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Agile Australia 2013 Reflections

By | Agile, Communication, Customers, Education, Lean, People | No Comments

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.

WHY ?

By | Agile, Communication, Customers, Development, Disruption, Lean, People, Strategy | No Comments

At various times I’ve heard Fiona, Nigel and myself telling people “If you only adopt one Agile practice make it the retrospectives” … But why ?

The boards are useful, but they are really just give you a prompt when you talk at your stand ups, and those are just an efficient way to make sure everyone is communicating.  While the demos and showcases give some social incentive to produce real things and check your progress over a useful timeframe (weeks not months or years).  But … The retrospectives (or reviews), that for me is where the real magic happens.  If you never stop to check, to ask how things are going and question why things are the way they are, why you are doing things and what you should do next in response then you risk having  the veneer of an Agile process which is either just micromanagement on the wall, Waterfall or perhaps worst of all, no real plan at all.

Being Agile isn’t enough.  Being Lean isn’t enough.

It’s all to easy to build and do the wrong things very well and very quickly using these techniques.  Perhaps the single most important thing is that your CEO, your leaders, your product people and you need to understand, ask and articulate is WHY you’re doing things.

If it’s a statement about profit and growth, start running. The powerful WHYs come from passion and insights from your customer (or potential customers if you’re doing something new).

WHY –> WHAT –> HOW … Simon Sinek

There are two standout statements in Simon’s TED talk.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy WHY you do it.”

“There are leaders and there are those that lead. Leaders hold a position of power or authority, but those who lead – inspire us. We follow those who lead not because we have to but because we want to, we follow those who lead not for them but for ourselves.”

Too many companies and individuals talk about what they are doing, the great ones talk about why.

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.

Customer expectations are bringing uncertainty to your doorstep – an infographic

By | Agile, Customers, Technology | One Comment

Eric Ries defines a startup as:

A human institution designed to create a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty.

So what does ‘extreme uncertainty’ look like?

Po Bronson coined the phrase ‘radical uncertainty’ 13 years ago in The Nudist on the Late Shift, the book that got me so excited about San Francisco’s dot-com era I left a perfectly good career in Australian corporate IT to chase the dream of startups in America. And those conditions of uncertainty are what led me directly to the agile way of working (thanks Kent Beck), as the only way to cope with business models, shareholder requirements, and customer needs changing on a weekly basis.

Here’s some of the consumer expectations that are driving that kind of uncertainty today, in a brilliant infographic from the team at onlinegraduate programs.com. Grab your iPad, a stop-watch, and possibly a glass of whisky, and head to your own website immediately after reading. You have 4 seconds or less…

Instant America
Created by: Online Graduate Programs

They love feedback down at onlinegraduateprograms.com so drop Tony Shin a note with any feedback using Twitter dm @ohtinytony

From Insight to Strategy to Innovation – while standing at the Toyworld Checkout

By | Communication, Customers, Disruption, People, Strategy | 2 Comments

Listen up lean and agile thinkers. This is a simple illustration of the kind of things that make innovation and strategy easy – a gift from someone on a toy shop counter that probably earns less than $20 an hour. Are you this smart? This brave?

With a 10 year old in my household, it’s little wonder I am a fan of Lego. From my own childhood memories, to their inspiring recovery from a near death business experience (after their long-standing patent for bricks expired) just by listening to customers and innovating the product accordingly, it is all good.

One of their recent products puzzled and infuriated me though. It is a single Lego minifigure in an opaque cellophane packet – ideal for for party bags for kid’s birthdays; the child at the checkout who MUST spend their pocket money on something (and they are cheap, $4 to $5 each); or perhaps the serious collector to get some custom mini figure accessories and body parts.

Yet, you can’t see which one of the 16 in the series you are going to end up with.

I will thus confess to having spent far too much time at many a big store’s Lego counter with Mr 10, eyes shut, feeling the packets to detect the slightest variation in the components to figure out if the character is Jane Torvill (uncool!) or Toxic Space Engineer (cool!).

Children’s (and collecter of greater years, ahem) ingenuity and social network savvy soon solved it – for Series 1 and 2 they quickly figured out the bar codes were different and published the key. So Lego moved the goalposts, using a single bar code and a system of dots on the packaging to differentiate figures in Series 3. The kids cracked it again.

Series 4 onwards you have no chance of detecting the difference from the packaging. The secondary market on eBay for these figures erupted, and the popularity of the series continued to grow. Business is booming. Yet I’m still grumpy about it. Why?

Why did Lego want the figure to be a surprise? Was that part of their strategy for the product? Perhaps I will never know, and Mr 10 and I quickly became disenfranchised by the whole thing.

So imagine my surprise, when dropping into Toyworld Palmerston North in NZ last week to find the Lego minifigure packets on the checkout counter, with each figure individually labeled with a hand-written number against the official Lego key. “You can’t do that”; “that’s naughty”; “that’s against the rules” were all thoughts that leapt into my rule-obeying lizard brain. Flabbergasted, I managed to regain enough English language ask why they’d done it.

And for the readers who are struggling with why the hell I am writing about toyshops, this is called INSIGHT and is the most valuable commodity you can possess when developing something new. It is Dan Pink’s ‘purpose’ and Simon Sinek’s ‘why’ in the words of a 20 year old shop clerk:

“I just saw the looks on the faces of the kids – so disappointed that they got a cheerleader when they wanted a deep sea diver, and the conflict they had, knowing they had to be grateful, but had chosen a useless gift”.

Now, agilists, here comes the STRATEGY bit – how will you do something about that problem your customer savvy product owner has found a really sharp insight about:

“Did you get an official cheat sheet from Lego on how to do it?” I asked.

“No, no – there isn’t one. We just had time while on the checkout and watching the door, so we checked each one individually, just like the kids would do.”

INNOVATION simply comes from making this a habit now, knowing things like there are only 2 robots in the latest boxes of 100 or so mini-figures, and thinking about which of their customers might really value that robot.

“The hair on number 3 in that set there is cool for making Call of Duty characters” trots out Mr 10 to the girl behind the counter. “Really? My brother is so into Call of Duty – he’ll love that one”. Minifigure #3, the uncool, pyjama-clad kid with the teddy bear just went from ‘can’t shift’ to ‘can’t keep in stock’.

That is called GROWTH.

If you’re smart, you’ll be down to Toyworld in Palmy and hire that lady on the counter for your agile innovation team. She gets it 100%.

Quote of the week

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

Become Remarkable.