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The Poppendiecks on Lean

By Kevin Meyer

Mary and Tom Poppendieck have speaking on the application of lean manufacturing methods to software and IT development for many years.  Recently they gave an interesting interview to Matt Heusser.  Some of the more salient points:

Matt Heusser: Can you explain the Lean software philosophy while standing on one foot?

Tom: Do nothing that doesn't add value and respect
people. Organizations make
different decisions when they give as much weight to long-term survival
as to short term profit.

Mary: Stop the line culture, aggressive focus on
improvement. If you want to survive in an environment with
discontinuous events that you cannot forecast, then you need to be able
to respond to those events. Get all workers deeply involved in
analyzing feedback from the market and rapidly figuring out how to act
on that feedback.

Tom: Build a learning organization in which
everyone uses systematic elimination of waste and systematic problem
solving in continuous cycles of experiments and reflection to deeply
understand their work through direct observation of the process and
testing of hypotheses to build a high level of agreement on what your
organization needs to deliver and how it can most effectively do its

Right off the bat they understand the second pillar, respect for people.

Matt: How would you respond to someone who
claims that Lean is from manufacturing, and thus inappropriate for
software development, which is knowledge work?

Mary: Well, Lean works for banking, which is a
service business. Svenska Handelsbanken is a bank in Sweden that has
been using Lean principles for 25 years. It puts the bank in a position
to deal with discontinuous change in the financial markets by expecting
local teams to make independent decisions. By having many individual
teams seeing what opportunities are out there and responding, the bank
stays ahead of changes in the markets.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.com, also believes in small, independent
teams; he calls them two-pizza teams. A two-pizza team is the number of
people that can be fed with two pizzas. Amazon’s cloud
is a service-oriented architecture in which each service is owned by a
two-pizza team. The team is responsible for the service from cradle to
grave: determining what is needed, development, operations, support –

Toyota is the same; teams of six to eight people, with good mentoring from their manager, get work done better and faster.

An underlying concept of Lean is that if you can't create small
independent-thinking teams, you can't respond rapidly in the face of
continuous change. So you need to create a governance structure that
allows the teams to make the right decisions and makes it possible for
them to focus on the outcomes of the ultimate customer. Our book is for
leaders trying to figure out how to get there.

What are their feelings on six sigma?

Mary: I suppose it depends on what you mean. To me,
Six Sigma is a bunch of tools. They are good tools. Theoretically, they
are implementation agnostic. They are not a whole program of how you
should do things.

When thought of as a set of tools, Six Sigma has a tendency of not
getting at the underlying strategy of how things ought to happen.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Six Sigma, it's just that people
think it's the answers to the world’s problems. It isn't. It's a set of
interesting tools that anyone doing continuous improvement would do
well to use.

Tom: The typical implementation of a Six Sigma
program vests responsibility for improvements in black-belts who are
not part of the organization’s leadership structure. Toyota and other
Lean organizations vest this responsibility in every level of its
leadership team and mentor every level of leader in the appropriate
tools from the Six Sigma and Lean toolboxes.

This is exactly why I have a problem with "belts" and "certifications" and such.  Six sigma works, but if the tools are applied without a lean look at the overall value stream you can easily end up optimizing a process that is waste to begin with.

The entire interview is worth a read, especially to understand how they came across the concept of applying lean manufacturing to software development.

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2 Responses to "The Poppendiecks on Lean"

  • Paul (SSMB)
    17 September 2009 - 6:51 am

    I had to laugh when I read “…Six Sigma is a bunch of tools.” Many of the SS people I’ve met say the same about Lean. Process improvement is just like manufacturing – there are proper tools and procedures for us to use. One problem is that most of the current learning environment focuses on turning out X-week wonders rather than learning some basics and then what you need when you need it. Continuous learning to go along with continuous improvement is a much better way build skills in my opinion.

  • Joe Dager
    17 September 2009 - 8:31 am

    Good article and I do have to agree with the majority of the statements. I like the use of terms like a bunch or tools and culture when a practitioner of Lean, Six Sigma or TOC talks about the other guys toolbox.

    We all arrive at a destination by driving, flying or walking. The best way will be determined by the situation.

    Saying without a lean look, is similar to saying that if you are not working on your ultimate constraint then all your work is wasted.

    I do agree with the statement that you have to start with a value stream, without knowing where you are, how can you start.

    Nice post!