By Kevin Meyer
Mary and Tom Poppendieck have speaking on the application of lean manufacturing methods to software and IT development for many years. Recently they gave an interesting interview to Matt Heusser. Some of the more salient points:
Tom: Do nothing that doesn't add value and respect people. Organizations make different decisions when they give as much weight to long-term survival as to short term profit.
Mary: Stop the line culture, aggressive focus on improvement. If you want to survive in an environment with discontinuous events that you cannot forecast, then you need to be able to respond to those events. Get all workers deeply involved in analyzing feedback from the market and rapidly figuring out how to act on that feedback.
Tom: Build a learning organization in which everyone uses systematic elimination of waste and systematic problem solving in continuous cycles of experiments and reflection to deeply understand their work through direct observation of the process and testing of hypotheses to build a high level of agreement on what your organization needs to deliver and how it can most effectively do its work.
Right off the bat they understand the second pillar, respect for people.
Matt: How would you respond to someone who claims that Lean is from manufacturing, and thus inappropriate for software development, which is knowledge work?
Mary: Well, Lean works for banking, which is a service business. Svenska Handelsbanken is a bank in Sweden that has been using Lean principles for 25 years. It puts the bank in a position to deal with discontinuous change in the financial markets by expecting local teams to make independent decisions. By having many individual teams seeing what opportunities are out there and responding, the bank stays ahead of changes in the markets.
Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, also believes in small, independent teams; he calls them two-pizza teams. A two-pizza team is the number of people that can be fed with two pizzas. Amazon’s cloud is a service-oriented architecture in which each service is owned by a two-pizza team. The team is responsible for the service from cradle to grave: determining what is needed, development, operations, support – everything.
Toyota is the same; teams of six to eight people, with good mentoring from their manager, get work done better and faster.
An underlying concept of Lean is that if you can't create small independent-thinking teams, you can't respond rapidly in the face of continuous change. So you need to create a governance structure that allows the teams to make the right decisions and makes it possible for them to focus on the outcomes of the ultimate customer. Our book is for leaders trying to figure out how to get there.
What are their feelings on six sigma?
Mary: I suppose it depends on what you mean. To me, Six Sigma is a bunch of tools. They are good tools. Theoretically, they are implementation agnostic. They are not a whole program of how you should do things.
When thought of as a set of tools, Six Sigma has a tendency of not getting at the underlying strategy of how things ought to happen. There's nothing inherently wrong with Six Sigma, it's just that people think it's the answers to the world’s problems. It isn't. It's a set of interesting tools that anyone doing continuous improvement would do well to use.
Tom: The typical implementation of a Six Sigma program vests responsibility for improvements in black-belts who are not part of the organization’s leadership structure. Toyota and other Lean organizations vest this responsibility in every level of its leadership team and mentor every level of leader in the appropriate tools from the Six Sigma and Lean toolboxes.
This is exactly why I have a problem with "belts" and "certifications" and such. Six sigma works, but if the tools are applied without a lean look at the overall value stream you can easily end up optimizing a process that is waste to begin with.
The entire interview is worth a read, especially to understand how they came across the concept of applying lean manufacturing to software development.