LAS2013 Thoughts: Processes have to be tailored

Lean Agile Scotland 2013 was an inspiring conference, and I have assorted thoughts coming out of it. I’ll summarise them in a series of posts. This is part 1.

A common theme running through the conference this year was that processes have to be tailored.  You can’t take a process and apply it blindly. One agile coach said “No-one does vanilla SCRUM. They always say ‘oh yes, we do SCRUM, but…’ and then feel guilty.” Just because a process is really good in one place and situation doesn’t mean it’s automatically good for you, because your situation will be different. Or as Dave Snowden put it: “Any good method is about making complex things ordered. Absorb complexity, don’t delude yourself you can eliminate it.” He also pointed out that all our software development processes – including agile processes like SCRUM – are taken from manufacturing, trying to eliminate uncertainty. But software development isn’t manufacturing, it’s much more like a service organisation – the difference between using a recipe to create a meal (manufacturing) and coming up with the new recipe in the first place. So we need processes which allow for the complexity and work with it.

Jim Benson, one of the founders of Personal Kanban spoke about the life-cycle of processes. They start off as a couple of people with ideas, which seem to work well. They grow into a body of work and evidence and good practices. After a while they build up such a body of work and codification that they ossify and stop adapting, and ultimately will wither and die, to be replaced by the next new flexible adaptable process.

His “Personal Kanban” has only two rules: frequent delivery/flow, and communicate. Start as light weight as possible, and add extra structure around that only when you need to. This matches with Alastair Cockburn’s “a process should be just barely insufficient” – i.e. if it has a few cracks, people will paper over them. If it is vastly insufficient, you’re at risk. If it seems sufficient and there are no cracks – are you doing more than you need to and wasting effort that could be better spent on other things?

This was well summed up by a quote from Taiichi Ohno, founder of Lean at Toyota:

“You’re a fool if you do just as I say. You’re a greater fool if you don’t do what I say. You should think for yourself and come up with better ideas than mine.”

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