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Bell Labs – Innovation

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I fear this will not be a popular blog post, for two reasons: one it’s too long and two it raises some inconvenient truths as we consider how to drive more innovation in our organisations. I am however on a sabbatical reading and thinking hard about these things… Experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.

Beginning with Alexander Graham Bell’s invention (and monopoly making patent) of the telephone it’s hard to point to a group outside Bell Labs that have been more responsible for shaping our society today (granting that the Xerox PARC Labs took the torch and ran with it as the flame at Bell started to die out in the 70s) we’re talking about the group of humans that invented telephone, valves, electrical cables of all kinds, radar, the transistor, microwave, the unix operating system, lasers, optical fibers, CCD chips and celluar mobile networks and on and on.

Curious isn’t it – a telephone company and a photocopier maker have defined the information age. Also interesting is that Bell Labs perhaps even more so than the PARC group at Xerox were very keen to understand how to measure and turn innovation into a process. Sound familiar?

“Of its output, inventions are a valuable part, but invention is not to be scheduled nor coerced”; experimentation was to provide an environment for “the operation of genius” – Harold Arnold, the first leader of the new R&D group talking about his team.

By taking a long-term, first-principles, research-based approach to innovation the Bell Labs did indeed discover, invent and innovate nearly all the fundamental building blocks we now take for granted as routine technologies driving the information age. There were a number of distinctive and consistent elements of the Bell Labs system:

1) The distinction between theorists and experimentalists. The most effective research groups combined both skill-sets, and they rarely sat with one individual.

2) Co-located and cross-functional teams. Kelly (the bloke in charge) was combining chemists, physicists, metallurgists, engineers, theoreticians and experimentalists. The leaders of these new structures were unconventional too: younger, bolder; not just the longest serving or more ‘senior’ member of the group.

3) There were no closed doors. Total transparency was expected, as was a willingness to help a colleague if required, no matter your level.

4) Progress was made by groups, not individuals. There were of course a few brilliant minds across nearly a century but like most good stories, a few heroes take the credit for a large group of people working effectively together.

5) Two principles…
i) If you haven’t manufactured the new thing in substantial quantities, you have not innovated.
ii) If you haven’t found a market to sell the product, you have not innovated.

The term ‘innovation’ dates back to the sixteenth century in England. It described the introduction of a new idea relating typically to philosophy or religion. By the mid-20th century we begin to see the words innovate and innovation applied to technology and industry.

If an idea leads to discovery, and if discovery leads to invention, then an innovation is the lengthy transformation of an idea into a product (or process) suitable for widespread practical use. Almost by definition, a single person, or even a single group, cannot alone create an innovation.

The early days of any innovation are typically underwhelming, even demoralising. The first valves were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable. The first transistors (a device we take for granted in their many millions in all our every day electronic devices) were very difficult to make, not durable and not always reliable.

Even the lawyers at Bell were trying to ‘quantify’ or find the patterns in their innovations. They only found one consistent pattern – their staff with the most patents (signed over on day one for a crisp $1) had breakfast or lunch with Harry Nyquist. Harry wasn’t the source of specific ideas; it turns out he was just really good at asking good questions.

Let’s also consider for a moment the non linear nature of invention. Shannon, an employee of Bell Labs who wrote “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” (better described by Scientific American as ‘the magna carta of the information age’), went on to study chess-playing computers in 1949 (before computers were invented): a fairly frivolous pursuit for a telephone company. In his own words: ‘what if we might create machines capable of logical deduction?’

Back to their process. Broadly, the ‘system’ at Bell was divided up like this. 1) Research. Scientists and engineers creating a reservoir of completely new knowledge, principles and materials, methods and art.
2) Systems engineering. Using the new knowledge to look at how to integrate the possible, plausible, necessary and economical ideas.
3) Manufacture. Engineers developed and designed new switches, transmission system and so on from groups 1 and 2.

The handoffs between the three departments, however, were often (intentionally) quite casual – part of what made the labs ‘a living organism’. Physical proximity was everything; people had to be near one an other. Phone calls alone wouldn’t do.

A system carefully curated

As much fun (and cultural benefit) as there is in a hack day, it can’t be your innovation strategy. Also, innovation doesn’t best happen in a secret lab (unless that lab has ALL the people required for the whole end to end – perhaps Apple or Lockheed Martin). There does need to be a critical mass of talent; very very rarely do big innovations come from a single individual. Sometimes a revolutionary idea, yes, but not ultimately delivered as an innovation.

We’ve written about this before: too often we are focused on iterative improvement, not innovation. I’m reminded of my favourite quote:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by obvious realities. We need [people] who can dream of things that never were.”

– John F Kennedy

Full credit to Jon Gertner’s ‘The Idea Factory’ for an insightful history of Bell Labs.

 

 

 

A nuclear submarine without orders

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A visit to Baum Cycles – Darren Baum, fellow bicycle fan David Marquet and JP.

We know innovation often happens in unlikely places and creativity thrives on constraints. Last year one of the great people we spent some time with was retired nuclear submarine captain David Marquet. I don’t want to spoil the whole story, for that you need to read the book. But … within the confines of a long metal tube full of people and a nuclear reactor which stays underwater for 3 months at a time he ended up learning a bunch of really important stuff about people, models of leadership and how we move on from command and control.

“Leadership has changed from command and control to engage and enrol” — Steve Denning

Convincing leaders that we need to move on from command and control is the first step. Sometimes that’s easy, sometimes it’s hard. The next part, the changing part is always hard. If our people and organisations are conditioned to work in a strict heirachy then it’s not as simple as just giving that structure up and ’empowering’ everyone to make their own decisions. Like any new skill we need to learn how to work in a new way a little bit at a time.

David describes this challenge for leaders as slowly giving up control as you build capability and context in your teams. One of the practical approaches they developed was a model of communication called the ladder of leadership. We don’t start by trying to take the other person we’re communicating with (boss or subordinate) the whole way, but just to step one run up the ladder.

the-ladder-of-leadership-capt-marquetI ask my boss – “Tell me what to do about the problem with marketing ?” – instead of telling me what to do my boss says “Tell me what you think about the problem with marketing ?” … And so-on up the ladder over time and interactions until I’ve built up the capability and context to make a good decision independently. Engaged and enrolled.

Perspective Matters

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When we study physics one of the interesting concepts to get your head around is the concept that your frame of reference, often referred to as just the reference frame, changes things a lot.

If we are zooming through space next to the Voyager II probe as it exits the solar system from our frame of reference Voyager would appear stationary and the sun and planets would appear to be zooming away at 17.5km per second.  The question is, which is moving, Voyager II or the Solar System ?

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The answer ? Well it’s all relative.

Read More

Human Factors Courses

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Throughout the year we run a series of invite only Human Factors Courses using the PCM methodology developed at NASA.  Please get in touch if you would like to know more and book a place.

What is the Process Communication Model (PCM) ?

PCM is a scientifically-validated toolset developed in partnership with NASA to help individuals better manage themselves and others, translating potential in to performance. PCM is accredited by the Australian Colleges of Surgeons and Anaesthetists, Paediatricians, and General Practitioners.

We use PCM as a foundation of our Human Factors practice at Luna Tractor by teaching skills and not rules so that you can:

  • Decode behaviour and assess personality traits.
  • Even better connect and communicate by winning motivation and co-operation.
  • Prevent, manage and resolve conflict.

Our personal experience working with a range of organisations is that it’s a potent multiplier for the Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking approaches we also teach — the other side of the coin if you like.  We need to solve for People AND Systems.

The three days cover not only an introduction to PCM but active skills development to ensure you leave with ability to better connect and communicate with others.  Lots of time for questions, practice and understanding.  Contact Luna Tractor with questions or for more information.

Perspective

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June 3, 1965, Edward H. White II became the first American to step outside his spacecraft. (via NASA)

Today NASA is celebrating 50 years of space walks and has published this beautiful gallery of images – One reason we love Space so much here at Luna HQ is the sense of scale and perspective it provides.  Imagine how it must have felt for Edward White to float in space, outside the cramped confines of a Gemini capsule for the first time.

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Apollo 15 lunar roving with Mount Hadley in the background.

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Almost 20 years later on Feb 12, 1984, astronaut Bruce McCandless, ventured further away from the confines and safety of his ship than any previous astronaut had ever been using a nitrogen jet propelled backpack.

Now imagine being Bruce McCandleuss floating in space, untethered, further away from safety than any human in history looking down at the whole earth.  How do we dig ourselves out of the every day details and find this kinda of perspective for ourselves, for our projects and for our world ?

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Einstein

Hasten Slowly

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“Hasten Slowly.”

Early in my life someone told me this, and I wish I could remember who — I’ve always been naturally impatient. When we teach people who want to mountain bike fast we give them a  similar paradox: “Slow down, slow is smooth and smooth is fast”. You get faster by first learning to go slow.

This week the Luna HQ has been rather enraptured by the ESA Rosetta mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Seeing live images (well only delayed by 28 mins; speed of light reality) of Philae detaching and then eventually landing with a couple of bounces on a comet 500,000,000km away from Earth is genuinely remarkable. Sending back images, taking samples and drilling on a comet! It was hard not to feel some emotion when the little guy’s batteries ran out last night.

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A few glorious days of science experiments which took over 20 years to prepare for. The mission had been discussed since the late 70s and was formally kicked off in 1993; 11 years later it launched in 2004. One of the great joys for me watching the footage was seeing a number of old men sitting the background at the ESA watching the separation and landing live just like us. I like to think they made or designed parts perhaps some 20 years earlier and were finally seeing the fruits of their labour. Many great and hard problems are like this — contributions from many people, often world class in their own particular field, building up to remarkable achievements as a whole. Read More

The Luna MBA 2014 Update

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Two topics remain consistently popular on our little LT site… Agile Workplaces and the Luna MBA.  Just as we encourage all our clients and friends to keep reading and learning so we do ourselves and so we present some new reccomended additions to the MBA… If you’ve finished the current list then consider this extra credit for your degree.

Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure – Tim Hardford

A remarkable, if slightly repetitive set of stories showing us the unpredictable path to true innovation. He starts with the story of Palchinsky at the turn of the 20th century who may have just invented Agile approaches analysing the Russian ecconomy even before the ship building yards of the first world war; Of course he was exiled to Siberia for his efforts. He also explores our aversion to variation and experimentation – the tendency for governments and corporate bosses to love large and grandiose projects instead. As Hardford points out the proliferation of iPhone and Android apps has hidden the uncomfortable truth which is innovation is harder, slower and costlier than ever before. All the easy problems have already been solved. I’ll leave you with a quote from the book to inspire you to buy and read it.

‘Return on investment is simply not a useful way of thinking about new ideas and new technologies. It is impossible to estimate a percentage return on blue-sky research, and it is delusional even to try. Most new technologies fail completely. Most original ideas turnout either to be not original after all, or original for the very good reason that they are useless. And when a original idea does work, the returns can be too high to be sensibly measured.’ Read More

Inspired by Agile – A guest post from Avril Jean

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Avril is a talented artist and QA super star.  While we worked with her team she would always paint pictures to express what was going on.  In this very honest piece (re-posted from her own blog with permission) she shares the story of what it was like for her team to try Agile in words and pictures.


The department I work in (Technology) did a bit of an experiment last year to get agile software development going for a bit – that was a really interesting time to live through.

(If you want to bone up on Agile: wikipedia article is here)

We had two mentors, Nigel and James, who took us through the process – they took us out to the Lonely Planet (an interesting story of a company that went entirely agile in every team) to show us the workings, and they worked through our issues with us. I have nothing but praise for these guys, they know their stuff:

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I need to point out that this was not their actual heights or what they looked like. I rather think James was affronted by this picture! hehe.

This is their company website: Lunatractor

Basically agile is a way of an attempt to cut out the pointless crap around a project, allowing the teams to run themselves, giving everyone a say at allocating their own work, making the workflow obvious, and doing small, continuous releases of working software so that there are benefits straight up (releases every two weeks, known as a ‘sprint’).  This way you actually start to get the benefit of project immediately, not wait months for requirements, and every two weeks, a reassessment of the next most important bit of work comes in.

The way we ran it was a modified version of ‘scrum’: the work was assessd, broken down into small do-able units, written out onto cards, which were stuck on ‘the wall’. Each bit of work was a ‘story’, and the stories went through development, testing, etc cycle.

An example of a story: “As a member, all my leave without pay must be factored into my service”. Then we’d take that and break it down into the tasks we needed to do and how long they would take. The devs would develop it and i would come up with test cases and a way of testing it.

‘The Wall’ was the source of truth, and anyone could come and look at it and see the stories was we were working on. If you moved a bit of work on, you physically moved the card to the correct spot on the wall. It was a really good way of keeping track of who was doing what. If you worked on a card, you put your avatar on the card (we all were represented by a different picture).

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At the start of every day we had a 15 minute stand up, where we discussed what we would be doing that day. We used to run our stand ups sitting down cause we were all lazy.

All the team sat together and conversations happened all the time about the work.  Sometimes there was cake. My team appear to be obsessed with morning tea. This is not a bad thing.

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Work was nutted out on the whiteboard, lots of yelling and gesticulation happened, and everyone knew at all times what they were doing. We all leveled up in how to interact with the other people we worked with.

It was a great project to work on. Of course, not everyone liked this approach, and it did not suit everyone as it was very different in mental approach to very traditional software development (lots of specs and paperwork).

At the end of each sprint we did a retrospective : what we did well, what we should do better next time, what the problems were.  The first few sprints were hard, very very hard. There were a lot of arguments. We had some defections from the team. There were some bodies – we put their little avatars into the ‘graveyard’ bit of the wall when that happened. By the end we were churning out 8-10 fixes and enhancements every two weeks, which was an incredibly fast pace – and we got no return prod defects from our work. Something to be proud of.

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Also at the end of each sprint we invited all the stakeholders to come to a presentation, which was usually prepared with much hilarity that day – this is me and Nancy and Erica getting the powerpoint slides ready:

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This is Mick and Aaron doing their very amusing presentation to the stakeholders at the end of their sprint:

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I attempted to do a presentation once but my public speaking is ATROCIOUS. I actually forget what I’m talking about quite easily and I also say “fuck” a lot when I’m stressed. IT DID NOT GO DOWN WELL.

We did very well and we got the backlog of work done, we fixed defects we found on the way, it was an excellent process.

Ultimately though my company is not an agile based company, and the methodology was misunderstood and not adopted.  We hit a lot of problems working against the status quo – Prince II methodology (which to me seems to be just moving shit around spreadsheets but not actually producing anything at the end of it – PLEASE can someone tell me why I’m wrong if i am!).

There have been a few more projects that have been done agile methodology, also with success, but the value is not really recognized and i doubt there will be more.

This picture represents the fight of us against the status quo.

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I would not mind working for another company that does agile properly one day, though that being said, I’m aiming to get out of doing software and get into doing art full time. So back to what they call waterfall but what is actually V-model software development for me!

Such a pity!

Such inspiration, at any rate.


As a postscript since this was written Avril let me know she’s working on new agile project, and things are changing for the better.

Innovation vs Iteration: XEROX’s Laser Printer.

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Nearly every organisation we meet in our Luna Tractor travels talks about wanting more innovation, and some that they are looking to techniques like Agile to get it. There’s a problem with this though: Agile is fundamentally about iteration and making calculated incremental changes. That’s not to say that innovation isn’t also an iterative process because it typically is; the issue is that true innovation – the invention of new and unique things – requires more than just an iterative learning cycle.

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Throughout the history of science we see the same discoveries being made in different places around the same time; I have to believe therefore that someone would have invented a laser printer eventually. Xerox’s 9700 Laser Printer was the most commercially successful idea to come out of their PARC labs, but it almost wasn’t invented by Xerox at all.

The Laser Printer’s story begins with Gary Starkweather, having only narrowly chosen optics over nuclear physics, seeing Theodore Mainman’s first pink ruby laser created at the Hughes Research Lab in Malibu. This laser revolutionised the field of optics forever and inspired Starkweather’s masters research. He ended up working at Xerox PARC’s older internal rival, the Xerox Webster Labs, trying to get traction for the idea of using lasers to create images in copier drums rather than the present crude approach using lenses. Having gotten as far as creating a basic prototype as a side project and yet still he couldn’t get traction with either the theoreticians or the business types who wanted him to focus on improving the lenses in their existing designs instead:

“What’s the point of painting at 200 dots per inch?”

“Where will you ever get 1,000,000 bits of information?” (That’s less than 1/10th of 1 MB.)

Starkweather also realised that his laser approach would allow a way to use data created directly on a computer to make computer printouts as we know them today – a problem not previously well solved in computer science circles. In response to all this his section manager said…

“Stop, or I’m going to take your people away.”

He read in an internal newsletter about the new PARC lab being built on the West Coast and tried to get transfered. Again his boss rebuffed him.

“Forget it, Gary … you’re never going to be moved to the West Coast. And you’re to stop playing around with that laser stuff.”

Eventually Starkweather made a successful appeal to a more senior manager, George White, who as chance would have it had spent some time at university working with lasers during his physics degree also. He saw the potential and had Gary transfered over to the PARC Labs against all corporate protocols.

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By 1971 it had taken 11 years from the time Gary Starkweather started studying optics at university until he and his team created a working laser printer in the PARC labs. The story continues as the team then had to work out how to feed data to this new printer. Another knucklehead move by the administration saw the computer science team moved about 2 miles away from Starkweather’s lab … ‘just for a year’ … This limitation led to the creation of a modulated laser link to transfer data between the labs, and apart from the concern it caused folks who saw the red beam on cutting through the air on foggy mornings it worked flawlessly.

Despite everyone at PARC using their laser printer internally to print millions of pages it still took years for the rest of Xerox to catch up with some corporate behaviour so boneheaded (and disturbingly familiar) that it hurts to read about. The story concludes in 1977 with the 9700 printer finally being launched after three cancelations of the product. It was one of Xerox’s best-selling product of all time.

While Gary and team did use iterative appraoches to work through their problem lists, solving them one by one, it took quite a bit more than that to drive the true innovation. They also needed:

– A long term outlook with no guarantee of success.
– Freedom from traditional ROI measures and governance.
– Ceative and alternative thinkers with clear mental space.
– Sources of inspiration and new ideas. This came from bringing together the disparate fields of optics and computer science.
– Separation and air cover from the traditonal Xerox organisation.

True innovation is time consuming, unpredictable and hardwork. That’s why we’re still waiting on our flying cars.

Ref: Dealers of Lighting

Startup Spring – “Festival Retro @ health.com.au”

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The gang at health.com.au was Luna Tractor’s very first client and so it’s not without a certain amount of pride that we watched them win the Telstra Business Startup Award this year having used the Agile and Lean approaches we worked with them to develop and evolve (plus a certain amount of startup blood, sweat and tears).

As part of the Startup Spring events they are telling their story, taking visitors on a walk-through, and then throwing a BBQ to finish things off.  There are few better opportunities to see a non-IT startup in Melbourne who have adopted Agile and Lean techniques at every level of the business.  Even fewer to meet a CFO who will tell you that he’s never been so personally effective in his life after adopting the crayons and scraps of paper to run his life !

See here for the details and to sign up.

Hope to see you there !

Agile Encore – Workshop and Talk – Nov 14th 2013

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I talked about one of our favourite clients BAUM Cycles at Agile Australia 2013 in the middle of the year – It must have been popular because I’ve been invited back for the Agile Encore in Melbourne on the 14th.  I’m also running a workshop in the morning before the afternoon session – Here’s an insight into what you’ll get !

Afternoon Talk – Agile, Lean, Broken Ribs and a World Champion

Taiichi Ohno was reputed to take new graduates at Toyota to the factory floor and draw a circle on the ground. The graduate would then be told to stand there and observe; if upon his return they had not seen enough then he would tell them to observe for longer. While it might feel like something out of a Karate Kid movie Taiichi Ohno was really teaching a simple lesson. The only way to really understand a problem is to go to where it happens and see it.

Admiral Rickover (father of the nuclear submarine) understood this only too well and long before the Toyota Production Systems day he would force ships’ captains into boiler suits to crawl the bilge of their ships with him looking for problems on ships in for repair and refitting.

“What it takes to do a job will not be learned from management courses. It is principally a matter of experience, the proper attitude, and common sense – none of which can be taught in a classroom… Human experience shows that people, not organisations or management systems, get things done.” – Rickover

Genchi Genbutsu – Go and See.

How then do we do this when more than 90% of us are creating virtual things – intellectual property, software, design or products – not something you can drop on your foot?

One of Luna Tractor’s most interesting projects over the last year has been working with BAUM Cycles. Their bikes are widely regarded as the Ferraris of the bike world, ridden by world champions who pay their own money and line up like everyone else. In a small, sometimes hot, often cold and dirty factory on the North Shore of Geelong, they have been steadily shifting the operation of the entire business to an Agile and Lean process.

With a blue collar workforce, most factory language unprintable and the background noise a constant mixture of Triple M and machinery; some different approaches are required.  Hear real world lessons about Lean flow, physical stock management; Agile sales and customer service along with who ended up with the broken ribs.  Get a sneak peak into the new factory design that we are currently building also.

You can sign up and see the rest of the program here – www.agileencore.com/index.html

Morning Workshop

In addition I’m running a workshop in the morning covering a wide ranging background of  Agile, Lean and Systems Think as it can be applied across a whole organisation.  This session will be great for beginners and experience agilistas alike with a focus on the background, and philosophy of Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking as well as interactive discussions about how to practically start using these approaches right across your organisations – not just in IT.

Full Details and workshop sign up here – www.agileencore.com/workshops.html

PS: Use the code ENCORE-JAMES to save $100 on the workshop.

Agile Australia 2013 Reflections

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It’s become a bit of a tradition for Nigel and I to write some reflections after the annual Agile Australia conference.  This year Nigel was stuck at home in Melbourne, so it’s just down to me.

I felt like the conversation was much more sophisticated this year.  Lots of people talking about Agile and Lean in the same sentence.  Lots of folks grappling with their whole end to end program, budget cycle and corporate cultures.  A recognition that iterative test and learn approaches are the future no matter what your size or market position.  After many years focusing on techniques, frameworks and patterns this year there was a new focus on values, culture and the human element.

5 years ago the conversation was basically: can this agile stuff even really work ? Now it feels like a whole new breed of people are wanting to understand and embrace Agile, and it feels much less cynical and defensive on their part this time. This is a promising evolution though it does mean I’m going to have to stop making jokes about a few companies like Telstra who have not only seen the light but are working bloody hard to change their course.

A couple of conference highlights for me:

Dave Snowdon – Cognitive Edge – Smart grouchy man; he hurt everyone’s brains… Understanding how we humans think and process information is really important.  Something Dave and his team are exploring is the idea of capturing what users want or are experiencing through micro narratives.  Stories.  If you want to know what your company is really like ask someone the story they would tell their best friend.

Ryan Martens – Rally Softare – An elegant and heartfelt call to action for engineers to think about how they can use their powers for good and not evil.  The world has many big and complex problems and if we can combine basic human empathy with our engineering chops and the scientific method, then maybe, just maybe we can make the world a better place.  Seeing an MRI machine turned into a pirate ship so that kids wouldn’t be so scared to go into it was a beautiful example of empathetic insight.

The reception for my own talk about applying Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking approaches to a small Australian high-end bike manufacturer was very gratifying too.  I’m not sure if the session was videoed, but I promise I’ll write about the story here soon for the people who missed it.  For anyone interested in seeing BAUM’s transformation in person just get in contact and I’m sure we can organise a field trip to Geelong.

How could we not post this ?

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Beautiful Commander Hadfield, Beautiful.

Updates:

Is this the most expensive music video ever ??? Of course Randal (IKCD – What If ?) has the answer for us.

Also – Commander Hadfield’s son tweeted this photo of him packed to head home… The Soyuz which Nigel and I love dearly is certainly not a spacious space craft, but it’s been getting the job done for over 50 years.  I do believe those bags strapped between their heads are 6 months worth of wet waste and garbage.

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Hadfield and his crew have now touched down and are enjoying the perks of Earth like long hot showers and spring air.

I love the internet so much.

The Apollo Mission retrospective continues.

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image_9_lgOne of Jeff Bezos’ expeditions is a project to recover a number of complete F-1 engines from the Apollo program.  These primary rockets were ejected and left to crash down into the water once their job of providing enough thrust to get to escape velocity was done.

“We’re bringing home enough major components to fashion displays of two flown F-1 engines. The upcoming restoration will stabilize the hardware and prevent further corrosion. We want the hardware to tell its true story, including its 5,000 mile per hour re-entry and subsequent impact with the ocean surface. We’re excited to get this hardware on display where just maybe it will inspire something amazing.”

Even though these missions were finished in the early 70s we’re still going to be able to look back and learn new things.  As a new wave of modern day space explorers start building new rockets, and we figure out difficult problems like how to fly to Mars it’s cool to see a project to learn from the past.  And so Deming’s cycle continues – Plan – Do – Consider and Act.  The Bezos team is providing great fodder for teams to consider from the last time we did this, act and plan then do.

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(images via www.bezosexpeditions.com)

Is the impact of Agile just a Hawthorne Effect ?

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L1001888The Hawthorne Effect is a human behavioural theory drawn by various social scientists from trials undertaken between 1927 and 1932 at Western Electric’s Hawthorne Works.

The trials found that improvements in behaviour, and productivity changes observed after adjusting a workplace, were in fact largely just the results of a placebo-type effect – any change seemed to cause improvement.

There were many changes trialled – the first (and possibly most important) were changes in lighting levels (‘the illumination experiment’) in a factory environment. The objective of the experiment was to find the optimum lighting level for productivity – the results showed that more was at work than just changing lumens, every change (up or down in brightness) caused an increase in performance.

Most theorists since have concluded that the improvements are caused by the act of measuring and engaging subjects.  If you missed studying this in your management 101 course, then read this article or take the slightly incomplete wikipedia catch up lesson and then continue reading.  Lets deconstruct the impact of this theory into its parts:

Measurement

We’ve already written about the impact of measurement before.  It’s also pretty well understood that humans perform against whatever KPI you give them, the way they do it may however be surprising or unintended.

Confirmation Bias

Then there is Confirmation Bias, basically the likelihood that you will both find what you’re looking for, and ignore stuff that you’re not.  Elegantly illustrated by this group of Radiologists who can’t find a Gorilla in their scans.  If a team expects a new process to be better, then their perception will likely match their expectation.

Empowered Staff

Finally the staff in the later trials, more focused on workplace layout and reward were engaged, they were part of the process.  They were made to feel special.  We’ve talked about this a fair bit too – though Dan Pink is more fun. Smart people are motivated by Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose. Pink was not the first to the conclusion that money was directly linked to productivity.

In summary, if you measure stuff, look for a change, and then make people feel special – surprise, surprise, you’re going to see a change!  Does this mean that some of the impact of Agile, the dramatic increase in staff engagement and useful productivity are perhaps just caused by the visual changes in the offices and agile rituals, but, in fact are just a ‘Hawthorne Effect’ ? In my heart, I have to say nervously, yes, at least to some extent.

Is this bad ? No.

Ok, but is the change real and sustainable? Yes, the changes and improvement in your team’s performance and culture are real.  Like all placebos, the source of the change might not be real, but the impact is.  If we can come up with better or different ways to achieve the same improvement then we should try them… any good agilista will tell you that anyway.

In the mean time I’ll leave you thinking about a sobering equation Nigel sent me as we’ve been debating this recently.

Hawthorne > Maslow + Deming

hawthorne effect workplace

An insight into a remarkable system – The Dabbawalas

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The latest HBR has an article looking at the amazing organisation and service which is the Dabbawalas in Mumbai India. It’s well worth the read; here’s my take and some observations linking it back to lessons for other organisations.

Via Wikipeida

The Dabbawal’s Service Offering

Your own lunch, delivered from home to your office and then the container (tiffin) returned all withing the 6 hour lull between commuter rush hours. The back bone of this service is the train network, dedicated workers and an ingenious system.

Each tiffin tin is marked with a simple code which indicates which train, which stop and to which building the tin is to be delivered. After lunch the system runs in reverse and all the tins are returned back to their original homes.

Some Remarkable Facts

  • It’s 120 years old.
  • There are 5,000 people employeed.
  • They make 260,000 deliveries per day or almost 80 million transactions per year.
  • The workforce is mostly only semi literate.
  • They operate with a 6 sigma level of quality (Approximately 1 mistake per 6,000,000 deliveries)
  • There is no IT system and no mobile phones.

Key Features and Lessons

  1. The organisation is broken up into ~200 x 25 person units who operate largely autonomously. (Lesson: Scaling is hard, make your organisation a modular network.)
  2. The railway timetable provies a rhythm for the system, and a natural point of review for performance and problems. If a worker is consistently late then it’s obvious quickly and both can and must be addressed immediately. (Lesson: Build introspection and a quick response to problems into your system.)
  3. Each Dabbawala is an entrepreneur in their own right able to negotiate prices with their own customers (within some basic guidelines). This direct relationship with the customer means Dabbawalas own their customer and tend to work in the same area for a long time. While a group doesn’t have a monopoly over a partiular area there is also a no-poach agreement. (Lesson: Give people autonomy and have them engage your directly with your customers.)
  4. New hires are trained to assist with all activities for a minimum of 6 months, after which they can buy in to a group. (Lesson: Give people mastery, pair program and invest in cross skilling.)
  5. Workers with more than 10 years’ experience serve as supervisors but they also still pick up and deliver dabbas themselves. (Lesson: Leaders need to get their hands dirty and understand how sausages are made; they need to be in the system to learn.)
  6. Via NY Times

    Via NY Times

    The coding system on the tins contains enough information to know where it needs to go without containing a full address. The workers who run the same routes for a long time don’t need all the details and adding more would slow down sorting process and risk errors. (Lesson: Only  have as much documentation, process and governance as needed; any more is a waste.)

  7. Because of the unpredictable nature of traffic and other issues in a big city, the system must have a buffer; each team has 2 or 3 extra workers to fill in wherever needed. Because all members are cross trained they are able to fix problems with transport, sorting, customer service or finance issues.   So while the system is as lean as possible, it still has to have the capaicty to work when shit happens. (Lesson: Use humans to solve your edge cases, not process.)
  8. The dabbawalas vary enormously in age and tend to remain with their groups for their entire working lives. As a result team members then care for each other; an elderly worker who can’t carry heavy loads is then given other jobs but still paid the same. (Lesson: Treat people as humans, not machines, and they will be very loyal.)
  9. They have a simple shared purpose – deliver food on time, every time. (Lesson: Give people a purpose they can understand and believe in (hint: not Profit or the CEO getting his or her performance bonus).).

My Conclusion?

Like the women who built ships in World War I and II and the incredible achievements of the Lockheed Martin Skunkworks the Dabbawalas provide another example that with the right system ordinary people can do extraordinary things.   As leaders, focus on building and maintaining your system. Or as Demming puts it, 95% of the improvement lies with the system, and only 5% with the people.

Communicate or Crash

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Good communication, a shared understanding of context and the problems your team is facing are more important than process, technical skills or intellect.  Take these observations from Aviation. *

“In a review of major accidents from 1978 to 1990, the National Transportation Safety Board (1994) found that 73% of commercial aviation accidents occur on the first day of a crew pairing.”

800px-Plane_crash_into_Hudson_River_(crop)

“NASA researchers analyzed the causes of jet transport accidents and incidents between 1968 and 1976 and concluded that pilot error was more likely to reflect failures in team communication and coordination than deficiencies in technical proficiency. In fact, human factors issues related to interpersonal communication have been implicated in approximately 70% to 80% of all accidents over the past 20 years. Correspondingly, over 70% of the first 28,000 reports made to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System (which allows pilots to confidentially report aviation incidents) were found to be related to communication problems.”

“Communication is critical in order for cockpit crewmembers to share a “mental model,” or common understanding of the nature of events relevant to the safety and efficiency of the flight. This is not to say that effective communication can overcome inadequate technical flying proficiency, but rather the contrary: that good “stick & rudder” skills can not overcome the adverse effects of poor communication. “

Considering the level of training, regulation and procedures in commercial aviation it’s somewhat counterintuitive that the quality of communication between crew has such a dramatic effect on the team’s performance, especially in a stressful situation when something is going wrong.  The same observation has been made in the medical context.

“In other safety-critical systems such as surgical operating rooms and medical intensive care units; Medical researchers have found evidence that it is not the technical or medical proficiency of healthcare providers, but rather the quality of their interactions which predicts outcomes.”

The research into cockpit communication reveals a few interesting things.

  1. Individuals have a distinct pattern of language usage which is quite stable over time, and in different levels of stress.
  2. The best crews were more verbose.
  3. The crews communicated about two and a half times more in abnormal flight situations.
  4. The number of words spoken was correlated with higher performance and lower rates of error.
  5. Crews which exhibited familiarity with each other in their language (talking as a team, “we” and “us”) also had higher performance.
  6. High performing crews make problem solving utterances 7 to 8 times more often than the poor performing crews, eg. asking questions out loud, or making statements which invite input or share crucial data.
  7. The high performing crews spoke in problem solving utterances the same amount of the time whether they were in a routine situation or a high stress situation.  The poor performing crews didn’t (and thus were out of practice when it counted).

Time spent talking and building relationships in a team, learning each other’s patterns of language usage, is essential to bonding, building a shared mental model and in turn delivering better team performance.  This is one reason pair programming is such a powerful learning and quality generating tool.  Likewise, perhaps we shouldn’t worry so much when our stand-ups drag on a bit?

*All quotes are from “Using Language in the Cockpit: Relationships with Workload and Performance” – J. Bryan Sexton & Robert L. Helmreich which itself has an extensive list of supporting references.

Agile, Lean and Systems Thinking – What’s the Deal?

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A Luna Tractor client asked me the other day, “What’s the relationship between Agile and Lean? How do you know which to choose?”  It’s a great question and the answer is actually pretty simple: most of the time you need to apply both. In fact we would add Systems Thinking to the list and suggest that you need to think hard about how to apply the right aspects of all three disciplines to your problem.  So how does it work?

Lean – How to do the least work while maintaining value.

Agile – Habits to create an adaptive, incremental development and learning cycle.

Systems Thinking – Solving problems by viewing the problem as part of a system, rather than a broken part.

What does applying all three look like?

All three value humans as a key part of the system.

All three value customers as the key driver of the system.

Use Systems Thinking to define your approach, use Agile habits to solve problems and use Lean priciples to tune and refine your resulting system.

Quote of the week

The new competitive advantage is the ability to anticipate, respond and adapt to change.

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