Starting to Work in China

Shellshocked after two weeks of frenzy at the office and home I am now starting to get back on the ground. Fortunately I have two more experienced guys from the European organization in my team whom I can lean on when things get strange.

First thing that happened was that our office was full, so we need to move to another location in the same building. Fortunately, due to other circumstances, we could only start the moving after four weeks, so there was a few days of slack to do layouting of our new premises. We have a completely cubiclized floorplan, and I would take a seat like everybody else. However, all of a sudden, the proposed layout from the cubicle-carpenter’s side included a broad dark desk instead of a cubicle seat where I had indicated that I would sit, occupying at least two seats, maybe three.
As my Chinese colleagues put it: “Otherwise the people from the other departments do not know who is the boss. It is better this way.”

I trust them. They know what works and what does not here in the land of influence. The crab has his ways and the shrimp has his, as one of my colleagues put it, while explaining why a certain procedure did not work as expected. There is a positive and a negative side of this flexibility, I guess, but so far I have mainly seen the plus side.

There are lots of things to fix both at the office and at home, one thing at a time. Our hot water stinks, for instance. It smells of glue. There have been five people watching, checking, tasting, discussing and not doing anything. I need to find an expert, but it is not so easy. I am sure there are hundreds of qualified people who could fix it, but there are twenty five million other people in town who cannot. Fortunately, I often have good help from my local colleagues, among others to get supplies via Taobao, 360buy and Newegg. Mother’s Day is better with a new Saeco Espresso Machine, directly delivered to our home (Well, to be honest I ordered it late and it was not really on time…). I hope my colleagues can also find a suitable plumber to fix the hot water. In the meantime we smell of glue after every shower.

Country Driving – Book Review

Peter Hessler spent years in China, first for the US Peace Corps and then as a journalist and a writer. This book is a collection of stories about three of his adventures: Driving along the Great Wall, Renting a week-end house in a village north of Beijing and following a bra-supply factory in Zhejiang.

The Great Wall is tracked and traced both with the vehicle and throughout history. This artefact of Chinese Imperial defence is often used to symbolize lots of things – anything that is positive and Chinese. However, the real stories behind the building of the many walls and fortifications in Northern China are not often told. Hessler sheds some light on the multitude of walls and on life along the edge of civilization. Almost abandoned towns called “Butcher-the-Enemy” enjoy a visit of the tall American in his rented Chinese Jeep. Almost seduced by a drunk Mongolian guide in a fake museum about the “Great Chinese Hero Genghis Khan”, Hessler escapes to continue the tracks.

The village north of Beijing goes through a fantastic transition during the years that Hessler spent there. He recounts of local Party committee politics and the rise of economic activity and tourism. The road even got paved all the way! The change in lifestyle and food patterns come at a breathtaking speed and many struggle to keep the bearings.
Hessler describes his joyful weekends with hiking along the trails in the mountains and recovering from the Beijing bustle in this mountainous hardship resort. It is very inspiring to see what possibilities exist outside Shanghai!

The third story is about a factory producing bra-rings in Zhejiang. Cunning engineers and ingenious entrepreneurs push the limit of everything they can to press out a profit in this minuscule segment of the global supply chain.
The stories come interweaved with anecdotes about driving in China. Many stories could sound strongly exaggerated were it not for the fact that I have witnessed many similar situations just in the past year. Backwards driving from highway ramps, overtaking everywhere and crossing double lines… Going to work I sometimes feel like I am inside a computer game like Grand Theft Auto, where cars are moving like crazy. It is often scary, but so far so good…

A gem in the book are the hilarious examples from the Chinese driving exams – I hope that I can check this myself. It seems to weird to be true.

Factory Girls – Book Review

At the job-market in Dongguan

This is an extended reportage book about the migrant population in south China. Leslie Cheng ventures south on business from Wall Street Journal writing articles and collecting memories which are later used to build the story of this book. It is a compelling mix of autobiography, where Cheng searches for her own Chinese-American roots, modern history account and intimate portraits of the lives of some random individuals turning friends over the years.

It is hard enough to understand the staggering numbers of migrant workers: Each year 10 million move from the countryside into the hundreds of swelling million-count cities across the coastal provinces of China. The last 30 years it adds up to 300 million. Even more difficult is to imagine what it means to the individuals in such a malstroem of new jobs, houses, foods, purchase possibilities.
The timescale of a career is measured in years, not decades. Education and specific professional training is hard currency and payback time is counted in months. The teachers today were novices a year ago. The building where the training is held did not exist last year.

Chang shares her encounters and reflections upon what it means both for the individual and for society. The incidental individual experiences are recounted with a backdrop of research about the bigger picture. It is deeply enjoyable to read, I could not help but laughing out loud while reading the chapter about the English-teaching machine. At the same time I learned a lot about contemporary China. One of the books that Chang describes, “Square and Round”, was referenced yesterday by a Chinese colleague, and it helped me a lot to understand some office politics thanks to the introduction given in this book.

The lemming trek from the Chinese rural plains into the exploding mega-cities will continue for years, so the book is likely to stay relevant for a long time.

Idea and book review – Cost Innovation

Book cover
Dragons at Your Door - Cost Innovation in China

Ming Zeng and Peter Williamson have researched the phenomenon of Chinese low-cost high-performance products. Twenty years ago, that was a paradox, almost a joke. However, not many are laughing at Maytag Refrigerators when the Chinese Haier delivers superior quality and broader product range to a lower price. The same goes with upcoming world players like Huawei, the world leader sea-container producer CMCI etc. They wrote an intriguing book about it: “Dragons at Your Door”.
The recurring pattern is that these Chinese companies are able to manage products and production in a flexible way to achieve mass-production costs (low cost) with a broad range (low volume per product type). Zeng calls it “Cost Innovation”. Part of the cost advantage is of course the lower salaries and lower taxation in China, but after comprehensive research, the authors conclude that this is of minor importance. More important is that the manufacturing system is designed for flexibility and low capital investment. Furthermore, the product development is fully adapted to the manufacturing capabilities: The standard question is “what variants can we make with no change of machinery?” In a sense, most innovation has been in manufacturing and in organization structure.

[As a contrast, at my company, we are setting up a product development center thousands of kilometers away from the nearest factory. The research center is in a different country far away from any manufacturing site. The interaction between product and production is minimized, which sometimes leads to miscommunication and delays. We have some things to learn from our Chinese competitors! ]

Zeng shows in a convincing way that the Chinese companies have been able to catch up quickly thanks to modularization and standardization of components and technologies. A key question is what happens right now when these companies take the lead in their respective niches? One of the recurring newslights in the last year have been acquisitions of medium sized European technology companies by cash-heavy Chinese competitors, to get access to brands, technologies and market channels. Is this incidental or will it continue to increase? We will see…

Container Innovation at Low Cost
CIMC - Container Innovation at Low Cost

Thanks to the authors unique insights in the researched companies, the book is full of concrete examples how specific problems have been resolved in innovative ways – very inspiring!

The Gas Station in China

Gas Station in China
Gas Station Sinopec

Look at the picture and see what is different from any gas station you are used to from Europe or the US or most places in the world. Of course the Chinese characters are different, but that is mere cosmetics.

I think the most interesting visual item of the gas station as a roadside landmark is the absence of price. It is nowhere written how much the gas costs. Because it is the same everywhere.

In Sweden, where I grew up, the gas price varies around 5-10% between different gas stations, and it is a convenience trade-off, whether to take the full-service gas station along the highway with it’s cozy shoplet, or to stand in the wind at the JET station with no human being in sight. Convenience for cash, as the universal trade-off.

Not in China.

The ministry sets the price for each type of fuel, and that is that. No matter if it is a Sinopec, CNOOC, or any other “branded” gas station, the price is not theirs to determine. Therefore, neither for the customer or the gas station owner, there is any interest in displaying the current gasoline price.

One Billion Customers – Book and Idea review

The wet dream of every retailer – a single market with one billion craving customers – is shredded to pieces by McGregor in his witty account of his own adventures during twenty years as journalist and business leader in China. The concept of a “market” as it is traditionally used implies that it is easy to move goods around at a low cost and that the customers are a somewhat homogeneous group. China is more like a continent with vast cultural, legal and physical differences which makes the unity of the market an illusion – a fata morgana luring at the horizon with uncountable riches.

McGregor experienced from the frontier the intense power struggle between government agencies, the party, market actors and local chiefs. All scrambling to get ahead and to increase their influence. His accounts of his own experiences are the most hilarious and warmhearted parts of the book. However, the many likely hiccups are not explored in great detail. I think it is a difficult dilemma while writing a book like this. On the one hand, including personal weaknesses and failures makes the book more interesting. On the other hand, the author wants to look like a leading expert and resourceful adviser – the book serves as advertisement for his own consultancy services. We all want to believe that the advisers we hire are fault-free and perfect, after all the fees are substantial…

I wonder what I would choose to present in an account of my own adventures near and far? Would I dare to include the intimate shameful moments of my own weaknesses? The mistakes and fiasco’s? Wasted money and time and naivety? I am not so sure. Probably I would pretend that everything was well planned and went smoothly.

One million Chinese visitors at the World Expo in Shanghai the same day as we went.

McGregor weaves into the story the larger sweeps of modern China and a handful of illustrious examples of winners and losers in the wild-east era of the last decades. The story behind famous (in China) brands like Wahaha and Unicom gives a wonderful account how government relations can help and hinder but that the market pull is the real force today. It also shows that the organizational maturity of most companies today are in a similar position as the companies in the west were fifty years ago – completey dependent on the founder/leader. It is a lean and fast way of running a company, but with a single-point-of-failure, it is not robust. It is the startup-model.

An inspiring book and I am excited to experience first hand collisions with bureaucracy and government activities in Shanghai!

Book Review: Poorly Made in China

Poorly made in China“Made in China” is transforming the world as we know it. When I walk into a hardware store, computer shop or shoeshack anywhere in Europe, more than half of the items are made in China. This was not the case when I was a kid! The export from China to the west is 100 times larger today than when I was a child (http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/row/RL33536.pdf). Most my toys and clothes were made in Europe. I believe that this shift of production power and knowledge is one of the major events in modern history.

Paul Midler is one of the numerous players who have been enabling China to export their goods in the last decade, and he wrote an entertaining account of his experiences. Speaking Chinese and with an American business degree, he worked on the ground to help American importers to find manufacturers for their various goods. Midler shares hilarious anecdotes and sobering reality checks from encounters with the human traits of greed, naivety, disrespect and short-term thinking, both with the Chinese as well as the foreign partners. The book is written in an unusually open style, exposing the author’s personal impressions, which makes the story stronger and it is a joy to read.

From my own experience, I know that not everything in China is poorly made, so I have my reservations for the title of the book. However, there are structural problems related to short-term thinking due to e.g. unpredictability in the legal system and lack of transparency, which make the temptation to take shortcuts almost irresistible. There is still a lot to do before “Made in China” gets similar connotations as “Made in Japan” has today.

Book Review: The Coming China Wars

Peter Navarro: The Coming china Wars
Where they will be fought and how they can be won

Why is it that men like to read books about war?
When I was a boy, my favourite books were in sequence “Biggles in Finland”, “The Cannons of Navarone”, “The Lord of the Rings” (an epic war story), etc., etc... However, the more I learned in the army, the less inspired I am by the so-called heroes of the battlefield. The most paradoxical book on war I find “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu (Sunzi), which focusses on identifying conflicts and resolving them without battle. It repeatedly makes the point that war is horrible and counterproductive. Nevertheless, what led me to read the book was the title that allured to some primal male driver to learn the secrets to conquer and win.

Peter Navarro continues in this ancient Chinese tradition to explain in great detail where potential conflicts are likely to arise in the coming years, where China will be involved. Just like Sunzi, (but contrary to the official sub-title printed large on the cover), Navarro suggests way to resolve the issues to avoid war.

The conflict areas are too many to recount, but they range from environmental issues (water scarcity, pollution, land degradation and desertification) to social tension induced by demographics, income distribution and urbanization. Some darker sides include the growing HIV epidemics, international drug trade and counterfeited medication finding its way around the globe.

Navarro has chosen to research the problematic issues one by one, with numerous details and facts, which makes the book very convincing.
However, I think he misses the systemic structural problem in China today – the disfunctional feedback mechanisms in society. Due to the nature of the current political system, information is sometimes hidden behind layers of secrecy and distorted by propaganda.
Democratic societies have the advantage of transparency – many eyes look at issues and feedback mechanisms are in place to identify problematic areas and address them. It often works, but not always, of course.
In centrally controlled regimes, the well-intentioned planners only have access to part of the information and become a bottleneck in the dynamics. Even though they can act with more force and momentum, they are locked down by their relatively small numbers and the time delay in the feedback.

Some of the problems described in the book are related to resource depletion, which can be described by a typical first order differential equation with delay. The longer the delay, the larger the probability of catastrophic failure. One very readable book that describes the dynamics of resource depletion is “Limits to Growth”, by Donnela Meadows, published initially by the Club of Rome, which takes on a global perspective. I am sure that the same type of analysis can be done on China, and quantify the detrimental effect of the delay and distortion of the available information.

This year, the prices on grocery soar, to which the party officials react by blaming speculators. I doubt that is the root cause.

By knowing what is going on and increasing transparency, I think China will be able to tackle most of the issues raised by Navarro. )They could start by removing the block on the PeterNavarro.com website.) But not all can be handled by China alone. For the future of our planet it seems again that we have to collaborate and act on information!

Book review: … business in China

How to Manage a Successful Business in China
by Johan Björksten and Anders Hägglund

Despite the pretentious title, this book is a well-researched low-key introduction to one way of building businesses in mainland China. Maybe it is the Swedish-Chinese way. Both the authors have first hand experience from what they are talking about, which they generously share through examples and anecdotes. Both of them have been very successful in building profitable organizations, one from scratch and one as a dependence of a multinational corporation.

One of the authors is a renowned expert on Chinese, and teaching Chinese to foreigners. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that one of the main recommendations is to learn Chinese if you want to be successful in China. Still today, most foreigners coming to work in China do not learn more than a handful phrases and a most basic vocabulary. Chinese is considered impossible to learn. On the other hand, imagine going to the US without speaking English – what is the probability of establishing a successful business? It is almost ridiculous.
I am sure that Chinese is a “learnable skill”.

The most startling part of the book talks about guanxi – “connections”. The authors demystify this concept and show the equivalent concepts in the Western business tradition. Sometimes the cultural differences are smaller than we imagine.

Another myth of the one-billion-customer-dream that is debunked by the authors is that China is one homogeneous market. It is not. The vast area, the poor communications and logistics and the cultural differences makes China a difficult terrain to conquer. In many ways, China is like the European Union, with the same legal basis but different consumer preferences and with bureaucratic and practical problems for each sub-market to penetrate. Shanghai is as different from Kashgar as Paris is different from Vilnius.

The book is written in a classic schoolbook manner, which makes it slow to read and slightly boring at times. Nevertheless, it is a good counterweight to the abundant extatic China Fever literature.

After a Beijing brunch with one of the authors, I start to get the feeling that China is not so easy to describe in a book because of all the paradoxes. Speed is one example; some things are extremely fast in China, but other things are excruciatingly slow. They can build a house in a week, but it can take months to get the right stamp. How can I ever “understand” this? Maybe it is like quantum physics – you can never understand, only “get used to” how things work.

China is a worthy challenge!

The Corporation

Corporations are designed to be evil. At least that is the main point of Joel Bakan, the law professor at UBC, Vancouver. He published the book and the film “The Corporation” a couple of years ago, and now I got the opportunity to read it.

Bakan takes an interesting stand against the legal position as “person” that a corporation currently enjoys. At the same time, a corporation is similar to you and me in the sense that it can own things, but on the other hand it is strangely inhuman; There are laws (in most of the world) regulating that corporations _must_ go for profit instead of charity if there is a choice.
Corporate Social Responsibility is legally subordinate to Corporate Profitability, i.e. CSR is ok as long as it contributes to the bottom line – otherwise it must be ignored.
This creates a level of temptation to do immoral profitable activities that is too strong to resist, at least for the extensive list of colourful examples presented in the book.

The personality of the legal “person” of a corporation is therefore designed to be quite pervert – something that Bakan describes with sharpness, wit and disappointment.
And it is something I did not realize before.
Most of business books are written with a naive positivism regarding the powers of corporations, often spiced with idealistic values, see e.g. “Good to Great” by Jim Collins or “The 5th Discipline” by Peter Senge.

The insights of Bakan are unfortunately also consistent with my own experiences in multinational corporations. Immoral and illegal activities that increase profit do happen.

The question I am left with is – can I continue working in a corporation which is stimulated by legal requirements to be destructive?
Can I negotiate the counterforces and manage my parts of the operations in a positive and constructive way?
I sure will do my very best.

Book Review: Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air

Professor David MacKay, University of Cambridge, wrote a brilliant book last year about Sustainable Energy to get more numbers and less adjectives into the public discourse.
It is the best book I have read in a decade.

The contents are described in exquisite detail on the book’s website www.withouthotair.com. (Indeed, the whole book is available for free as a .pdf download!) However, it is worth mentioning the elegant buildup of the book: MacKay shows how much energy we use today, broken down into the ten major categories. This is compared with the possible power output of the possible sustainable energy sources like wind, solar, wave, tide, biomass,…

The buildup is very pedagogical and it is at once easy to understand the relative importance of various energy sources and sinks.

The book is written from a UK perspective, but the same calculations can be done for a country of your choice. MacKay has even setup a public wiki where people already started to do this for countries over the world.

I got inspired by the visualization techniques and the tools to get all numbers into a comparable format. It is not trivial how to compare a laptop computer with a bicycle commute, but MacKay has chosen a device that works all the way, see the columns to the right.
Since I read the book I have monitored our home energy consumption (gas and electricity) to better understand the energy impact of our family (kWh/day):

The book is written from a UK perspective, but the same calculations can be done for a country of your choice. MacKay has even setup a public wiki where people already started to do this for countries over the world.

Visual Control – Cash flow at home

I love graphing and plotting data. A visual comparison makes it much easier to understand the relative importance of different things. I wrote a small Python script (using matplotlib) to visualize home (ex)spenditure based on transactions on our bank account. By bundling all transactions by keywords, I could get Albert Heijn, Boni and Hoogvliet under one name “Supermarket”. This way, it is easy to see where the large chunks go and the relative importance of holidays vs home improvement vs car vs insurances over time. (a.k.a. Pareto analysis )

Expenses 2009 (click on image to see all of it)

This way, we can select smarter where to economize and in which domains of our family life we can afford some slack.  (For privacy reasons, I removed all numbers from these plots, but you can imagine or try out on your own transaction data!)

How to use the script: (leave a note here, and I can send you the .py file)

1. Download .csv of the transactions for the period of interest. At least from our on-line bank (Rabobank.nl – a cooperative and still well-run bank in Holland).

2. Adjust the script to categorize in your favourite way – and type in your exclusions. For us, transactions to and from our savings account do not constitute cash flow, so those were filtered out.

3. Generate graphs of your incomes and expenses!

Now you can use visual control for your own cash flow. If you want, you can even make run-charts!

Design for Six Sigma – right the first time?

Yet another book on DfSS

This week I follow the first half of a “Black Belt” training for Design for Six Sigma at the R&D Center where I work. A few days of statistics exercises and quite a lot of administrative tools to track requirements. In the coming months I will run some activities according to the DfSS methodology to evaluate for which problem this is the right tool. To prepare for the course I read amongst others the book (shown right), Design for Six Sigma – Innovation for Enhanced Competitiveness by Gregory Watson.

It is a very American book with a strong focus on measurability and quantifiability of value in all business/development processes. Watson claims to transform every requirement to a dollar value upfront, so that it can be taken into account in the design process in the most profitable way.

I wonder which projects he has been running in his days. So far, I have yet to encounter a technology development project where anyone can define the requirements unambiguously upfront. Let alone have a customer choose specifically the absolute or relative value of each feature. My experience is that the true value of a new technology is only visible after the product has hit the market and the customers are learning how to get value out of the new tools. Based on this information, the next generation of the product can be adjusted and improved. Fast feedback loops is often better than a very clever feedforward controller.

I think that the credo “right the first time” is an illusion. I believe in “better next time”.

Lean Software Development – Book and Idea Review

Lean Software Development – an Agile Toolkit. What a great title for a book, combining two of the hottest buzz words of the last five years!

An enjoyable book, with a nice trike on the front page.

And this book delivers what it promises. It is a great book that aligns the Lean philosophy that was developed mainly at Toyota with the Agile/Scrum ideas. It demonstrates the remarkable overlap between these two paradigms and suggests how to translate the insights and experiences from lean product development into the software development domain. The book is easy reading with numerous to-the-point examples from real-world projects, both from hard-product development and software development. Mary and Tom are shooting sharp at some holy cows of project management like detailed up-front value engineering and early requirement freeze. It is entertaining and enlightening!

A couple of years ago I had the fortunate opportunity to visit Toyota in Japan and to spend some time with Toyota product development engineers to discuss how to use Lean outside the factory. Most of their suggestions come back in this book, ranging from iterative design and empowered teams based on reliable management to concurrent engineering. Furthermore, they agree on the point that it is hard work to get it right and to take on the responsibility. The committment is for quality, not for comfort.

One diffuculty that I see is that concepts like “Lean” and “Agile” describe the outcome/result of working in a smart way. In some situations it is used as a synonym for “Good”.  Anything that is good for the product development process or improves customer percieved quality with minimal effort is called “Lean/Agile”. I am worried about this, because it dilutes the methodologies and makes it hard to compare. In my opinion it would be  more helpful to differentiate more clearly and be open about when it is useful to use Lean/Agile concepts and when not.

 

Today and Tomorrow – book and idea review

A book full of surprises. The core of the Lean Production philosophy is outlined in this 80 years old volume: Flow of material, reduction of buffers, continuous training of  personnel to move from doing to supervising and improving the process… All of it is described in this visionary work by Henry Ford. The reason I got this book to read was that it was referenced heavily by Taiichi Ohno in his book on the Toyota Production System.

today and tomorrow
Latest edition of the classic book.

The questions that pop to my head when reading this  is: Why was this forgotten? Why is it not more widespread? Why did I not experience this when working with Ford people at VoloCars? Why did it work for Ford in the 20’s but not in the 90’s?

My hypothesis is that it is hard to run companies this way. It puts very high requirements on managers to be able to give latitude and freedom to the workforce, to build trust and honesty. It is hard to pursue the ideals of lean, to sceptically look at yourself and admit that also you need to improve the way you work.

It is easy to point a finger at someone else and know better how they should improve their processes, but very, very hard to look at yourself. Especially in the office environment, we are surrounded with artefacts that identify our personality with the job, so any attack on the latter is felt as an attack on the ego.

Being a project manager, I understand fully why I sometimes order things late, but I have very little understanding or compassion with the purchasing department who is consistently slow in their processing of the order. I guess you recognize this from your organization’s favourite complaint department?

But the challenge I see is to be humble and open towards all the stakeholders and listen carefully to what they say. After all, the most effective starting  point to drive an improvement is the center of your circle of influence – yourself.

Even though I could/should start resoutely Today,  I conclude with allowing myself to think that Tomorrow is also good enough…

The silence before “I can do that”

One of the hardest things to learn for me as a project manager is to restrain myself from delegating tasks too quickly. In my mind, I often have decided who in the project team would be the most suitable for a certain task that is being discussed. However, I have seen in the past few years that the best way of assigning tasks is to shut up.

Who will take this task?

There is a sea of insecurity in the silence between: “This is important, who could do this?” and “I can do that.”

When I started out as a project manager, I thought it was my job to assign tasks and that people would appreciate my effort to get the right task to the right guy.
Nowadays, working with professionals, the situation is quite different. The self-selected tasks seem to be easier, less ambiguous and more fun than the assigned ones.

Of course there are limits to the shut-up-strategy; one pitfall is that some young, eager guy/gal wants to show off by taking on too much.
Another is that nobody really wants to do an activity.
But whenever it happens, it is a signal that this activity maybe does not lead us in the right direction to our common goal…

Goran Christiansson

The Mythical Man-Month – book and idea review

Anniversary edition from 1995

This is one of the best books on project management I know. Frederick Brooks classic volume on software project management was first published in 1977, and updated/republished in 1995.
The book contains numerous anecdotes and essays on various insights stemming from Brook’s experiences from leading the IBM OS/360 development in the 1960’s.

The most famous statement is alluded to in the title, sometimes called Brooks Law: “adding programmers to a late project will make the project even more late”.
The main reason for this is increased time losses in communication/training for the added “resources”. Brooks goes on to show with clear examples how this works out.

In the summer of 2002 I crashed head on Brooks’ Law at the Saab Automobile factory in Trollhättan, Sweden.

Infotainment system for the SAAB 9-3, with MOST fibre-optic bus. Later than planned...

Instead of using the developer programmers to do the integration testing in the pre-production vehicles, new resources were assigned to this task, and I was asked to coordinate the efforts. It took weeks and weeks to get the new people up to speed. In the learning phase they consumed much of the time of the original developers’s time and they introduced new mistakes and miscommunications. Of course it is impossible to know for sure how it would have been if the original plan had been followed, but afterwards I felt very uncomfortable with the project decision to throw more people at the problem.

Another great insight that is eloquently explained is that it is virtually impossible to specify requirements correctly for a new system. Nobody is so smart that he/she can write down what is needed in a unique and non-contradictory way before the system exists in a prototype form.
Therefore, prototyping is a often necessary to get the requirements during the project.
This has re-surfaced as one of the cornerstones in the “Agile” programming methodology.
It is a strong insight and I see this in more domains, not only software. At the R&D lab where I now work, also mechanical designs and mechatronic solutions profit from iterative development instead of trying to get it all right at the first try.

In the coming weeks I will follow a Black Belt training for “Design for Six Sigma”, which claims to enable projects to get it right the first time. (see e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_for_Six_Sigma) I am curious and somewhat sceptical… Maybe there is a “Silver Bullet” after all?

I recommend this book to everybody working with project management, not only software.

The Long Tail – book and idea review

Cover of the Dutch version of the book

I just finished reading Chris Anderson’s classic “The Long Tail” from 2006. (also blogged at http://www.thelongtail.com).

The main idea is that different people actually like different things. Not so controversial, perhaps, but the clue is that internet helps buyers to find producers in a better way. Interest (and money) will move away from the Top Ten Blockbusters and away in all different directions.

I recognize this clearly from my experiences in the Magic arts community. In the end of the nineties, I was part of the Gothenburg magic scene as an upcoming young part-time magician. I was devouring all books, VHS tapes and bundles about new magic tricks. But they were really hard to find.
Once a year, on the congress in Lund, the Dealers showed up with meters of books from mainly American magicians. Once a year, I had the opportunity to browse through the material and select a handful of quite expensive works. Unfortunately, most of the books dealt with aspects of magic that were not very interesting to me.
Most of the books on Magic, I had never seen. Until I came to Dresden in 1997 for the FISM World Congress on Magic. I was overwhelmed by the width and depth of the genre.

Tommy Wonder's classic. Now available at Amazon.com.

Now there are online catalogs and an unparalleled availability which will help passionate wannabe customers to find what they look for, even at Amazon.com. (And not just buy the book that happened to be available.) The niche is thriving!

I think that the Magic community is similar to other kinds of subcultures. I am convinced that there are harmonica players, pole dancers and macramé knitters who now get connected to hitherto unknown suppliers and can purchase/license what they need at much less effort than previously.

The book has a funny side in a sense that I did not expect, and that is the short half-time of the Internet examples. It was written only five years ago, but that was before Bit-Torrent, PirateBay and Facebook hit hard, and Bing was not launched. Google Maps was really new and yet to become as useful as it is today. Therefore, the book seems oddly outdated, even though it tells of a revolution still in unfolding.

Recommendation – read it right away!

Visual Project Control and Motivation

One of my favorite tools of “Lean” is visual control. The idea is that visual information on the wall next to the workplace communicates better than intranet pages or databases.

Projects Wall - Objectives, Status and What to do Next

For each project I run, I have a whiteboard of roughly 1 square meter per project, with the most important information, updated at least weekly. I include: project objectives, deliverables, team members, status, decision log and maybe most important: What are we working on now?

At least half of the project team is located in the same room, so they will invariably see what is going on in the project.

Typically, we have pulse meetings once or twice a week, to get alignment on what we are doing and who is doing what.

For me, this spices up my motivation.
Once in a while there are slow days, when the brain goes on half speed and the weather outside looks alluring. Then it is tempting to log on to [Your Favorite Social Network Site] and just click around. Or read another article about PyUnit, or a long email about a policy document change from HR.
But then I glance at the project wall and I see my name on a task, I am back in focus again.

I think that all tools that remind us about what we should be doing are useful.
And, by aligning weekly with the rest of the team, we can scrap some activities that we actually should not be doing, at least not now.

It is also more fun to finish tasks that have been self-assigned than diffusely delegated!