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Built not Bought

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If we had a dollar for every time someone asked us what course or qualification they should undertake to learn all our Luna stuff then we’d be much closer to owning a company rocket.


While there are certainly a few good courses out there which cover some parts of what we do it’s honestly just an expensive way to buy that information, and it’s also the easy bit.  We’ve published a comprehensive list of books (with short reviews) in our Luna MBA to get you on the right path, and you can purchase a full set of paper books for less than a typical one day Agile 101 course.  So we’re giving away that part of our secret sauce already.

What’s the hard part then? 
  • Every organisation is different.
  • Projects and problems usually need different approaches.
  • The difference between good and great is often subtle.
  • Mastery takes practice, and practice takes time.
The most valuable ingredient is time.  Time to learn.  Time to practice and time to think.
So what course should you do? Save your money, and spend your time instead.  It can only be built, not bought.

Perspective Matters

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

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

Voyager II

The answer ? Well it’s all relative.

Read More

Human Factors Courses

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

What is the Process Communication Model (PCM) ?

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

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

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

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

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

Strategy, forecasting and human factors.

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There’s not a lot of room for a fixed mindset in problem solving or innovation.

With that in mind, the LT team tend to view ourselves as specialist generalists, and over the last 9 months one of the things that has continually surprised me is the similarity of the processes we apply in our various specialties. I’ve found documents we’ve worked on where I could substitute ways of working terms for human factors terms and not change a thing more. It’s validated my belief that in times of change and innovation, it’s not content of your knowledge, but your ability to process and apply it to novel opportunity.

Scientific research is in a similar transition,and it’s exciting to see a lot of robust science being published supporting that approach, and the methods we’ve been using in projects, which I discussed a little back here. Read More


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

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


Apollo 15 lunar roving with Mount Hadley in the background.


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

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

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

Hasten Slowly

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“Hasten Slowly.”

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

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


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

Clayton Christensen – living treasure, speaks in Melbourne

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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.

Innovation vs Iteration: XEROX’s Laser Printer.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Ref: Dealers of Lighting

Startup Spring – “Festival Retro @”

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

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

See here for the details and to sign up.

Hope to see you there !

How could we not post this ?

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Beautiful Commander Hadfield, Beautiful.


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

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


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

I love the internet so much.

Good debate on IT v PT – scholarly update from Simon Sharwood,

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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.

The Apollo Mission retrospective continues.

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

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

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


(images via

An insight into a remarkable system – The Dabbawalas

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

Via Wikipeida

The Dabbawal’s Service Offering

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

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

Some Remarkable Facts

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

Key Features and Lessons

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

    Via NY Times

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

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

My Conclusion?

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

Communicate or Crash

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

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


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

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

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

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

The research into cockpit communication reveals a few interesting things.

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

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

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

Conway’s Law, Fred Brooks and Agility.

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Melvin E Conway

We talk often about Conway’s Law and I was reminded recently of an observation Fred Brooks (author of the Mythical Man Month) made in one of his papers.

A Reminder of Conway’s Law:

“Any organisation that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation’s communication structure.”

Fred’s Observation:

“Because the design that occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organisation is important to effective design.”

This triggers a few thoughts for for me.

The first is pretty obvious – developing Agile, Systems Thinking and Lean capability across your organisation is a good defence to the harsh reality of Conway’s Law and Fred’s observation. The basic lean capabilities will develop new habits and mind-sets for learning, communicating and collaborating within cross-functional teams – and most of all, embracing the inevitable change and variation that occurs when people are involved in the process.

The second is less obvious, and I will confess this is a thought experiment for me today. Let’s add one more theorist to the mixture – Eric Evans and his work on Core Domains (aka Domain Driven Design – see this video Steve Hayes sent us years ago) tells us that not all of a system can be well designed, so figure out your core domain, and focus energy and time on that. Build around that core domain with smart engineering techniques.

What if an organisation chart is the same? Our experience tells us org charts always seem sub-optimal, and many hours are wasted trying to re-org and change-manage our workplaces into the perfect tree structure. In the end it’s almost always a matrix, and functions versus customer-focused business teams always cause dissonance for individuals. We often struggle to define the core domain of an org chart. Is it IT? Is it product? Is it marketing? Is it sales? Tell you now, it’s not HR.

Anyway, once found, Eric Evans would have us focus nearly all of our energy on identifying and enhancing the core teams in an organisational ‘system’, and we could also adapt his various tools and techniques to loosely couple other parts of the org chart to the core. Easily changed, cross functional core teams focused on the biggest problems/ opportunities/ customer segments therefore make a lot of sense in this kind of world.

Conway’s Law would then dictate that those new teams will ultimately architect our IT systems to match. It might seem the long way round to get a robust IT architecture, but it’d probably work.

What is your organisational core domain ? Are you prepared to try the experiment ? Let us know how you go.

Neil Armstrong – 1930 – 2012

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With the passing of Neil Armstrong we lose one of the quiet hero’s of the space race, a man who resented the fame of being ‘the first man’ for the rest of his life.

“I am, and ever will be, a white socks, pocket protector, nerdy engineer, and I take a substantial amount of pride in the accomplishments of my profession.” – Neil Armstrong.

“In my own view, the important achievement of Apollo was a demonstration that humanity is not forever chained to this planet, and our visions go rather further than that, and our opportunities are unlimited.” — Neil Armstrong

He echo’s the sentiment of my favourite quote of all time; it also speaks about the space race, innovation and humanity.

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were.” – John F. Kennedy

Luna Perspective via John Dobson (Inventor of the most practical large amateur telescope design)

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“One of the problems of human knowledge is that the world which we see from the surface of this planet on a sunny day bears almost no resemblance to the Universe at large. Our Earth is made of iron and rock, but the Universe as a whole is mostly hydrogen. The actions which we see on the surface of this Earth run mostly on sunlight, but the Universe runs on gravity. What we see here are continents, oceans, rivers and lakes, mountain ranges, forests, tundra and prairies. But the Universe at large is mostly gas, partly condensed by gravity to galaxies and stars, and lightly sprinkled, here and there, with interstellar dust. The dust is made from hydrogen in the bellies of the stars, and is scattered through the galaxies by the explosions and the stellar winds of stars much bigger and much hotter than our Sun. But the dust is scarce, and, like our bodies, the rock on which we live is made of these dusts. It is a collector’s item. The heavier elements, such as iron, have sunk to the center, overlaid with the rocks of the mantle and the crust and a thin veneer of water and gas. Since the age of this museum piece is pushing five billion years, by now the water-soluble compounds of the surface rocks have leached into the water layer, making the oceans salty. The saltiness of our blood is the saltiness of the ancient sea, some four hundred million years ago. That is when our scaly ancestors, on stumpy fins, crawled out across the land in search of other water and the sight of other fish. Descended as we are from them, we can think of our bodies, even now, as little bags of sea water, hung out on clotheslines of bone, gulping oxygen directly from the gas layer above us, and shambling out across the rocks to gaze with starry eyes, through the blackness of night, at the vast expanse of the Universe beyond.

Even the oxygen that we breathe is freed by sunlight through the instrumentality of our photosynthetic relatives, first by the blue-green algae in the sea, and now by the green leaves of the rain forest. Even the rain is driven by sunlight. But the Universe at large has a reducing atmosphere, and it is without rain and without sunlight. It is very cold, very dark, and very lonely, trying desperately to fall together by the seemingly inexplicable attraction of the particles for each other. Even the radiation of the Sun is driven by this attraction which has pushed the central temperature of the Sun up to some fifteen million degrees Celsius. And it is only because its gravitational collapse has been slowed by the nuclear fusion at its core that the Sun has bathed our Earth with its warming rays for nearly five billion years. Only this delay has made possible our long genetic development till we were able to climb out of the water and gaze in wonder at the starry sky of night. Although we, as living organisms, owe both our existence and our long genetic development to the Sun, its dazzling brightness prevents us from seeing the Universe by day. The blueness of the daytime sky is not the color of the air, but simply the shorter wavelengths scattered from the sunlight by the gas layer above us. And that gas layer by night, unlit by the Sun, is sufficiently transparent so that through it we may gaze into the far reaches of the Universe.” – John Dobson.

Something to keep in mind next time you look up at the stars.

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