All Posts By

nzdalton

Self-Selecting teams – tales from WW2 Lancaster bomber crews

By | Agile, Organisation, People | No Comments
ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

ePredix Office, Minneapolis, MN in 2001

Back in the day, when I worked in the USA in a fascinating startup (then called ePredix, who were rolled into Previsor and are now part of SHL), I was regularly set on my chuff by one of our amazing technical advisory board members for thinking that anything at all under our digital sun was NEW, or that any of our 21st century science of Industrial-Organisational Psychology (in simple terms, big data about people, for hiring and development) could be viewed as a sure thing.

Our tech advisory board had every right to proffer those kind of opinions to a young economist whippersnapper, as between them they had invented several of the things the science was founded on!

The tools we were building at ePredix were online selection tests, delivered in short form on the web. We had patented ways (don’t get me started on patents by the way…) of serving up a couple of dozen multi-choice questions and then stack-ranking the applicants in their suitability in the role. Bloody clever, big data, but a PhD required to do the maths.

Lancaster crew WW2

One of my most memorable moments was at dinner one night when one advisory board member quietly advised me “you know, it’s all baloney really, you might as well just let teams self-select – they’ll be just as successful”. He went on to tell me of the Lancaster bomber crews of the RAF in the early 1940s, where after short training periods, Bomber Command were stuck with terrible problem of selecting the crews.

Their creative solution? Jam them all (several different flying disciplines, from multiple countries around the world) in a hangar or mess hall, and tell them they had 10 minutes to join a crew.

The result was some of the bravest, effective, well put-together teams in the history of the war. That said, the odds were against them surviving as a team – at the final tally, half the 125,000 young men had been killed or wounded in action, and nearly 10,000 became POWs. The crews had a fair idea of what they were in for – in some cases, 25% of intakes were killed in training.

With a lot of discussion at present about team self-selection in the agile world, it occurred to me the Lancaster bomber story was worth looking into again. Here’s Sandy Mamoli’s recent blog post on squadification at Trademe in New Zealand for example.

Lancaster by Leo McKinstry 2009I found this book by Leo McKinstry from 2009. Here’s the key quote that validates what I heard way back in 2001:

“Once all the initial course had been finally completed, the recruits were sent to an Operational Training Unit, where they began their real preparation for bomber combat. It was at the OTUs that the individual trainees formed themselves into crews for the first time. After all the formality of the previous selection procedures and examinations, the nature of ‘crewing up’ seemed strangely haphazard, even anarchic.

“There was no involvement from the senior commanders, no direction, no regimentation. Instead, the trainees were all taken to a large hangar or mess room, and just told to choose their colleagues to make up the 5 man crew: pilot, bomb-aimer, gunner, wireless operator and navigator. The engineer, who had to undergo specialised training, and the second gunner, would join at a later stage. Without any guidance or rules, the trainees had to rely entirely on their own gut instincts in selecting which group to join.”

Location 4295 of 12152 in Leo McKinstry, Lancaster, 2009 (Kindle Edition).

The book goes on to discuss the kind of people who made up the trainee group of Bomber Command – aged between 17 and 27, self-selected into the jobs (not conscripted), intelligent, inwardly motivated, with broad-based educations.

“They did not need leaders or formal structures” concluded Frank Musgrove in 2005 (Dresden and the Heavy Bombers).

This story sounds a lot like the thinking at Zappos at the moment around Holacracy, and other innovative organisations like Valve and Spotify.

As someone deeply involved in my own day job experimenting with REA-Group’s organisation with new ideas that change traditional leadership roles and formal reporting structures, I’m excited to find these kind of references. I see similar patterns in the world of rock bands and music – but that’s another blog post!

Let me be the first to concede that RAF Bomber Command is a horrific story, for both the crews and the millions of civilians who bore the brunt of this brutal military strategy on both sides of the war. But the extreme nature of the situation called for unusual methods to be applied – we should not ignore them today as we find old ways of running things coming up short and wasting time and money.

And as a grandson of a UK war veteran, I offer a moment of thanks for their sacrifice.

Clayton Christensen – living treasure, speaks in Melbourne

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

The Innovators Dilemma 1997On our Luna MBA booklist you’ll find The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton Christensen. Written in 1997, you shouldn’t be bragging about just discovering it now, though many people are. Better late than never I suppose. I love Clay’s thinking and the way he writes – he crystallised some frightening trends in the shrinking lifespan of business models that became evident in the 1980s, in language that everyone could understand.

Thus, when the opportunity to see him in person came up this week, I was compelled to go. Sure, it was $800 a ticket. Sure, you can read the books (we have). Watching and listening to this giant of a man (in all senses, he is 203cm tall!) is like seeing Leonard Cohen in person, rather than downloading his greatest hits on iTunes. Or perhaps trekking to town and buying vinyl in James’ case.

Clayton Christensen

With his entire oeuvre of change and business teaching available (8 books!), what did this towering figure from management literature choose to talk about?

1. Disruptive Change

First Clay reminded us how disruptive change is defined in his work – that disruptive innovations create new customers and markets, rather than fighting in the home ground of existing products or services. This makes them very different to changes that you invent to sustain your current business model.

His personal example was transistor radios adoption by teenagers in the 1950s. At the time, the Regency_transistor_radiocore consumer market for radio and TV was wealthy middle class families – spawning a massive industry supplying valve based products to US consumers that were large and costly.

Realising that the transistor was going to be part of the future of the technology, the main industry players invested $3b on R&D to develop transistors that would produce high fidelity sound and pictures. None of which delivered a new product in the short term for consumers.

The industry disruption occurred because of a change in the metric of performance from quality of sound to portability of sound. Teenagers were perfectly happy with static-filled rock and roll music if they could listen to it away from the prying and censoring ears of their mothers!

The key question around this kind of disruption becomes “is it better than nothing?” rather than “is it better?” The disruption is occurring away from the core market, in a place that likely seems unattractive to the incumbent players.

He used the Peapod electric car (later seemingly a victim of the downturn in the US car industry) as another example – are there possibly customers for a car that won’t go far or Peapod Electric Car GMfast? Yes – parents of teenagers. Compare that to manufacturers chasing the easier to understand mid-range and higher end electric car segments – Toyota producing the Prius, and Tesla the $100,000 Model S.

He talked about the emerging trend of corporate universities eg Purdue Chicken’s university (as opposed to the prestigious Purdue University!); and how in the 1960s a Toyota Corona was so much better than walking to a college student. In his books he details the disruption of the floppy and hard disk industries in the same way.

Now – were stupid managers to blame for missing these opportunities and driving 9 out of 10 of the main American consumer TV and Radio manufacturers into bankruptcy? No! Turns out that the rational pursuit of increased profit  drives managers to focus on products and segments with bigger margins, often in luxury or higher end market segments, and allow low cost disrupters to get a footing (steel mills, cars, disks).

Those bottom-end disruptive entrants that went on to disrupt the established, high margin players started out by chasing markets the big players never wanted. Astonishingly, after adjusting for inflation, the first Toyota in the USA cost 1/4 the price of a Model T! How did they do this? The clue is in the supply chain, which for a Ford was 60 days in the 1960s (including how long components took to order, build, deliver and store for the production line). Toyota made that a 2 day process – just in time personified.

A ‘technological core’ is what enables disruptive innovation in his parlance. In the US steel industry example, the mini-mill, which improved dramatically over time (through measurement of the ingredients making the output of steel products from rebar to finished sheets predictable) was exactly such a core. You could take that technology and move your way up the market to the top, eventually displacing the old industry players.

Hotels don’t have such a core – to move up-market you must emulate the higher priced options down to the uniforms of the staff and the chocolates on the pillow. In that market the disruption comes from outsiders like AirBnB. Higher education had no such technological core, until the internet came along!

So now you don’t really need to read The Innovator’s Dilemma.

2. The Church of New Finance

The way new, disruptive market entrants are born and grow up can be described as a cycle, beginning with ‘market-creating‘ innovation; followed by sustaining innovation (which increases the capability of your existing product or service, often beyond the useful requirements of the consumer by the way); then finally efficiency innovations. The latter eliminate jobs and free up capital.

How is that capital then used?

By the 2000s, the Church of New Finance, a less than holy alliance of business school professors, accountants and financiers began to advocate ratios as the new measure of business’s success/ profitability (as opposed to weighing ‘tons of cash’). Managers now fiddled with whichever was the easier number (between denominator and numerator) to manipulate the fraction – eg improve ROC by getting assets off the books through outsourcing.

One result was companies reinvesting savings made from efficiency innovations back into further efficiency innovations  with a 2 year payback vs 10; thus avoiding the need for capital and risk associated with market-creating innovations. This breaks the cycle in Clay’s view.

Mini mill disruptor of integrated steel millsAs an example, the steel industry got obsessed with gross margin percentage. If they had thought about net margin per tonne instead, and they would have likely stayed in the low end of the market, and defended their industry against the smaller electric powered steel-making plants called mini-mills.

This is what Clayton calls ‘the capitalist dilemma’. One result is too much money is released that isn’t applied to disruptive innovation, and with this flush of cash, when the cost of capital tends towards zero, measures like NPV become useless. The time value of money in the future is worth the same as today – zero. Traditional economic analysis busted!

Trillions are now languishing in investment funds globally, with nobody daring or bothering to invest in the riskier disruptive innovations.

He talked about ‘royalty capital‘ – a new model of funding startups and post-startups (those likely to be beyond the venture capital stage, and more likely to be taking private money than listing publicly with all the management overhead).

With royalty capital you bring cash into a company as licensed ‘IP’ with an annual royalty of say 3%, payable when revenue starts to come in. The royalty builds up until it pays off the capital sum, and the license to use the money as pseudo-intellectual property is taken off the books.

This apparently aligns the investor and the entrepreneur for growth, longer term. There is less obsession with liquidity – much better than venture capital, which wants in and out quickly.

Another economics ‘bust’ is how traditional assumptions that the ‘do nothing’ scenario that your boss made you prepare for the economic analysis of your business case is value neutral, whereas it is more likely to now be destructive to revenue, and of negative value to your business. The net present value (NPV) calculation thus has to include the avoidance of the negative outcome. Good point, though never built into any business case I have ever seen. Way easier to just do nothing it seems, as you can’t be blamed for waiting and seeing what happens next.

asustek disruptor of dellWith an industry example close to my heart, Dell got out of the motherboard business by devolving production to Asian supplier Asustek, who originally only made simple circuit boards. They then chipped away at assembly, then logistics, until all Dell had left was the brand. With no assets, ROC was better for Dell every year! Genius right? Nope, because they had just funded a vicious competitor in the US PC market.

Thus, in business, the right metric of profitability might just be good, old-fashioned money.

With an increasing level of interest in education, Clay also pointed out that measuring kids this way is distorting their education, and leaves us not caring for 10 year outcomes.

3. PROBLEM: marketers analyse customers, not the job to be done.

This is a useful insight from his work in The Innovator’s Toolkit. Imagine your product or service is not a thing, but a person. That person can be hired, or not hired. What job are you hiring them to do?

iphone app realcommercialIt’s a good way to jolt yourself out of traditional thinking for a minute. In a nutshell, marketers and product people don’t spend enough time thinking about for what purpose (or a job that needs doing) a consumer would ‘hire’ this imaginary person.

In my day job context – why would a person hire our REA Commercial iPhone app? What job were they hoping it would do for them? When you understand this (as I believe we do), you’re in a much better place to innovate.

Clay gives us this framework for thinking about the architecture of a job to be done:

1. What is the job to be done? (Functional, emotional and social dimensions).

2. What experiences (in purchase and use) do we need to provide so the job is done perfectly?

3. What and how to integrate within that experience?

4. Purpose brand: a snapshot or glimpse of a brand that represents all of the above.

Turns out the hard bit to copy is the link between #2 the experience, and #3 the integration steps, with a good example being Ikea (good people to hire when the job to be done is to furnish an entire apartment). Why has nobody followed Ikea?

Clay Christensen talks about retailers

Obsessing about the job to be done is the Clayton Christensen secret, as opposed to obsessing about consumer behaviour, products and services, which are easily mimicked. He went on to talk about retailers, and their spectacular miss with this point. Are you listening Australia?

4. Final thoughts.

During the final panel session, I enjoyed a great quote from Alan Kohler, founder of the Business Spectator in Australia, who was famously fired from Fairfax for predicting that the end of newsprint in its traditional form was nigh – way back in 1993:

“When it comes to predicting the future, being early, and being wrong, amount to pretty much the same thing.”

On surviving disruptive innovation, there were too few cases that are easily drawn on for organisations that have successfully adapted over time. Clay offered an unlikely metaphor (being a deeply Christian person 😉 that as individual humans, we don’t evolve in our lifetime (like products, we are engineered for a fixed duration), but populations do. In parallel, business models don’t evolve, but corporations can over generations.

His example given was IBM moving from $2m mainframes, the size of a building, to $200,000 mid-range computers (the IBM 36 features in my career) to $2,000 PCs, then consulting, and finally to Bill Lowe inventor of the IBM PCsoftware. It’s a radical example, where the centres of innovation had to be geographically at opposite ends of the USA to survive. Today’s obituary of IBM’s own inventor of the PC, William Lowe, tells a bittersweet story of that organisation’s treatment of its disruptive innovators.

In the closing panel, Clay also made the observation that data is heavier than water in most companies. It stays at the bottom while managers try desperately to find the solution and float that upwards toward the boss, making themselves look good. Thus the chances of a CEO knowing the truth are low, the Chairman even less so, explaining why so many smart executives and directors miss opportunities to see disruptive change coming.

Good debate on IT v PT – scholarly update from Simon Sharwood, theregister.co.uk

By | Uncategorized | No Comments
One of the fine young developers at REA-Group (Luke Chadwick or @vertis to the twitterati) is coincidentally launching a new iPhone app for personal training. Time for an unashamed blog  plug!

One of the fine young developers at REA-Group (Luke Chadwick or @vertis to the twitterati) is coincidentally launching a new iPhone app for personal training. Time for an unashamed blog plug!

We’re delighted to have sparked a conversation about the state of IT training and the possibility that the profession of personal trainer had become more prominent in Australian tertiary institutions than much-needed technologists. I wrote about it after hearing numbers put forward by a fellow industry CIO in Melbourne.

Whilst not the most humorous contribution (unpublishable as it happens), doubtless the most erudite thus far has come The Register, who appear to have cleared a few things up with a bit of research.

They don’t fancy the 3% statistic (of total Australian students that are enrolled in IT courses) uttered by The Australian Computer Society as being reputable, nor the Minister for Tertiary Education’s numbers on how many students are at Uni (I guess both parties have particular agendas to push…); and offer some good alternate sources and calculations; as well as filling in the gaps in the data for students enrolled in TAFE type learning.

If you followed our article, you’ll enjoy Simon’s –  I did, even if I have had to endure James calling me ‘Dalton’ all this week in deference to my status as the Luna Tractor dodgy economist of the week.

Agile history article on ITnews.com.au – why the time is NOW for agile

By | Agile, Quote | No Comments

Vlamingh_ships_at_the_Swan_River,_Keulen_1796I was kindly invited to submit an op-ed for IT News’s week of features on agile in Australia, and took the chance to outline my opinion that agile will continue to reveal itself as a black swan for modern business.

You can head over there for a full explanation of black swans and the white lies that result from their discovery. You can also learn why I have put a 300 year old painting of Perth on our blog!

In a nutshell, the uncertain and sometimes brutal business conditions we face today demand a new approach, and we are lucky enough to have Japan’s vast lean industry experiment from the 1960s onward to learn from, as well as the pioneering work done by agile IT professionals since the 1990s.

However <sigh>, as James often quotes from Deming – ‘It is not necessary to change – survival is not mandatory’.

Australia is training more personal trainers than IT professionals – really?

By | Education, People, Technology | 2 Comments

Michelle bridges not an itc careerI spoke at a conference this week where a CIO made this headline observation, noting that they had not been able to validate it in any way, but the horror of their claim was that it might be possible.

In true Luna Tractor fashion, and as the economist in residence, I felt the need to dig a little deeper.

The truth appears more like ‘Australia is training almost as many personal trainers as IT professionals‘ – around 14,000 ICT undergraduates in 2012; versus 10,000 studying personal training at private and public tertiary institutions in 2012.

The scarier statistic is that perhaps only 1/3 of those ICT undergraduates are coming into the workforce each year (3 year degrees on average); whereas MOST of those personal trainers (who do 1 year of study) are hitting the local gyms of Australia.

That means Australian employers get access to maybe 4500 ICT grads every year, whereas the Aussie fitness industry is over-run by 8,163 fresh grads every year.

There are twice as many personal trainers as ICT graduates entering the Australian workforce every year!

I won’t pass judgement on the state of Australia’s graduate developers versus passionate industry-trained coders (apparently we have about half-half, and I love them both equally); nor on the benefits that personal trainers bring our nation’s health. But Sam - the face of modern ICTsomething is NQR.

And for the record, IT is a way better job. Just ask this guy. What’s more, he’ll hack an award winning app with his team, and then school you on personal fitness at lunchtime for free.

My workings (for the inevitable statistical pseuds to comb through) are as follows. Note, I did not obtain the original ACS report on graduate numbers from 2012, as I am not a member. I relied on their press release.

a. How many Personal Fitness Students were there in Australia in 2012?

It’s a big and complicated industry – but there is this useful 2012 industry report by Deloitte Economics to consider, and in the executive summary (p3):

‘On the supply side, in 2011 the headcount for registered exercise professionals was 29,875 (24,875 registered with Fitness Australia and 5,000 registered with Physical Activity Australia), with average annual growth rate between 2005 and 2010 around 7.2% (Job Outlook, 2011). Approximately 56% of fitness professionals are female (16,749), and 44% male (13,126).’

This amounts to about 11,000 FTEs working in the industry (the full-time number diluted by so many part-timers). But how many are studying?

 A. Personal Fitness graduates from public RTOs in 2012: 2,768 graduates (with 65% completion) see p36 of the Deloitte report.

Suggests 4,258 total students studying – assuming it is a one year course, as the report concludes from research that there is an average time to completion of 1 year (page 35).

 B. Graduates in personal training from private RTOs in 2012: 5,395, with 90% completion (see p37)

Suggests a total of 5,995 students studying personal training in private RTOs every year.

The report was obtained here via this reference on Wikipedia.

Thus, in 2012, about 10,253 students were enrolled in Australian tertiary educational institutions studying personal fitness.

How many ITC students studying in Australia in 2012?

The Australian Computer Society suggest less than 3% of Australian tertiary undergraduates are enrolled in ICT courses in 2012. Half the number a decade ago!

The interweb handily reports on total undergraduate numbers in Australia, thanks to this emission from the government in 2011 = 480,000, so…

480,000 x 3% = 14,400 undergraduates studying ICT in Australia in 2012, across all the years of their courses. This of course ignores graduate study, which I am taking the economist’s stance on (ceteris paribus), and calling them relatively irrelevant for both professions (Deloitte certainly confirm that for Personal Trainers).

Shaping IT Organisations: CIO Strategy Forum presentation by Nigel Dalton

By | Agile, Lean, Organisation, People | One Comment

In which the 3rd Reich*, the Catholic Church, and Monty Python are resoundly thumped by William Edwards Deming in the race to design a healthy, productive IT organisation for the 21st century.

Third Reich example of extreme flat organisation structure

By the time this is published I will have presented the results of many hours research, debate and reflection on the design of modern IT organisations. Sadly, without actions and interpretive dance, the Powerpoint slides on their own don’t add up to much more than pictures. Invite me (or James!) for lunch sometime, and we’ll happily proffer an opinion on the subject.

The pivotal moment in the thinking process came when reading the new book from JoyceThe essential deming by joyce orsini Orsini, a deftly edited collection of Deming’s lectures, missives and thoughts from 1950 to 1992. A brilliant book, it is the closest you’ll get to Deming sitting with you and giving his opinion on a wide range of important matters. Including, organisation structures!

Deming’s simple idea (quoted in a 1992 presentation to General Motors) was to avoid traditional organisation charts in the form of hierarchical pyramids, and replace them with flow diagrams (aka value stream maps), and just put the people on the flow diagram as value was pulled by a customer. So simple!

“A flow diagram is actually an organisation chart. It shows people what their jobs are. How they should interact with one another as part of a system. Anybody can see from a flow chart what their job is. Take the chart, put the names on it. You belong here. Somebody else belongs here. Then anybody can see from the chart what their job is. And their work fits in with the work of others in the system.”

Compare that to the Hitlerian view of a flat organisation (so inexplicably popular since the 1990s, with ever-expanding numbers of direct reports), with this lightly edited paragraph from Wikipedia on the organisation of the 3rd Reich. The grey bits are the changed words. If this sounds like your IT department, run!

‘The CIO often deferred making decisions, avoided clear delegation and allowed subordinates to compete with one another, especially in the recent years. Therefore, a system of governance was formed whereby leading company officials were forced to interpret the CIO’s speeches, remarks and writings on company policies and turn them into programs and strategy.

Any manager could take one of the CIO’s comments, and turn it into a new strategy, of which the CIO would casually either approve or disapprove when he finally heard about it. This became known as “working towards the the CIO“, as the executive was not a coordinated, co-operating body, but a collection of individuals each trying to gain more power and influence over the CIO. This often made IT executive meetings very convoluted and divided, especially with the CIO’s vague policy of creating a multitude of often very similar posts.’

This is also an opportunity to put the many references given in the 30 minute talk, and used in the research, in one handy place. Enjoy.

Reading List

  1. The Management Century by Walter Kiechel III, published in Harvard Business Review, November 2012.
  2. The Essential Deming: Leadership Principles from the Father of Quality (2012) by Dr Joyce Nilsson Orsini. Available as a Kindle book, this is the only place I have read Deming’s theories on organisation structures and the negative impact of org charts.
  3. Value Stream Mapping – understand the theory of this special variant of process map
  4. Management 3.0 (2011) by Jurgen Appelo.
  5. Godwin’s Law by Mike Godwin, 1990. ‘As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.’
  6. Scaling Agile at Spotify (2012) by Kniberg and Ivarsson.
  7. Power to the Edge (2003) by Alberts and Hayes.
  8. Here Comes Everybody (2009) by Clay Shirky.
  9. The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) by Frederick Winslow Taylor.
  10. The Theory of Business Enterprise (1904) by the Thorsten Veblen (the witty economist who invented the concept of ‘conspicuous consumption’ among other things). Best read in Wikipedia.
  11. General and Industrial Administration (1916 in French, 1946 in English) by Henri Fayol. Had Henri not been French, and writing at a tricky time in world politics, his ideas might have spread sooner. Similar to Frederick Taylor in many ways.
  12. Conway’s Law by Melvin Conway.
  13. Servant Leadership – best read about in this chaotic Wikipedia entry which features American Robert Greenleaf’s work.
  14. Peter Drucker’s contribution to management and organisational literature in the second half of the 20th century was biblical. The HBR article above does a great job at summarising his influence, or you can buy this book on Amazon.
  15. The reference to the 3rd Reich organisation structure and model can be found here in its original form (not adapted for CIOs).

What software people can learn from great Lego design – YOW 2012

By | Agile, Communication, Development, People | One Comment

Lego software design rule 1: design only in white bricks

At YOW! Australia in Melbourne I had the pleasure of introducing and getting to know John-Henry Harris, a product designer at Lego in Denmark. Originally from the UK, his passion for product design, and a love of Lego saw him land the job of many designers’ dreams at a young age.

His talk was about design and innovation, and I was struck by the parallels to the non-brick world – which is why YOW had him at opening spot on Day 1 of the conference’s agile stream of course!

John Henry Harris Lego dragons

Here’s 14+1 Lego design and innovation principles to consider (John Henry has kindly added a 15th in response to our blog post):

  1. Design using only white bricks: as you can see from the illustration above (my very own resident lego designer’s handiwork), making something look great with only white bricks is HARD. Your model immediately goes a bit flat, there’s no flashy accents of colour to rely on, and no detail – the essential form must stand on its own two feet. Then, when you get the design right, add colour a little at a time and ensure every colour adds some value. In software land, think Balsamiq over Powerpoint as your IDE.
  2. No new bricks – treat this constraint as a challenge to your inventiveness. Of course
    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    They look similar, but do quite different functions.

    every designer wants new bricks developed to enable a special corner or moving feature of their model, but the cost of moulds and development is high, think tens of thousands. Now, Lego certainly isn’t shy of investing in new brick designs, as the Star Wars series shows, but every one must be heavily justified and be widely re-useable. Sound familiar to any Open Source guardians of the core application code? Every Lego designer also knows that somewhere in the world, their name is being cursed when a model rebuild is foiled by a failure to find the exact, rare, tiny 1 x 1 brick needed – the one with the hollow back and a rebated front side, rather than a stud.

  3. Always make options to test. John-Henry told us the story of a Lego technic bulldozerbulldozer model, where from Day 1 the team decided they would build two discrete options – a highly featured, and slightly larger model; and a smaller one, that used up a chunk of the design budget by adding a motor and some moving parts. The team felt confident that the test audience would choose the scale and functionality of the larger, non-motorised model over the mechanised version. Doubtless they even wondered out loud occasionally about the sense of going through the complete design process for 2 things almost the same, when one was clearly the superior product. The final result is above – mechanised won the day, against all predictions. Size ain’t everything.
  4. Involve your customers in design: Lego makes a habit of bringing in realLego-Emerald_Night_Train customers to co-create some products and solve tough engineering problems within other lines. In 2009 the Emerald Night train set was the first train to be made in many years from the standard Lego system, and AFOLs (Adult Fans of Lego) with expertise in trains were brought in to work out solutions for motor durability and help with engineering of the set. That is so much more than sending out a research team or conducting a survey on your website – do your products have enough goodwill and the love of your customers to ask them to be involved with design? Have you the humility to work alongside them? Chances are we’ll all spend big dollars on ‘consultants’ instead.
  5. Work in teams. Here’s a major overlap between Lego product design processes and agile software design and development. Multi-disciplinary teams are core to the innovation and design process in both places. There is a team space, shared and individual work environments, plans out in the open. I think our world of business agility is starting to understand the power of this – the Activity Based Working (ABW) movement in architecture is starting to build environments to suit a collaborative work style (with BankWest in Perth being one to see if you want your socks knocked off by futuristic socio-technical building design).
  6. Marketers and designers sit together from Day 1. It’s a subset of Principle #5 I suppose, but so often missed in software development projects. The diversity of personalities just adds to the creative environment, and much time is saved having the ‘go to market’ people in the room. This is grossly absent in most projects relying on software development to succeed. Marketing are too often the team on another level or in another building.
  7. Test with real customers – kids! A great story came up at YOW! to illustrate whether you really
    One of JHH's Creator sets (Fiery Legend) - showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    One of JHH’s Creator sets (Fiery Legend) – showing one of the 3 dragons you can make. Re-use makes design so much tougher!

    know your customer, or whether you’re only making what your well-meaning product owner or business analyst has had inspiration to build for a perceived customer need. Testing Lego dragon designs (I think it was a dragon, might have just been a monster), the team waited anxiously to see of the efforts that had gone into the engineering of an upright walking beast had paid off. It had been a huge mechanical conundrum, constraining the leg joints with pieces drawn from sets across the group – a masterpiece in design. The end result was a shock to the team – to paraphrase the children’s choice: “why would we pick a dragon that walks, when this one fllliiiiesssssssss…” as the child picks up another model and simply swooshes it through the air in their outstretched hand.

  8. Take pride in building to a cost envelope. This follows on from Principle #2 to some extent, and  I reflect is core to many arguments I have witnessed in the past over the benefits of agile methods of working. The simplest resolution of the “how much will this damned thing cost me?” standoff between product owners, accountants and IT is to promise to deliver the highest priority features within an envelope of money. As Dave Thomas wisely once said: “budgeting is easy – simply find out how much money is your CEO willing to bet on this idea”. Building to a cost is an up-front constraint at Lego, and people’s energy goes into designing an innovative solution that kids will love, not fighting over budgets.
  9. Have coaches – coaches are part of the team at Lego, and designers get to spend time being a Technical coach or a Model coach. For many of us in agile-land, coaches are too often one row too many on a budget.xls file. How exactly do we expect to develop our skills at working with agility, which is a mindset founded on continuous innovation and improvement? Maybe to keep costs down, just one person on the team is nominated to read a book on agile, or get certified? Luna Tractor’s experience has been that your optimism will not pay off.
  10. Design rules come from deep user insight – if you are a Lego nerd like me, you
    Another JHH Creator set - 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    Another JHH Creator set – 3 radically different cars from the one box of bricks.

    will doubtless marvel at the instruction books, where no words are used to ensure universality of the document. But one thing you may not have noticed is a subtle product design rule around very similar parts being required in the same small build sequence. Say, a 1 x 6 and a 1 x 8 red brick. Not allowed! Why? Because a child searching for a 1 x 6, then a 1 x 8 brick amongst the tipped out packet of 200 bricks in a set is going to get frustrated, repeatedly finding and attempting to fit the wrong brick. Which to a young child looks like the right brick. Apple iTunes 11 developers, are you listing to this?

  11. The hardest products to design are the ones where re-use is mandatory. The Lego Creator series is a tough assignment. Essentially, 1 box of bricks, 3 different models within a theme required. With as few bits as possible left over after each model. Think code re-use is a challenge?
  12. Build with your left hand, or with gardening gloves. That is how far the Lego designers will go to emulate what it is like to be 4 years old and trying to pick up and manipulate the smaller pieces in the Lego sets (for kids just graduating from Duplo). In software, how often do we think of constraining our skill when using and testing our product? We’re all whiz-kid digital people, do we really imagine we can know what it is like to be a ‘normal’ person? When was the last time you explained search engine optimisation or the internet to a friend from a non-IT world?
  13. The Lego design team reviews the product – just like a retro/showcase, and you’d better be ready to have your say. With Lego, products may stay in design mode for months, and I dare say that it gets tedious, even for a Lego-nutcase to have to rebuild the same item over and over for weeks at a time, searching for better ways and faster, stronger engineering solutions. The team provides the context, the support and the feedback so that invention can be turned to innovation. Problem-solving is so often a team exercise in both our worlds.
  14. Every product can be analog and digital, so be open to options. The design team working on Lego’s Ninjago models used story-telling to develop characters and context for the individual mini-figures. Their clever solution to stimulating their ideas was to hire a cartoonist, who would sketch story boards and story lines and put them on the wall. Now, art imitates life, whichScreen shot 2012-12-16 at 4.23.45 PM imitates art, as the Ninjago TV series is a great success alongside the toys. Traditional merchandising turned on its head! Do you have the creative bandwidth to imagine games, video, books, and social media as well as your starting software product? Or is that someone else’s job in your company?
  15. Have fun – play is an essential part of the process of invention and innovation. You can see John-Henry talk on this subject at TedX here. I opened the day with a quote from JHH’s website: “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing” – George Bernard Shaw.

And when you’re as good at playing as John-Henry Harris, you might one day create something as awesome as this. Santa, are you listening?

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

1962 Volkswagon Campervan in Lego by John-Henry Harris.

Agile 2012 – the emerging community in Australia

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Agile Australia 2009, in Sydney.

I distinctly recall feeling crestfallen when a show of hands was asked for at Agile Australia 2009 in Sydney  – who was doing agile, and who was just thinking about it?

From memory about 70% were just thinking about it, and it felt like an evangelical sale from that point onward. We hadn’t really catered for a newbie audience as well as we might have either!

My, how that has changed in just a couple of years. Slattery IT just published the July Agile Today magazine with the results from the conference survey (click on the infographic below to make it bigger). With double the number of attendees of 2009, the profile of agile and lean as a set of techniques being applied in all sectors in Australian business is encouraging reading.

The data here is a great picture of agile in Australia.

  1. It has become about faster time to market for product innovation.
  2. There are a bunch of organisations who have been doing agile for 2 years, and are wrestling with the challenges that come from plateauing in their outcomes and practices.
  3. Making a successful transition to agile working is about overcoming resistance to change within your culture, a topic that is now hot – and for which there is plenty to draw from in the field of change management.

By my reckoning, James and I make up a fair percentage of the tiny ’10+ years’ block in the bar chart (bottom left), showing how long people have been practising agile. As the inimitable Roy Singham so kindly pointed out, I feel a bit like the old man of agile these days – having taken it up in 2000 to survive a dot com in San Francisco. At least I have kept up the sartorial splendour along the way!

Nigel Dalton, David Joyce, Simon Bristow and Craig Smith on stage at Agile Australia 2012 in Melbourne.

Luna USA Field Trip: lessons for the future of retail in Australia

By | Customers, Disruption, Lean, People, Retail, Strategy | No Comments

If I had a dollar for every whinging column-inch where our Australian newspapers copy and paste press releases from Myer, David Jones and Harvey Norman’s PR departments, blaming the dreaded interweb for the end-of-days in our retail stores, I’d be wealthy enough to buy my Levis from DJs all the time. Which is another story, but to be fair, a related one.

As data from Marketing Magazine recently reported, and as I have duly illustrated above, online sales (the pirate) amounted to a mere 4.9% of total retail revenue in Australia. You’d think it was 49% the way the captains of industry are moaning! You would have to take the 15 top-ranked etailers (look away venture capitalists) to beat Myer’s sales in 2011.

Three quarters of those etailers are Australian based (like recent Melbourne niche startup Oola Toys, catering for quality kid’s toys online), belying the hysteria that the foreign pirate devils are plundering our shores.

Like pirates, etailers are moving fast and nimbly, growing 29% per year, but it’s a perilously small base, and although the power of compound growth of that kind is well-noted by economists, the pirate’s flag was visible from a great distance.

In the long run, can ye olde worlde Australian retail survive this onslaught from the internet? Will websites that enable people to self-serve, in their own good time (websites rarely snear “you’s been fixed?” while texting their mates on their iPhone), with near perfect information on price and quality, put bricks and mortar to the sword?

What’s particularly disturbing as Luna Tractorites, is that while we wait for the millionaire boys club to figure it out, the Australian retail experience just seems to get worse, accelerating our move online. As management consultants advise the command and control CEO-classes that the only sure-fire road to profit is cost reductions, they cut wages, staff numbers, staff benefits, premises and service.

I just don’t buy all their complaints about retail rents and wages. As this report on the state of Australian retail by The Australia Institute shows (yes, I know, they have an axe to grind and I should declare, distantly linked to my new employers), there is plenty of misinformation being spread at present to discombobulate us all.

Australian CEOs should know by now that by their very nature, big consulting firms will only recommend a cost-cutting program, since a well-known result of an ideas or innovation-based strategy is that some of the ideas won’t work. Cost cutting always gets a result for a CEO, and since they’re only going to be in the job 2 years, the next guy can handle the fallout.

The less than 5% of Australian retail sales that ecommerce plunders appears to have undone the psyche of the highly paid leaders of our big retailers. Their inability to grasp pure online is only surpassed by their choking over their morning tea and tim-tams trying to figure out how to make online and bricks & mortar stores work together. Which the rest of the world has had a better go at I might add – according to the Marketing article, 13 of the top 15 etailers have a bricks and mortar presence of some kind.

The web is growing fast too, off that tiny 4.9% base, and it appears nobody near the top of big retail has a single good idea to play. Remind me again why we pay them so much?

To add final insult to big retail’s EBIT injuries, the Australian ecommerce industry is still sexy, bright and cool 12 years later – and still attracting talent and investment. And more often than not, attacking using small teams moving fast and agile.

Luna Tractor sent me to the USA in May 2012, the land of BIG retail, and I am pleased to report that whilst on assignment, I have seen the future.

Knowing a fair few camera nerds (James, Gus, Jamie, Steve I am looking at you all), they often recommend a website called B&H Cameras, based in the USA, as trustworthy, value for money and easy to deal with. The 3 horsemen of the retail apocalypse.

And thus, being in Manhattan for a few days, I felt duty bound to check them out.

The approach, from Penn Station through roadworks and fairly drab streets did not auger well. The only retailers in this area were basic, small and a bit sad looking.

Eventually I spotted a nondescript B&H sign, and a couple of traditonally dressed and coiffed Jewish guys sitting outside the door to a loading dock, looking exhausted from their morning’s work, and seemingly pleased to be in the open air. Hmmm. Entrance round the corner. Okayyyy.

Round the corner, in the front doors and BAM! Like a cross between Penn Station and Willy Wonka’s factory, there are people everywhere, and the zziiippp, zzziiiippp sound of machines, rollers and gears. I look up to see green boxes flying around gantries above our heads at high speed, like a Terry Gilliam film.

Photo from wikipedia

With electronics gear everywhere. It’s about the size of a decent JB HiFi store in Australia. On each level!

It is immediately explained to me I should check my hand-luggage in at the concierge, and then I’m free to head into the store.

Nondescript on the outside, treasure trove on the inside. Hundreds of customers, and dozens more of those mysterious traditionally-dressed Hasidic Jewish men. They are everywhere, chatting to each other, chatting to customers, laughing, looking serious,

Level 1 of B&H

debating, calling out to one another. I quickly get the picture they own and run the business.

My genuine requirement (and yes, there is one my dear family) is a couple of packs of Polaroid’s new zero ink ‘Zink’ printer paper, for the gorgeous little GL-10 portable printer we use. It is portable, battery powered, and most importantly, emulates the look of a genuine old Polaroid camera print. Essential cool.

Having bought the printer at Michaels in Melbourne, I figured I would acquire more paper on the road in the USA easily enough. I figured 100% wrong, as I found in San Francisco, Minneapolis and Boston. “Polaroid?” they all said. “What’s that?” or “they went out of business”.  Even the specialist camera stores blanked. At worst I got the surly ‘haveaniceday’ which translates to ‘whydidIwastetimeonyouloser’.

I wandered upstairs at B&H, seeing the family safely despatched to check out the world’s largest 3D televisions, and am once again taken aback by the sight. Not dozens of Jewish men, but hundreds.

Product is divided by brand, and by categeory. A whole shop-sized stand of Canon cameras, of Nikons, Leica, and Olympus. Printers arranged accordingly. Historical displays. Apple computers, Sony, you name a brand, it’s there. I am drawn to the Polaroid and instant camera stand, and to my utter disappointment see their old Pogo printer and a paper rack saying ‘out of stock, new product coming soon’. Images of the Lady Gaga designed GL-10 printer as a paper weight flash into my brain.

“Sir, you look like you saw ghosts” says a man at my elbow. I explain my problem, what I want, and he steers me by the elbow – “it’s not my area, but come over to where the printers are, we’ll see what we can do”. I am introduced to the 3 printer guys, who have the tiny range of Polaroids (there are only 2 printers, and a couple of cameras) on their shelves.

Then my server shocks me – he opens the freaking company website on a computer on the stand! I quickly jump to the conclusion that the game is over, and I’m about to be sent home to order it on the web.

To have a retailer even admit they have a website is rare enough, but using the site within the store to actually assist a customer even rarer. There’s no commission on that sale surely! Having got a visual check on what I want through the use of a quick search, the guy CTRL-C’s the product SKU, alt-tabs to another boring old mainframe looking screen, pastes it in, and whammo, we have an order.

“Were you thinking of anything else on today’s visit?” he asks. As it happens, I have ummed and ahhed over a simple 50mm f1.4 lens for shooting indoors for a while. “Do I have to go somewhere else for lenses?” I ask. “No, no, if you know what you want we’ll find it” comes the confident reply. One website search, visual confirmation, cut and paste of the SKU, and I am done.

The B&H service counters where you inspect the goods brought up from the warehouse. Spot any queues here?

I now expect my guy to take me to a till and ring it up. Silly me. Nor does he point and tell me to wait in the queue over there. He TAKES me to a free service person at the biggest customer service counter I have ever seen (I counted about 70 stations), and introduces me to the next guy in the chain. Then he waves goodbye and goes back to the printer display.

I have a small ticker-tape printout in my hand of the items, with a bar code. I am greeted, the serving guy simply scans the code and suggests I try one of their delicious candies, as the goods will be a couple of minutes. Ummm, so where are they then?

In under 2 minutes, 2 green boxes with my lens and paper arrive on the invisible railway underneath this gigantic service desk. I get my credit card out, ready to pay. “Oh no Sir” he waves my card away, “we’re just going to let you check the items are what you wanted – you will pay downstairs at the next step…”

Now really intrigued, I decide to race the items downstairs. My effort to beat them will doubtless be foiled by a queue at the payment counter though. Except there isn’t one. In fact, I have not seen a queue anywhere in the entire store. Payments is only the second place I have seen any women in the store at all (the first was bag check). Six checkouts for credit cards, 4 for cash and cheques.

Having paid, I am ushered over to the collection counter, where my items, with warranty cards filled out, my receipt stapled to them, have been delivered by the magic railway and are in a bag ready to collect.

Boggling.

So what has happened here? Well, given that these guys have been in business for decades, I have just learned where Steve Jobs got his Apple Store commerce and Genius Bar service processes from.

B&H are basically masters of FLOW, and ensuring that value is accruing the whole time for the customer.

B&H have counter-intuitively divided up the value stream into discrete parts that are delivered rapidly by discrete people. In a time where everyone else is cutting staff numbers, training and service levels, they are dialing those factors to 11.

They have worked out the bottlenecks in their store flow, and simply calculated the required ratio of servers, inspection staff, cashiers, help desk and collection staff based on the pull of customer demand.

They also have a booming website business, shipping huge quantities of product across America and the world, with integrated logistics partners like Fedex. To comply with traditional Jewish law, they are shut on Saturday, and do not even process internet orders placed on a Saturday. The system just queues them up for Sunday.

Now, I’m not saying they are perfect. According to Wikipedia they are defending a 2009 lawsuit focused on the lack of progress opportunities for women in the store. I can see how that arose!

But between innovators like Zara (right next door to our David Jones in Melbourne’s Bourke Street Mall, and as busy as DJ’s is quiet), Michaels and B&H, there’s hope that a retail shopping experience in Australia can still be a pleasant, and profitable one.

Just don’t expect any consultants to recommend that strategy any time soon.

Luna USA Field Trip: Kanban ice-cream – the case for limited whip?

By | Agile, Customers | No Comments

In the delightful Hayes Valley in San Francisco, you will find a myriad of little design shops, clothing stores and cafes. Cheek by jowl 3 storey houses line the streets, and with lovely parks and a 20 minute walk to the city, it is the chosen neighbourhood of the new San Francisco dot com generation and their offspring.

Which leads to an interesting business problem on a sunny Spring day. The best ice-cream in Hayes Valley comes from an ice-cream stand in a mini-park half way down the main street. And they make their ice-cream ON DEMAND. Yep, on the spot, from fresh ingredients.

‘Why the hell would you do that?’ I can hear you asking! Well, it is novel (it took the inventor years to perfect the process and the machines); the customers love it (kids marvel at the dry ice-powered machines and the smoke coming off them); there’s no wasted production; and it tastes great.

Four operators manage 4 machines, making the cones and small tubs of icecream in 4 flavours – 3 standard, and one special of the day. Each fresh batch fills 2-3 smallish tubs at most.

Now what is amazing is that as people wait for their ice-cream, there is hardly any whining, whinging, tears, eye-rolling, skirt-pulling, or toys thrown from (adult) prams at all. Everyone seems pretty calm, even though the queue is 20 people deep, and the waiting area is full. And we are waiting for ICE-CREAM!!!

Nobody is hassling the staff as to where their order has gone, and people are adjusting their expectations with sanguine anticipation.

How does this miracle of customer service occur?

Here’s their high-tech system – did you spot it in the first photo?

Four swim-lanes for flavours. Different coloured cards for flavours. The order written on the card. Names go on cards. Customers can read the cards and see where their order is up to in the queue – they don’t need to interrupt anyone to ask where their ice-cream is at!

Customers can adjust their order at the start based on trading off a smaller queue with a choice of flavour. Want it quick? Choose vanilla right now.

So the next time your customers are behaving like 3 year olds at an ice-cream parlour, check to see if your agile board is as good as Smitten’s.

Luna USA Field Trip: what happened to Apollo 1 to 10, a lesson in iterative development

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

Most people can tell you which Apollo mission landed on the moon. Apollo 11 – July 20, 1969. So what happened to Apollo 1 through 10?

Apollo lunar module in Smithsonian Air and Space museum, Washington DC.

Apollo was the follow on to a program called Gemini, and lasted through the 1960s (until 1972) proving that long term manned space flight was possible. Moving quickly to counter the Soviet threat of a moon shot, Apollo was hustled in with many of the heroes of the earlier ‘right stuff’ era forming the core crew for the new, more ambitious program of landing on the moon by the end of the decade.

Apollo 1 was ready for testing in 1967. And during that testing, the program gained tragic infamy for establishing that short-cut engineering designs that result in electrical sparks within the capsule’s high oxygen environment would be tragic and fatal.

In the minutes it took to open the doors of the capsule, Apollo 1 and its three astronauts were incinerated.

NASA vowed to listen more closely to the concerns of the astronauts from that moment onwards, and appointed an astronaut to lead the engineering of each mission, bringing the team closer to a Skunkworks model than ever before. As the people sitting on top of the 36 storey Saturn V rocket, it seems fair that the astronauts were designated to be the client!

Thus Apollo missions 2 through 7* were unmanned, as NASA rapidly iterated and re-engineered the capsule design, Saturn V rocket design and electronics needed to get to the moon and back. Validated learning (in Eric Ries’ parlance) was best achieved by launch and recovery. The Apollo 1 fire had put the program back 20 months in total, endangering President Kennedy’s goal of getting to the moon and back by the end of the decade.

Meantime the Soviets roared ahead, successfully landing the first (unmanned) vehicle on the moon’s surface, and sending a craft in orbit around the moon and returning it to earth.

Apollo 7, on October the 11, 1968 saw the re-start of the USA’s manned missions. Apollo 8, 9 and 10 went in quick succession from December 1968 to June 1969. Again, rapid iterations with learning employed for the subsequent rocket and module designs.

Through adhering to these rapid engineering iterations, rather than a big design up front model, the USA redefined the word ‘possible’ for a generation to come.

* True space nerds will note that various names were given to the test launches and developments after Apollo 1, some of which were Apollo or Saturn-Apollo.

Luna USA Field Trip: the lunar lander – minimum viable product

By | Agile, Space, Technology | No Comments

Field trips to the Smithsonian are highly recommended by Luna Tractor! The lunar lander LM-2 is stored in the Washington DC Air and Space Museum.

We’ve already referred to the Lunar landing Module (LM in NASA parlance) as the greatest machine ever built. The chance to see a replica in Washington DC was very exciting.

So imagine my amazement to discover that the machine is NOT a replica. It is LM-2, the module they built as a spare unit in anticipation of something going wrong with one of the others. As it happened, things went smoothly (if you don’t count Apollo 13) and it stayed in the shed at Cape Canaveral.

The lesson that the Lunar Module teaches us is fitness for purpose – an old definition of quality that has stood the test of time. Take a close look at the panels on the module – it is riveted together with the bare minimum of materials to keep it light.

“Why isn’t it shaped like a plane” asked my traveling agile assistant, whom we shall call ‘Retro-Boy’. The answer lies in the fact that aerodynamics are somewhat irrelevant in a vacuum.

The modular design of these craft allowed the lessons of the previous Apollo mission to be incorporated quickly into the next mission.

Luna USA Field trip: more skunkworks reflections

By | Agile, Disruption, People, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

Like so many exhibits in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, this plane is not a replica, a copy, or a later model. This actual plane is the very first jet fighter produced by Lockheed Martin’s skunkworks team.

The 14 rules of the Skunkworks, written by Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Martin in the 1940s are are clear antecedents of the 2001 Agile Manifesto, and the Agile Principles behind the manifesto.

Kelly Johnson congratulates the test pilot for the new Lockheed Martin jet fighter, the same plane pictured above 60 years later.

James talks about Skunkworks in our YOW! presentation, which you can view here on the YOW! site.

Kelly Johnson, the leader of the Skunkworks organisation, had one core principle – everyone needed for the design, build, testing and launch of a plane would be in the team, and in the room. Engineers, pilots, welders, engine-makers, contractors.

This principle was brought to bear on the Allies’ big business problem in 1943 – the Germans had developed a jet fighter, capable of 50% more speed than a British Spitfire and the famed US P51-D. Eschewing the usual ‘big design up front’ period for a new plane, they went to work in a hangar and 143 days later were flying the first US-manufactured jet.

One of the secrets of the speed to market of the design was the way the plane was constructed. The tail piece, which contains the engine, could be folded back in several simple panels to reveal the entire jet unit for servicing or replacement, allowing rapid changeover and trying alternate designs.

The customer problem. For solution, see above.

At the Smithsonian, they have the problem and the solution arranged side by side in an exhibition honouring the jet engine and the Lockheed Martin’s amazing new approach to product development.

Luna USA Field Trip: Wright Brothers – less money, less resources, more innovative

By | Agile, Disruption, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Washington DC, a treasure trove of lean and agile lessons for Luna Tractorites.

Simon Sinek has a great talk on the rivalry at play in the early part of the 20th century to successfully fly a heavier than air, powered aircraft.

It is an important tale for agilists, as the small budget and time/ weather constraints faced by the Wright’s forced them into a design that was low cost, modular, easily repaired, and could be iterated on very rapidly. With which they killed the competition. I won’t repeat it – check out the Ted Talk I have linked above.

Having generated the design for the innovative flexible wing surface to allow more control, the Wright brothers developed tools to hypothesise, test and redeploy elements of the planes in days and weeks, where the opposition (funded 20x better) took months.

Their work with a primitive wind tunnel enabled them to test quickly, and they questioned everything – including apparently proven mathematical formulae for key factors like lift co-efficients.

This image of the brothers’ workshop taken from the Smithsonian exhibition.

In the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum there is an exhibition devoted to the brilliance of the Wright brothers, which attributes their success to genius, and the short cycles of innovation and testing real, flying, machines.

The star of the exhibition is the original plane. Yes, the exact original, with new canvas stretched onto the frame in the 1980s to replace the rotted old 1903 covering. Three hundred feet in the air, strung up in a wooden, wire and canvas device, it is the best definition of a ‘commit’ that I can imagine.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing is not the first flight in 1903 – but that only 10 years later, a plane successfully crossed the Atlantic. The next big barrier, a private plane in space, was 100 years away.

Luna USA Field Trip: Space Shuttle – a monumental engineering achievement

By | Space, Strategy, Technology | No Comments

In our YOW! 2011 talk we discussed the space shuttle era that began in the late 1970s – an era of USA and Soviet rivalry based foolishly on strategic parity (‘our goal is just to have what they have’). Horrifically, many dot com genius business plans are still based on the futility of strategic parity, in short they read: ‘__________ <insert successful website name> but with ________ <insert tiny variation with no proven customer value>’

The Soviets soon abandoned their own space shuttle, which is bizarrely similar in design to the USA model (clearly, they downloaded the plans from pirate bay), in favour of the Soyuz rockets they developed in the 1960s and still fly today.

With the first American astronauts eschewing their shuttle program in favour of hitching a (much cheaper) lift to the International Space Station aboard a Soyuz this week, it was timely that I had the chance to see the Discovery first hand at the Smithsonian.

Like the SR-71, you have probably underestimated how big the shuttle is from the TV pictures.

The body is at least the size of a 2-3 story Melbourne house (those long, thin 5-6m wide terrace houses). Shiny and glowing on TV, it is a beaten and battered workhorse on the outside. The tile pattern is infinitely complex, the white paintwork burnt and worn. It is hell to photograph without diminishing it in scale somehow.

Locked in to such a monumental design, it is easy to see how you would avoid change at all costs on this piece of technology, and why the cost of ownership was so high, that in the end, it was retired with the same conclusion the Russians had drawn 30 years before – just too much money to run and innovate as a platform.

Sound familiar to anyone?

Luna USA Field Trip: SR-71 in person – an era, a plane, a team

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

For the last month I (ND) have been in the USA, on a trip anchored around the LSSC12 conference in Boston, presenting on the kanban dimensions of Lonely Planet’s lawyers in Melbourne. A secondary purpose of the trip was to practice a little genchi genbutsu – going ‘to the place of the work’.

Work in our case, being some legendary examples we teach from the history of great agile and lean work practices.

Our admiration for Lockheed Martin’s Skunkworks aircraft design team in the 1940s and beyond, and their contribution to a way of working we now know as agile and lean, has been written about before on this blog, and spoken about at length by James and me at conferences like YOW! in 2011.

It is one thing to watch countless videos, read books, articles and blog entries, and admire amazing photographs. It is another thing entirely to come face to face with a Blackbird SR-71. And on this trip, I have seen two.

The first (pictured above) is stored on the deck of the USS Intrepid, an aircraft carrier docked in Manhattan. I was so awed to get up close, I wore a tie!

Standing beside this amazing work of engineering, it is a shock to see how big it is. It is an old plane, having seen active duty, and this exact plane is the current speed record holder for jet aircraft – around 3,000 km/h. That speed is not surprising, as the Blackbird basically amounts to a pencil jammed between two of the most enormous jet engines imaginable.

The second is at the Stephen Udvar-Hazy hangar of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in Dulles, Virginia. Not subject to the outdoor air and pollution of a city, this plane is more pristine.

It was delivered from LA to Washington in 1 hour 4 minutes, setting a record of its own for the fastest crossing of the USA by a jet aircraft. To put that in perspective, the flight I am writing this blog post on will take 6+ hours to do the same journey.

Luna News: Team Update

By | People | No Comments

At the beginning of June 2012, the Luna Tractor network will farewell Nigel Dalton as a consultant, to take on the role of Chief Information Officer at REA-Group. As one of the founders of Luna Tractor, Nigel will continue to write here, sharing his insights and experiences as part of our growing network of executives, consultants, leaders and change agents.

Over the last twelve months Luna Tractor has worked with many different organisations, from banking, superannuation and health insurance, to handmade bicycles and professional photographic services. We’ve helped them find new ways to work, with new approaches to innovation, transforming business by linking customer insight with strategy and agile execution. Co-founder James Pierce will continue to lead this mission hands-on with all of Luna Tractor’s partners.

Nigel is currently in the USA where he is speaking at the Lean Software and Systems Conference (LSSC) in Boston. Both Nigel and James with be back on stage along with Luna Tractor clients at the Agile Australia 2012 conference at end of May to continue sharing their stories. We look forward to seeing you there – Nigel and James.

Documentation – is video an agile option?

By | Agile, Communication, Development, People | One Comment

Working software over comprehensive documentation – one of the tenets of the agile movement that was enshrined on the agile manifesto over 10 years ago. But it is often hard to convince grey-haired old men carrying sharpened stakes (aka the stakeholders) that when things go wrong, the safest path is NOT for someone to look up the very thick and comprehensive ringbinder your BA team created at release time, find the page with that code on it, and fix it.

Back in the day, a whole industry grew up around documentation and manuals for software development projects. You could even get a job as a ‘technical writer’! I’m glad to say we don’t hear much from those people today, but I have no doubt they still exist somewhere in the land of waterfalls. Plenty of people still make loser manuals, as Mary Poppendieck is wont to let slip. And between James and I, we must have tried ring binders, post-it notes, wikis, white boards, powerpoints, omnigraffle, photos, blogs, twikis, email, text files… just about everything except stone tablets.

Luna hero Donald Knuth would tell you that to some extent the software should be its own manual (aka literate programming) – if fortune smiles upon you, it will be able to be picked up by a later developer and sorted out, based on the use of well-known programming techniques, sensible structure, and the occasional comment.

Architecture is another matter again – agile talks about it being a shared responsibility, about anyone being able to draw it on a whiteboard at any time. Good principle, but things can get quite complex at times – most people don’t want to know everything, just where the dragons be.

Alistair Cockburn made an interesting point at Agile Australia 2011 – that principle #1 of the agile manifesto was about the importance of face-to-face communication, and principle #2 was around minimising documentation. What if we combined these two ideas? In a world full of Youtube consuming, non-reading, video-savvy people, surely a short piece to camera was the next best thing to having the creator of a piece of code on the spot to consult?

So, from a small scribble in my To Do list, was born a video documentation project to take some risk out of moving the Lonely Planet website with a new team being started up in London – 18,000km away with all new people.

The idea was simple – 10 videos, less than 5 minutes each, hi-res with a Flip camera so the whiteboard drawings could be easily seen, and the focus being on pointing out the dragons. Explain the interfaces, where test coverage was weakest, some detail around the databases (recorded brilliantly with a screen grab tool by the DBA) and a great lesson in all the gotchas. The lowest tech thing we could do was label them well, stick them on a USB drive, and ship them to London.

Great idea for release notes, progressively recording improvements to code. A now out of production Flip is only going to cost you a couple of hundred dollars on eBay.

If nothing else, it might avoid the kind of developer comments we once found in some packaged software code -“what kind of [email protected]#$tard wrote this? I have no idea what this is for!”

Give it a try with your iPhone and let us know how it goes.

EXCLUSIVE! Australian incubator launches Airbed.com, hot new social travel transaction platform

By | Disruption, Strategy | One Comment

1 April 2012

Luna Tractor has been leaked advance details of the hottest new internet property to emerge from The Y-Axis, Melbourne’s most successful  incubator and startup investor, proof positive of the benefits flowing from one of the nation’s first NBN hotspots in Brunswick.

“Airbnb were so conservative, they  never really showed signs of being brave enough to take their platform to its logical limits” say the Airbed.com founders in their embargoed press release. “It’s all very well letting out your front room, or your sister’s apartment while she is away for the

The bed as a platform.

weekend, and saying how cool and social it will be – but we all know what that really means for travellers! It’s about the bed as a social platform, stupid!”

It follows then that Airbed.com will be far more ‘mocoloso’ (mobile-cool-local-social) as a platform than any of its competitors. Mocoloso was the key term being used by the VC Community at this years SXSW trans-media conference somewhere in the USA, which none of the airbed.com founders could actually find, but they have been to America.

Slavishly following the Eric Ries ‘Lean Startup’ model, Airbed.com operate 100% in the cloud with virtually no servers, no software (“code is SO last Thursday” says the CEO), use an agile methodology, and focus heavily on the use of RESTful APIs. “Soap APIs were frightening off some of the bohemian clients from the Northside in our user trials” says the airbed.com CEO in the leaked release.

The startup team has ‘pivoted’ once already – their first website was called airbnd.com, a social travel guide that enabled travellers to locate and access B&D (bondage and discipline) services. “We ran into the iTunes store, and some silly issues over the logo, so we pivoted immediately.”

When asked about the obvious similarities to established Californian social travel business airbnb, the founders countered quickly: “this is the Y-Axis incubator’s innovation secret sauce – we’re fast followers. Mostly we like to copy people’s websites and use Powerpoint to cut and paste new logos and stuff over the top of old ones.”

37 Signals website fails to use the Y-Axis standard font of Helvetica. "It's a wonder they are still in business with that UX" say airbed.com founders.

“We saw the US dot com industry was now just duplicating 37Signal’s website as a standard business model. We tried that of course – but our Macs have had all the fonts deleted apart from Helvetica, which led us to airbnb’s site – they truly understand design in the Brunswick sense”.

There are already mature interfaces to travel social dating services like Grindr, and strong rumours of a 4Square API in the summer. “Essentially, airbed.com have totally out-localled the specialists with this offer” says internet commentator Buzz Reilly. “A room? That is yesterday’s business model – nothing could be more local than a bed. With a local in it, preferably”.

The iPhone app is planned to be in store in the next few weeks, with ‘epic’ new interfaces to accommodate its use when intoxicated. There are also strong rumours of a corporate platform being developed, though the rumoured partnership with Blackberry have been scotched by commentators. The likelihood of any of the airbed.com services catching virally is considered extremely high according to their PR Agency.

Airbed.com are looking to raise around $20m for Series B, having begun their business using only the Burger King sponsored free wifi on the 86 Tram and two iPads, occasionally having to get off to avoid MYKI inspectors and to source long macs.

“Actually, we were hoping for a big mezzanine, but some douche put it on airbnb.com, some Japanese college students booked it, and there was no room for us” notes the disappointed airbed.com CFO and founder.

Quote of the week

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

Recent Luna Posts

Become Remarkable.