Month: December 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Out of the Crisis

out-of-the-crisis-by-w-edwards-demingDAN’S SCORE: Stars 3.5
Out of the Crisis
by W. Edwards Deming


Agh. I hate giving my hero’s book 3.5 stars, but let me explain.

This is Deming’s first book published on his management philosophy (1982). I understand, of the two books he wrote on the subject (the other being The New Economics), this one is the most difficult to read. My feeling is Dr. Deming wasn’t used to writing toward the management audience (his previous books were geared toward statisticians) and was so darn brilliant he didn’t know how to ‘dumb’ down his message yet.

I was able to understand about 66% of it. However, I got lost when he delved into statistical analysis and when he gave examples from manufacturing. His style is also a little unusual: a mixture of dryness with flashes of absolute brilliance. Still, I can see why many people would just put the book down or not even bother. They would think its too hard or it doesn’t apply to their line of work. It might be a reason why many just don’t get the Deming message.

Don’t get me wrong. I got a lot out of this book and I did enjoy it. Here are some of the big take aways:

The report on Japanese Automotive Stamping was a very interesting read. It was cool to see what the Japanese manufacturer thought was important to their company (cleanliness, obsession with quality control, importance of training, belief that people are their most important asset, visual communication, etc.)

I enjoyed reading about Deming’s thoughts on goals, focusing on specifications vs. reducing variation, what an incoming manager must do (he must learn), how management tries to implement techniques instead of focusing on improving people, the concept of an immediate customer and an ultimate customer, the importance of learning from a master (and not a hack), why a customer may not have valuable feedback on a product until after using it for a long time (for example, an automobile), how some specifications are beyond the capability of a process (I started using this phrase), the importance of finding vendors and partners committed to continuous improvement, his emphasis on training, his warning against learning something solely by reading a book, and how its natural for people in a company to be suspicious of outsiders telling them how to improve their work (yet he stresses the importance of having outside help).

He introduced me to some new quotes from himself and others. One of my favorites was this one: “They will have courage to break with tradition, even to the point of exile among their peers.” I’ve felt this a lot since my Agile ‘conversion.’

Some of his points hurt. It made me realize how far I have to go. For example:

“Today, 19 foremen out of 20 were never on the job they supervise. . . They can not train them nor help them [their staff] as the job is as new to the foreman as it is to his people . . . He does not understand the problem, and could get nothing done about it if he did.” Ouch. I’m one of those foremen.

He bemoans the fact that the educational system is putting out math ignoramuses. I’m sure Deming would think this would apply to me. I’ve always found Math difficult. I actually have a fear of it.

I was surprised to hear him say that teamwork isn’t always the answer for achievement. He said there are some who are fine doing work by themselves, contribute to the organization, and should be supported. With agile being so team oriented, this idea made me think.

Something he said didn’t sound right: “A pupil once taught cannot be reconstructed.” Is he saying that once a person is taught how to do something, they are stuck doing it that way forever? I’m not certain I agree.

One of the things he talks about is how quality control circles must have management involvement and will eventually fail if they don’t. It made me think about retrospectives in scrum. By rule, management is not to come to these. The thought is that the team will not be open with each other if management is there and management will tell the team what they did wrong or fault the team for what they believe needs to be fixed. However during most of the retrospectives I’ve participated in, the team discussed things that were beyond their control and what frustrated them the most—i.e. things only management could fix! I think, ideally, a retrospective SHOULD have management involvement and would greatly benefit the team and the organization. HOWEVER– in order to reach this ideal state, a great deal of trust must exist between manager and employees. Fear must be completely driven out so the team feels comfortable speaking up. Management would also have to have a great deal of humility to listen to the lowly workers. Admittedly, this would have to be a very mature agile model for this to happen, but I think the agile community needs to promote this line of thinking.

Although, I learned a lot, I would not recommend this book for someone who is new to Deming. I’d recommend The Essential Deming, The Deming Dimension, or Fourth Generation Management instead. However, I think this is essential reading for any Deming disciple. Just wait a little while in your understanding before you pick it up.

Out of the Crisis can be bought here.

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Personal Kanban: Bringing Focus to Chaos- Part 2

As a project manager, I’ve got a ton of things I have to worry about. The devil is often in the details and there are a LOT of details. How do I keep track of them all? How do I know which to tackle first? How do I know how much I can do in a day? Thank the project management gods for the personal Kanban board. This is my go-to tool for personal time, priority, and energy management. In my last post I described the basics of the personal Kanban board and how it works. In this post I’ll describe how I determine what I can do in a day.

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Notice that each of the post-its have a number in the top right corner. This is an idea I got from Scrum. These are velocity points.

In a nutshell—velocity works like this:

Each item I have to do is given a certain number of points. I use the Fibonacci sequence. For me, the numbers are a combination of time, effort, complexity, and uncertainty. They are not precise time estimates, such as “this task will take me 15 minutes.” They are relative. To give you some type of idea of time, though—a 1 point item takes about 5-10 minutes. A 2 point story is about 10-25 minutes. A 3 is about 30-45 minutes. I may assign a higher point for an item if its hard or exhausting or if I’m not certain how long it will take. Like I said—its relative, but if I keep to my rules, I find it to be pretty darn accurate.

Over time, I keep track of how many points I can accomplish in a day. This will tell me how much I can get done in a day. My average is 36.5. So, when I plan my day, I put up @ 37 points worth of work.

 

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38.5 points ready to go. I have one in WIP–ready to go when I walk in to start work in the morning.

IMPORTANT: 37 points is NOT my target. My target is to do as much quality work I can in a day by staying focused. Time and energy is limited. I know with all things being equal, I can produce in the 37 point range. At the end of the day, I don’t fret if I don’t hit 37 points, and I don’t celebrate if I go over. The reason? Variation.

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Here’s a graph of about two months of work on a control chart. You can see this is a stable system with an average of 36.5 points with an upper control limit of @ 50 and a lower limit of around 24. If I go outside those limits, I will look at what went wrong. If I see a downward trend, I will investigate; if I see an upward trend I will investigate. None of these have ever happened.

If you think about it, this is actually a pretty amazing amount of predictability when you consider how crazy work can get. THAT is what brings order to the chaos.

Tips

  • Break down big items. I won’t go beyond an 8 (that’s about an hour and a half worth of work). Anything larger needs to be broken down. Small tasks keep you focused and keeps things progressing. If I have a large item to work on, I write “Epic” in the corner and put it in the “To Do” box. When its time to work on it, I break it down into smaller items.
  • When you complete an item, re-evaluate its points. I find that sometimes I was wrong in my initial estimate. It may be higher or it might be lower. I cross out the old number and write down the new. This gives me a more accurate total when I count up total points.
  • If something unexpected comes up during the day, I create a new post-it, stick it in the “To do” box and remove equivalent points from the “To do” box. Example– My supervisor unexpectedly comes by to get some information about the project. In the end, this was the equivalent of about 2 points of work. To stay within my daily velocity, I add 2 points for my supervisor visit and remove 2 points from my “To do” box (preferably, the lowest priority should be removed).
  • I use different colored post-it notes to represent my different projects. This helps me understand where I’m putting my efforts and helps me to better plan out my days.
  • Related: This is a great way of collecting personal data. For example, I can track how often I am interrupted or how much time I spend on reporting or in e-mail. I’ve also used it to track how much of what I do is adding to customer value. This helps me understand what I’m actually doing and what I can do to improve.
  • Some items have a specific time associated with them. For example—meetings. I put the time associated with this task in the top center and place it approximately where it will fall during the day (not necessarily by its priority). For example, an 8:30 phone call will be toward the top and a 4:00 meeting will be toward the bottom.
  • Related: Some items may be high priority, but take place in another time zone. For example, I may need to schedule a high priority appointment with one of our California sites, but because they are three hours behind my time zone, I won’t be able to reach them until mid day. I place them in the center of the day’s priorities (about the time they will be arriving to work so I can hit them up first thing).
  • Create a post-it for stopping to review what you’ve accomplished, plan for the next day, think about what you can do differently, and review and prioritize what all you have coming up in the “To Do” box (they call this a retrospective and backlog grooming in the Scrum world. This is represented by my “Wrap-Up” post-it). This is VERY important for this process. Its the last item on my list of things to do, but always takes priority over anything if I hit the 3:45 pm range.
  • As the day winds down, I will re-evaluate what all I have left to do in the “Today” box. I may add or remove items depending on how much time is left in the day.
  • I mentioned Jim Benson in my last post and I’m going to mention him again. While I came up with this idea independently, Jim is the trailblazer for Personal Kanban. I look forward to reading his book to get some ideas on what I can do better. I recently discovered a podcast interview he conducted with Mark Graban over at LeanBlog. I highly recommend it.

 

My Journey to Understanding Variation- Part II

processUnderstanding variation has not been easy for me. I think many have the same issues and its why one doesn’t see many people talking about it. During my last post, I talked about my first reactions to it, but committing myself to it because Dr. Deming said it was important.

I knew I needed to learn it, but boy, I was nervous about it. All those math equations were hurting my head just thinking about it. But I wanted to figure it out.

At this time, I was having a really rough go at work. We were all struggling: exhaustion, inability to innovate, frustration, low or poor quality, slow delivery times. No one seemed to know what to do about it. There was resistance to the Agile movement. Some thought it should be done away with.

My supervisor implored us to be change agents and recommended we find hard data to help management understand what was going on and to help them understand how we can change. Learning variation seemed like a good place to start.

I found an article about Deming and Six Sigma (I highly recommend the read). The book Understanding Variation by Donald Wheeler was suggested for someone trying to learn variation.

It was a pretty easy read and I thought I had a pretty good grasp on variation after I completed it. When I finished, the time had come to start plotting some points on a control chart. But what to measure?

This was one of the most puzzling parts for me in the beginning. Measure what exactly? A team member who had six sigma experience said it would be difficult to measure anything at the company. Others told me it was possible, but even they said they weren’t exactly sure what to do (they were pretty new to Six Sigma and still learning as well).

We were using Scrum as our methodology (well, a . . . um . . . version of it anyway). I never saw hard numbers coming out of it, though. The only thing I saw was velocity. Perhaps this was the best candidate. I often bemoaned how erratic our velocity was and that it wasn’t even close to consistent. I thought perhaps a control chart would help show how unstable it really was and help us understand what to do next.

I found a free template on line for Excel and got my numbers ready.

This was our velocity for six sprints:

Sprint 1: 52
Sprint 2: 35
Sprint 3: 72
Sprint 4: 65
Sprint 5: 60
Sprint 6: 39

This is what it looked like after plotting:

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This graph indicates a system in statistical control with a variation between about 5 and 100. In more simple terms, it meant our team could predictably produce a velocity between 5 and 100 points and be considered stable.

To say the least, I was not happy.

“You mean its ok for our velocity to be between 5 and 100???? That’s not acceptable!! How is this supposed to help us improve? This shows me nothing!”

I quickly closed the control chart, wondering if I was wasting my time and Deming didn’t know what he was talking about. After I calmed down a little, I started thinking that velocity didn’t work with control charts or perhaps we were just doing velocity wrong. In hindsight, perhaps I should have spoken to one of our employees who had a six sigma belt and she could have explained it.

Overall, I was a little disillusioned and disappointed.

But something told me I just wasn’t understanding this just yet and I needed to be patient.

It turns out, Deming fully expected the situation like mine. He said “the transformation” was discontinuous. The individual will learn a little here, learn a little there, and start making connections. In other words, it doesn’t happen all at once. I didn’t know he said this at the time, though, and if I didn’t have faith in Deming, I probably would have abandoned the idea right there.

I can certainly understand why some would decide not to continue with understanding variation. Our western minds are geared for results NOW and we don’t want to wait around for something to make sense. Time is too short and precious for us. We’d rather move on and looking for lower hanging fruit. Deming warned of this type of short-term thinking.

The next post in this series—the light bulbs start coming on.

Personal Kanban: Bringing Focus to Chaos- Part 1

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If you walk into my work space, you are going to see post-its all over the damn place. If you didn’t know what it all meant, you’d probably just think I was just messy, but there is actually a sophisticated system to my madness.

Central to my personal organization is my personal Kanban Board. I began fooling around with this at my old job back in the summer of 2015. Our scrum team had experimented with one. It didn’t stick, but I started thinking I might be able to use it myself. Right away, I fell in love with it.

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My first board. Picture taken with my old phone. Sorry for the poor quality.

By far, this is the best tool I have EVER used for time, priority, and energy management. The benefits blow me away sometimes: it keeps me sharply focused, allows me to understand how much work I have to do and if I’m getting overwhelmed or too far behind, gives me data on my own performance, allows me to understand how much work I can complete on any given day so I can plan better, and gives me the feeling of accomplishment. It also allows me to sleep better because I’ve emptied my head of all the things I need to do by writing them down and keeping them in an organized fashion. Perhaps best of all– it allows me to be creative and as a result, work becomes fun. I always brighten when I see it and it makes coming to work more enjoyable (even on Mondays!!).

Materials:

  • For the board, all you really need is a flat area and something to divide sections off with. I used the front of my cabinet and masking tape for the board at my old job. For my current board, I use poster board (I use two or three so I can expand it in any different directions as need be) and cut up post-its to create the lines.
  • Post-its
  • Thumb tacks (or command strips)
  • Sharpie

The Board Set Up

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At its basic, the board is divided into four areas. Working from left to right:

  • “To Do” (far left): This is everything I need to do. If I need to do something, I write it on a post it note, and place it in this area. The higher it is on the board, the higher the priority.
  • “Today” (the middle): This is the stuff I plan to work on . . . well . . . today. I work from top to bottom, right to left.
  • “WIP” (Work in Progress): The most important area. This is what I’m working on at the moment. I don’t work on anything else outside this box. Notice it has room for only two post-it notes. This makes me limit my work in progress, reduces multi-tasking, and increases focus.
  • “Done” (far right): This is what I have completed for the day.

Extra Areas.

These are areas I have experimented with. I wouldn’t call them necessary, but they have helped me.

  • “Waiting” (bottom): These are items where I have solicited others to help me complete a task and I’m waiting for compliance. For instance– if I sent an e-mail to someone and I’m waiting for a response or I’ve called someone on the phone and left a VM. Lately I’ve taken the rule that if this area fills up, I won’t work on anymore tasks relating to needing someone else to help me complete something. The reason– it increases my overall WIP, i.e. too many things started and not enough finishing. If I don’t get a response from the person after a few days, I put the post-it back in the “To Do” area and start over again.
  • “Help Boxes” (Top): This is my latest experiment. I often have needed conversations for my supervisor, our tech lead, or our partner. I put these on post-its and place them in the appropriate box . When I get the chance to talk to them, I address the box. Often, these conversations turn into action items and go into the “To Do” box afterwards. If it was just something I needed to know, I just toss the post-it.

It works like this

  1. Things I have to do are accumulated over time. These go in the “To Do” box.
  2. Once a day, I pull items out of the “To Do” box into the “Today” box. I’ll discuss how I determine how much I know I can do in another post (hint—it has to do with those numbers in the top right corner).
  3. Starting from the top right and working my way down right to left and top to bottom, I work my way through the day, pulling post-its into the WIP.
  4. When completed, I put them in “Done” or they go into “Waiting.”
  5. By the end of the day, my “To Do” and “WIP” box should be empty. The “Done” box will be full. There may or may not be post-its “Waiting.”
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This is my board at the end of the day. My “”Today” area is empty, my “WIP” is wrapping things up. My “Done” area is full.

Tips

  • The “WIP” box is the most important box. This is your focus. Set a work limit for it. I do this by making the WIP box the same size as my WIP limit. In this case—two post-its sized. Don’t work on anything else until what is in the box is finished. You will decrease multi-tasking and get more work done.
  • Keep the board within arm’s length from where you work. In my case, its right next to my computer. I think I might be less likely to use it if I had to keep getting up to move post-its all the time.
  • Keep post-its and a sharpie close by. Things come up all the time. If I think of something I need to do, I quickly write it on the post-it and pop it on the “To Do” area.
  • Keep poster board putty nearby for when the post-its begin to lose their stickiness.
  • Keep the WIP box near eye level. When I lose my train of thought or am interrupted, the box snaps me back into focus.
  • Make it bright and colorful. Post-its have a World of Colors collection. I like the Rio di Janeiro. It makes the board look more fun and as a result makes work fun. I personally like having a black backboard. It makes the colors pop.
  • In the beginning, you may change your board a lot as you get used to what works for you, so don’t be afraid to try something or fret if your board keeps changing. Heck, I still change mine to accommodate my needs. You should do the same for your board. Its meant to evolve. If it doesn’t, there might be something wrong.
  • You are going to go through a lot of post-it notes (and sharpies). Make a budget for it. Staples has a sale @ October/November when they get rid of all their back to school supplies. You can get some good deals then.
  • Jim Benson is an expert with Personal Kanban, but I’ve yet to read his book. I’ve kind of grown this idea on my own. Jim has been doing this a lot longer than I have and I’ve seen a couple of his presentations. He’s a smart dude. I’m sure I would get some good ideas from reading his book. Its certainly on my list. You may want to check it out.

In my next post, I will talk about how I determine what all I can do in a day.