Highlights from Lean & Kanban 2010

The Lean & Kanban 2010 conference is arranged by AGILEminds and premiered this year in Antwerp, Belgium. It is one of these “Lean, Kanban, Systems thinking, etc” conferences that have popped up like mushrooms these latest years. Me and my colleagues thought the line-up looked fantastic so we decided to invade Antwerp – all three of us. These are my personal impressions and recollections.

Fair warning: This is a long post, you may want to read it in parts.

To be honest, I was a bit apprehensive about the conference. I guess I have not fully bought into all the Kanban concepts and how great it is. Certainly, I held a presentation back in 2008 about working without iterations, but it has always struck me as slightly risky endeavour to move thinking from production over to something as creative, innovative, and… soft as software. But I decided to have an open mind, even though I foresaw people slapping me over the head with Little’s Law and queuing mathematics. I promised myself I would bite my tongue when I really just wanted to scream: “But these are PEOPLE you’re talking about!”. I was very relieved to find that my fears were exaggerated.

Overall I have to say the conference exceeded my mixed expectations. The location was down by the river in a trendy-looking, shaped-up, brown wooden hangar. Very smart. The best thing, though, was probably that there were great speakers and only 235 participants (including speakers). This setup makes for a friendly community atmosphere, where you feel you can walk up to just about anybody and have a chat. At one point I was talking to someone and I saw my colleague Måns having an engaged talk with David Anderson at the same time as my pal Fredrik was conversing Tom Poppendieck.

A few downsides to the venue: First, the horrible plastic chairs in room 1. With a bad back, it was hard for me to sit still even 15 mins on those chairs. The keynote talks were 90 minutes… Another thing were the limited slots on the wireless network (50). Since everybody is packing at least two gadgets these days, about ten times as much would have been good. I am sure these things will be fixed if there is a 2nd iteration. Now, on to the goodies.

Main Themes and Impressions

It is obviously impossible to accurately represent in a short text what a large number of people talk about during two days, but I think I could discern some major themes and impressions.

Many people in this community seem to come from a scientific, statistical background. They are keen experimenters and they like to measure stuff. This has many positive effects, including knowing that you’re actually making progress. But there are some risks associated with this. For one thing, is extremely difficult to measure the right things. And measurements will affect people’s behaviour. How do we know which behaviour comes from what? For example, there were quite a few talks that tried to attack the question of measuring business value. This is a seriously hard problem and who knows how trying to measure it will affect teams. I did see some promising attempts, but it all seemed a little too complex to me. We should ask ourselves the question, what value comes from trying to measure this? Could we achieve the same effect some other way?

People also seemed to convey a belief that there are some underlying “Laws of Development”, a “Lean Science”, like gravity, almost (Shalloway, Poppendieck, Anderson). There is absolutely value to that discussion, I’m all for finding solid scientific laws. However, with people being a first-order variable in software development it is very difficult to draw any general conclusions from any experiment. For example, lean people say that smaller feature requests give shorter lead times. Yes, but what if the developers decide to go snowboarding instead? What if they had a fight that day? What if the guy doing it is a numbnut? Mathematics on people is uncertain at best. That does not imply that it is without value, only that we should tread carefully.

Kanban (with a capital ‘K’), famous for being the first method in history having a name that you always have to qualify with the case of its first letter, has a lot of momentum at the moment. And I can understand why. It seems to be the only attempt to actually formulate a credible alternative to the more common Lean/Agile methods. It is being branded, not as a development method, but as a change management method. I like this, since any one method (meaning a package of practices adhering to certain principles based on some value set) is likely to be wrong for almost all customers.

The Kanban view on change is that it’s too hard to do if you try to do a lot too fast. Instead, try to map the world as we see it, adopt some change practices, and take it from there. There is clearly something very human and pragmatic about this. However, I don’t believe this is a one-size-fits-all. In some cases it might be better to rip up the whole thing and start again from customer demand. In other cases, a tailor-made starting package of great practices might be just the key to success. It is important to remember that context is king here. I am also quite fond of the Kanban attitude towards variations; there are no cries of “You’re doing it wrong!” as far as I heard. This breeds a very inviting and pleasant atmosphere in the community. However, where does one draw the line? When are you not doing Kanban?

The Lean IT/Kanban community is still fairly small. Not many teams are out there (yet). Also, there seems to be a small divide within the community, where people are rushing to position themselves. Generally speaking, there are three main runners. There is the “Lean in IT is basically Agile” camp, represented by the Poppendiecks. Then there is the “Limit WiP and visualize to change” group (team Anderson). Finally, we have the “Satisfying customer demand is what matters” (e.g. John Seddon). They all seem to share the same basic thinking, only have different ideas on what it means.

Great Talks

Best talks is always a subjective and touchy subject, so I settled for “Great Talks” as the title of this section. I have selected a few talks which “rocked my world” slightly more than the others. I am sure other people had other favorites.

Dave Nicolette – The IT portfolio as a Form of Waste

Dave is an assertive but low-key presenter with a quirky sense of humour (not unlike Michael Feathers), which I really liked. He spoke about topics that we have been discussing between ourselves these last years and I found myself in agreement with him numerous times during his talk.

Dave spent most of his time talking about how organising our work in projects, products, portfolios, and functional departments we create inherently wasteful systems. Dave made a great case for integrating the developing parts of IT into the business organisation. It was interesting to hear his take on why we have IT departments at all. He meant that when computers were used as calculators and needed lots of space, you might as well put those weird people who understood them there. “Computers used to be mysterious to people”, as he put it. In Swedish, the word most often used for the business side is “the operation” (sv “verksamheten”), implying that IT would not actually be part of the real operation. As my friend, Peter Tallungs, likes to say, “What if somebody said that about the Finance department? They would be furious. They identify so much with the operation that they often think they run it.”

Dave also had some interesting thoughts about budgeting, mainly from the book “Beyond Budgeting” by Bjarte Bogsnes. He recommended reading the book and I strongly agree Adaptiv gave it to all our customers as a holiday gift this year.

John Seddon – Rethinking Lean, Rethinking IT, Rethinking Management

John Seddon is a professor of occupational psychology, management thinker and… very British in appearance. As someone who did not have English as a first language, there are always some wonderful expressions to learn from his talks. Many of his talks seem to end up in beautifully crafted rants about things he dislikes (and that is a lot). As a speaker we found him vastly superior to all other speakers there. He is funny, in control, and has an important message: It is not about tools or services, nor Lean or Kanban, nor about limiting work-in-progress (WiP) or flow. It’s about customers, purpose, system, and respect.

Behind all major “cock-ups” (as Seddon might put it) hides the horrible ghost of command-and-control and industrialization thinking; the idea that there is a class of people, floating on top of everybody else, telling them what to do. Equal, sure, but just a little more equal than the rest of us.

His main example is the wonderful Portsmouth housing repair services, coached by Seddon’s team. After years of improvement work they are now in a position where they can ask their customers which day and time they want them to show up and they always do. With the right tools. Doing quality work at a fraction of the cost. Sounds fantastic! The only part IT played in this was a small automated matching step costing about GBP 3,000 and taking two weeks to develop.

Perhaps superfluous to say, Prof. Seddon does not approve much of IT as a solution to problems that lie much deeper. Seddon also talked about how “Lean” is a concept that the western-world invented; a slightly twisted interpretation of what Toyota have been doing. It is necessarily a tinted image that is often far too shallow; a tool-oriented outlook that, in typical western culture style, seeks quick wins and silver bullets. To add insult to injury, it has now been kidnapped by management consultants, pushing out standard procedures to the people who actually know the work, measuring their activity against standard times. This is certainly a grim picture that he paints so we are probably wise to listen.

David Joyce – Red Bead Experiment

David is an experienced agile coach, now working for ThoughWorks. Someone told me he had performed this experiment many times so I went there to see how it should be done. And boy, it was beautiful!

The Red Bead Experiment was conceived by Dr W. Edwards Deming, the man who can be said to have coached the Japanese industry to their fabulous success. It was part of his 4-day seminar for managers. The experiment is a learning tool to understand the relationship between able workers and ambitious managers in a system.

In its basic form the experiment is a simulation of a company that produces white beads. That is what their customers pay for. However, in the production process there is always a risk of getting red beads, which are faulty and must be avoided. The simulation takes place during a number of iterations, in which stakes go up and people get more and more desperate.

I don’t want to spoil the effect of participating in one so I won’t go into details about it, but I can highly recommend going to one, if you have the chance. It showed beautifully how ever so willing workers; trained, motivated, bribed, and finally threatened can’t make a spot of difference in a system which is stacked against them. It touches on issues like command-and-control thinking, the folly of managing people and ignoring the system, forgetting natural variation, post-process quality control, arbitrary targets and standardised work. Deep down it shows how a misconfigured system will lead one human being to treat their fellow humans with little respect, like donkeys, given the carrot or the stick.


Here are some nice quotes I heard. I may have gotten it wrong. If I did, please excuse and correct me:

  • “Work done is not value achieved” (Alan Shalloway)
  • “Estimates don’t need to be correct, they need to be adjusted.” (Dave Nicolette)
  • “If you feel that Newton’s Law of Gravity is wrong, then maybe Kanban isn’t for you.” (David Anderson, speaking about how Kanban is a pragmatic model. Like Newton’s law it’s not perfect and won’t work in all circumstances, but it’s fantastically useful nonetheless.)
  • “Don’t call it anything. Managers will think it comes in a box.” (Taiichi Ohno, as quoted by Prof. John Seddon)
  • “…I really don’t care for Lean. In fact – I hate it.” (Prof. Seddon shocking the Lean-happy audience)
  • “Use a 44 degree angle – not 46.” (David Joyce mildly correcting a “worker” that was not up to standard in the Red Bead Experiment)
  • “You must not care for you family” (David Joyce getting slightly more threatening, still with an eerily sweet voice)
  • “Leadership is the magic ingredient” (David Anderson, seemingly having just discovered that perhaps people having an idea on where to go are quite useful)
  • “Idleness is painful. Managers are punished for it. Workers have to look busy.” (David Anderson, relating how we have been so steeped in industrial thinking that, to be efficient, everybody must be doing something all the time. But doing the wrong thing faster isn’t helping.)
  • “What we do is that we come into these worthless, dysfunctional organisations, the others won’t need us, and we make them suck a little less. But only temporary, when we leave they will fall back again.” (anonymous, cynical, slightly toasted change agent)
  • “Sure, Seddon may be the Pope, but Ohno is clearly a God” (Måns Sandström, commenting that it seems that any argument over Lean/Kanban, however heated, can be won with a simple, “Ah, but remember what Ohno said: [insert Japanese wisdom here]”.)

Some Additional Reflections from the Swedish Contingency

It is even more clear to us now that systems thinking is superior to any method you may wish throw at it. It’s on a different level. Listening to and reading Seddon works like being given a vaccine against command-and-control thinking. We feel we can spot it a mile away now.

The value of respect for people cannot be overstated. Unless you have that you will fail.

Someone once said: “I don’t believe in the God of software development, but I’m afraid of him.”. Well, we believe in him, but the only thing that scares us are management consultants coming in to “leanify IT”.

As change agents, it is very easy to feel resentment and bitterness. It is very hard to change an organisation and even harder to make it stick. Working either only top-down or bottom-up seems futile. It is a war fought on many fronts simultaneously.

The system is overwhelmingly powerful, but after all the system is actually determined by people. If that is true, then it should be possible to change the system. Maybe we can change the world after all…?

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