning never happens if one is always successful, real learning comes from failing, and for that learning to happen failure needs to be discussed with others, and problems need to be brought out into the open and given the same press and publicity that success does.
success & failure
While this point was alluded to several times in various video and live presentations during the day, Dr. Brian Goldman’s heart rending talk on his own personal failures during his long career as an emergency room physician really took it home.
Goldman started his talk describing how the expectations of the medical system were completely out of whack with reality. A batting average of 1000 was how he described expected success rates. This translates to a 0% failure rate. Dr. Goldman patiently described how he measured up against these expectations, taking us through a number of his "failures" during the beginning of his career. In several of these occasions patients had either died, or nearly died as a result.
danger of expectations
In his experiences with the medical system, each failure was dealt with by sweeping it under the rug and keeping things as quiet as possible. Failure was something that was not officially accepted, and in his experiences not openly discussed. Brian described the dehumanizing effect of combining completely unrealistic and arbitrary targets of success with a culture of zero tolerance for failure. The result was isolation, shame and feelings of unworthiness after each mistake. Each failure resulted in Dr. Goldman questioning his right to even be in his chosen profession, and even his self-worth.
More importantly, Dr. Goldman pointed out the catastrophic effect of this attitude towards mistakes on the medical profession itself. An institution that does not discuss failure cannot learn from those failures, professionals within the institution are at risk of repeating each others’ mistakes, and the cycle of unrealistic expectations marred against human reality continues. Organizational learning takes a long time in these kinds of environments, it’s truly difficult to meet the change necessary to improve, an unfortunate state of affairs for profession as important as this one.
broken Lego
Dr. Goldman alluded to a critical piece of feedback missing in his profession. Learning to accept failure means learning how to minimize the cost of that failure, as well as learning how to minimize repetition of the same failures. What was especially intriguing about Dr. Goldman’s presentation was his admission that his biggest failures happened at the end of his career, not at the beginning, and that according to him this is common with medical professionals. (although most would go to great lengths to deny this)
At the end of his session, Goldman talked about his work in reaching out to other medical professionals to give them a venue to discuss their experiences and discuss their challenges out in the open. Dr. Goldman received a standing ovation from the audience, and I believe his candor, openness, and willingness to be vulnerable in front of such a large audience made him one of the favorites of many the session.
On a side note we were also presented with a powerful video by Byrene Brown on the power of vulnerability. IMHO pointing to a similar meme.
The Network Is the Organizing Metaphor for This Century
In the 1900s the hierarchy was king. Economies of scale were established by gathering groups of individuals under managers who would set direction, enforce rules, and ensured everyone marched to the same drum. Managers were grouped together under senior managers, senior managers reported to executives, and executives reported to the big boss or big bosses. People gave and followed orders.
command and control
Certainly the need for hierarchical organizing structures have not gone away, and they probably never will entirely. However, there is another important truth, a new metaphor for thinking of how we really organize to create value in today’s information age, and metaphor that has become especially predominant during the last several decades. This new metaphor is the is the network, and specifically, the Internet.
Community activism, network-based learning, algorithms to find information, social media, service-based delivery, are all based on the concept of the Internet.. The concept that self organizing units who are primarily defined by their interactions with each other is what I’m talking about. Community activism, micro search, nanotechnology, social media, you name it, these are all examples being presented to me at TedxToronto. The ability to map together units to create value using a loosely defined network provides a combination of both flexibility and structural integrity that supports today’s massively changing world.
My favorite example was Nicholas Schiefer, a grade 12 student at holy Trinity school, who is already much smarter than I am. Nicolas came up with an ingenious way to conduct effective searches for really small pieces of text, think micro-blogging or Facebook statuses.
Nicholas’s approach was to map a network of likely associations between words, the stronger two words were associated the closer they would be on the network, he would then traverse the network using a random walk algorithm, which would result in stronger word associations getting higher counts than lower associations.
I love Nicolas’s redefinition of word:
an atomic unit of meaning, with associated semantic baggage.
I think that definition could and should be extended to a whole slew of things, organizational departments, people, job descriptions, etc.
Nicholas’s view of the world is insightful, he’s able to perceive that things aren’t what they are because of their attributes, they are what they are because of their interactions with the things that surround them. This is key to the network view of the world, it’s one of the fundamental principles to consider when thinking about today’s work environment.
Technology Combined with Social Concerns Enhances Our Humanity
humanizing technology
During the day there were several prerecorded Ted sessions that the audience viewed. A really intriguing one was about Khan Academy, where conventional thinking around education was turned upside down. Classroom sessions consisted of students watching videos on their own time, and homework was done in class using computerized lessons, but supplemented by teachers who are always on hand to provide answers to questions, and on the spot learning sessions for difficult topics. In this case technology was used to maximize valued teacher to student interactions.
Another prerecorded video showed how Deb Roy recorded his family’s interaction with his newborn son, mapping how he was able to acquire new words, associating it with patterns of both parent and child movements along with their interactions with each other (he called them time worms) as well as how words evolved over time. What was really interesting was that the child’s progress in terms of learning new words to progress at a more or less linear rate until just before the child was about to completely be able to say the word, at which point he would regress back to a very early versions of the word. At this point the child dramatically started to speak the (mostly) proper pronunciation. Again the notion that success comes just before the point of largest failure seems to apply, interesting if this pattern applies to other learning systems, I seem to recognize this pattern in my profession as a coach for knowledge workers.

The Status Quo Simply Isn’t Acceptable Any More
There are so many examples of this theme throughout the day that it would be possible to reference most of them. Some of the more obvious ones are:
  • Made Wade and Truth Is great performance on redefinition
  • Adame Garone’s story of mashing up two very important concerns, helping prostate cancer research, and getting mustaches back in style
  • Brandpn Day’s determination to found the Black Daddies Club (Brandon let me tell you, you are an inspiration to a new father)
  • Ted Sargent’s passionate quest for affordable solar heating
  • Bilaal Rajan’s refusal to say no, and redefine child activism
  • David Miller’s passionate plea for citizens not taxpayers, (although I found his message was diluted by old-school right versus left rhetoric)
Toronto Has the Energy for Constructive Change
the work I do and the people I serve make it necessary for me to work in fairly conservative/traditional environments. It was refreshing both listen to sessions, to listen to and interact with (there were several during several "conversation breaks" as well as at the after party with other like-minded individuals) to a variety of diverse individuals, where innovation, courage and desire to do things differently were things we all had in common.
TedxToronto was an opportunity to reconnect with principles that are important to the work that I do, and it was a welcome chance to talk to other motivated individuals who are passionate about changing the world around them.
And of course what’s probably most interesting about this post is not my comments, but what I left out, if anybody who attended the conference reads this, I’d love to hear what we are the key points that you took away?

Monday, September 12, 2011

Kanban adoption-Lessons learned

A client of mine asked for a list of lessons learned while applying kanban, so rather than writing it up and send it off in the mail, I thought it would post it here for everyone to enjoy.

I should add that all these lessons were actually learned, and that we made every one of these mistakes at some point and had to learn the hard way not to do it again :-).

Introducing Kanban at the same time as other major structural changes.
While Kanban is positioned as a change management and change catalyst framework, effectively using Kanban does require a (sometimes extreme) shift in thinking. Our experience has been that Kanban should be adopted on top of a working system already familiar to staff and management.

The introduction of a Kanban toolset could be coupled with other big changes, for instance, institutionalizing brand-new capability. The risk however, is that these "big changes" foster resistance often found with change management initiatives. This can cause staff and management to resist the Kanban is it becomes directly associated with these changes.

Detailed, upfront analysis of process components
There is a tendency for many organizations to engage in detailed design activities to get an understanding of demand, work types, and supporting processes & policies. There is a desire to start with a nearly perfect Kanban system.

Our experience again shows that there is a fairly steep slope in terms of the law of diminishing return when it comes to upfront analysis. Kanban systems can be effectively set up with a minimum amount of upfront work, and progressively refined over the first 1-2 months of adoption. As these systems are easy to refine, it is better to get started sooner with imperfect information.

Ensure that Kanban systems reflect work as it actually is completed by management & staff
There is a desire to try to "fix" processes while modeling them to prepare for a Kanban implementation. This should be avoided; we want to avoid the possibility of "shadow" processes, where the official approach deviates from what is actually going on in the organization. We also want to avoid designing a future state solution unless performance can be measured against the current state, this requires that can then be set up to reflect the current state.

Avoid enforcing changing work conditions in a desire to create the optimal Kanban system
Associating changes to the work environment (such as co-location where did not exist) to support a Kanban system can foster resistance to the approach, and is counter to the Kanban method. As much as it is practically possible, existing conditions of work should be respected. Rather than trying to change the environments of work to support a Kanban pilot, is recommended to select a pilot where more favorable work conditions already exist.

Start out with Low inventory levels and raise them if you need to
The amount of inventory that a particular system is allowed to consume is inversely correlated with the amount of change you want to introduce to that system of work. Starting with a large inventory level is a natural choice for those who want to follow a conservative approach to change.

That being said or experience suggests that Kanban systems with high amounts of inventory tend to completely obscure early identification of bottlenecks, blocking issues and other problems. Larger inventory systems are also hard to maintain and manage, causing workers to abandon the Kanban approach completely.

An approach that we have found to be more successful is to start with a lower WIP level, such as 1-1.5 unit of inventory per knowledge worker. This causes bottlenecks to form extremely quickly, making it clear where opportunities for improvements exist. Instead of immediately tackling these bottlenecks, which can be challenging for lower maturity organizations, make it clear that the team can raise inventory levels as necessary to avoid immediately tackling these bottlenecks as they form. This will allow the team to take note of every time they have to raise inventory level, this is a potential opportunity to improve when the team has the capacity to do so. This strategy allows more conservative teams to get better visibility into the nature of existing improvement opportunities without having to tackle these issues early on in the Kanban adoption process.

Expand scope of Kanban boards to reflect all work being completed by staff for a specific capability
A typical use case for Kanban adoption is to use Kanban to support the work of one project. Very early on, it is discovered that a significant portion of the work being assigned to various project members are actually not part of the project being represented by the Kanban system. Work is often blocked simply because an individual is doing non-project related work.
Our experience shows that project focused Kanban's have limited usefulness unless the projects are supported by dedicated workers. In most cases we have found that Kanban boards should be used to represent the work of multiple projects and scoped by specific business objectives and/or technical capabilities. One of the main benefits of the Kanban system is to support the allocation of specific workers across numerous priorities in real time, and to dynamically manage risk and value of delivery.

Keep metrics extremely simple until the board stabilizes
A major benefit of the Kanban system is the incredible wealth of data that can be shared across management and staff. There are major pitfalls in starting with the complete gamut of metrics from the start.

Most Kanban systems will undergo major revisions in the first 1-2 months. Supporting a Kanban system with detailed process specific metrics (e.g. cycle time of requirements, throughput of design, etc.) will mean that every time this Kanban system changes the supporting metrics framework will need to changed as well. This causes a lot of rework. Furthermore, as the Kanban system changes the units of measurement need to change as well, new work ticket types are created, and others are modified or removed.

Kanban systems need to be incredibly responsive to change during their first couple of months of use, and performance needs to be stabilized before metrics have any meaningful value. The exception to this would be capturing overall lead time and throughput, as these metrics are largely tolerant of change of the internal system workings.

Supplement operational reviews with retrospectives
Operational reviews provide a wealth of insight on how to improve delivery capability. That being said, they can take time to set up properly. Systems of work need to be stable, and maturity needs to exist to take the time to review system performance, analyze it, and aggregated into one or more meaningful reports.

In the interim, teams needed explicit opportunity to reflect on their own performance, as well as their journey to better productivity using a Kanban approach. We strongly believe that supplementing larger, organizationally oriented operational reviews with more frequent, team oriented retrospectives is critical towards helping teams get into a culture of thoughtfully improving the way they work. We recommend retrospectives be conducted monthly or biweekly, using whatever metrics are available depending on the maturity of the team using Kanban.

Identify an internal champion as soon as possible
Not having a "prime" consumer for any change initiative is risky. We are seeing numerous clients attempt to start Kanban pilots/Kanban initiatives without selecting an appropriate champion to continue the work once external coaches have discontinued their services. Finding an appropriate champion can be very challenging, this person needs to be passionate about improvement, and be able to motivate others to think about things differently.

Don’t over engineer the board
Kanban, like all other systems suffers from the fact that the system is often designed and built by engineers. Engineers are often attracted to complexity, and like to make sure that their work can handle all of the edge cases. Our experience shows that this can result in an over engineered board, with too many swim lanes, work types, three-tier/4 tier work tickets, and overall complexity that makes tracking and maintaining the board extremely challenging.

Kanban systems do not need to visualize everything, they are meant to be abstractions of knowledge work that allow instant recognition of how well work is flowing through the system. Understandability is much more important than exact precision.
Don’t treat the Kanban board as a command-and-control system

Project managers familiar with more traditional management approaches often fall into familiar behaviors when interacting with a Kanban system. Work tickets are all affixed with scheduled completion dates, and individual FTEs are held to the fire for any work not making those dates.
This reliance on individual workers accountable for individual activities will foster resistance and interfere with a culture of continual improvement. There will be little motivation to be transparent and visualize the state of all work if any defect or late work is used as an excuse to criticize or punish. Product managers and other leaders need to focus on systemic issues, and how to improve the overall system of work.

Familiarize executives and other stakeholders with the Kanban board and use that to visualize performance
There is often a desire to represent information provided by Kanban system and other simpler forms to make it more consumable to an executive audience. To some extent this is perfectly valid and we recommend working on executive reports. This needs to be balanced with the fact that a Kanban system provides a vast wealth of information that display system health without any need for interpretation. Time should be spent educating executives on how to understand what Kanban systems have to say. Bottlenecks are easy to identify, as are the number of defects blockers and other impediments to productivity