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”.

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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!