Easily, one of the most fun parts of my job is management by walking around (MBWA). It’s not just fun, but its also quite effective as a tool in leading organizations. My experience, however, is that its an underutilized tactic. And for those of us who do it, its one of the easiest things to ‘bump off the schedule’ for something seemingly more important.
“Management by Wandering Around” is a term that was made popular by Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, the authors of the 80′s bestseller In Search of Excellence. The concept was originally developed and touted by Hewlett-Packard executives in the 1970s. Since HP and In Search of Excellence made the term popular, its been a reoccurring topic in business books over the years.
Simply put, Management by Walking Around (I prefer the ‘walking’ to ‘wandering’), is an unstructured approach to interacting with employees in your organization. The idea is to ‘get out of the office’ and interact with real people doing real work in your organization. Companies that tout MBWA often push managers to spend more time out of their offices than in their offices, if they can swing it. The goal is to use these informal visits to listen to how employees are feeling, understand the challenges they face, gather ideas for improvement, and connect on a personal level.
Let me start by saying that I haven’t done any formal research on the topic. All my experience here is anecdotal, but I feel like it has served me well. The reason MBWA works is pretty simple: the best decisions are not often made in isolation. Its really easy, particularly when (you think) you are a smart executive, to make conclusions and solve all the businesses problems without talking to folks. But the reality is that you get better data, insight, and ideas from talking to people who are actually exposed to the problems you are trying to solve.
Also, as a leader in any organization, its important that you interact with people on a regular basis. If for no other reason, this is valuable because it enables you to keep a thumb on the pulse of the organization. When you are in your office the whole day, you don’t often get a sense for what is really going on. Furthermore, people don’t get to connect with you on a personal level and get to know you. Another important factor in all this is that people vary widely in their comfort level in talking with leaders and gregariousness. So, if you are not out there actively seeking out conversations, there is some distinct population of your team that you just aren’t going to hear from.
The truth is, I am still working on getting good at this whole MBWA thing. I’ve learned a thing or two so far, but I certainly have a ways to go. Here’s what I’ve got:
I continue to learn more about this tool every day. I’ll continue to employ it and report back with my results. I hope it works for you, too! Please post comments with anything you’ve learned!
I first read about Net Promoter Score on Eric Ries’s blog almost a year ago. I found the concept to be really compelling. In recent conversations with lots of budding entrepreneurs, I have realized that not everyone is really familiar with NPS. So I thought a quick overview could be helpful.
In the introductory Kanban post, I provided some background on Kanban and in Part 2, I went on to discuss several ways Agile and Kanban have been put into practice together, including examples of some of the several different ‘flavors’ of Kanban being used in software development.
Now I want to discuss some of the key tradeoffs that might occur in using Kanban systems for agile development, leave you with some food for thought and discussion, and provide some resources for digging into the topic further if I’ve stirred your curiosity a bit.
In the introductory Kanban post, I provided some background on Kanban in order to give you some context for how Kanban might be used in an agile software development environment. Now I want to provide some insight on how Kanban is currently being used with agile and why I think the idea of doing so holds some merit.
In Part 1, I mentioned that Kanban and Agile share some basic tenets: improve efficiencies in a non-prescriptive environment where rules are kept to a minimum. I also said that at the very least, incorporating Kanban into an agile environment by combining rules 5 and 6 of Toyota’s Production System (TPS) seemed to make the most sense. In other words, using Kanban as a means for fine tuning in order to stabilize and rationalize the process could bring a lot to the table in an agile software environment.
Let’s take a look at some of the ways it’s been done so far.
In his article, Kanban Applied to Software Development: from Agile to Lean, Kenji Hiranabe discusses several ways Agile and Kanban have been put into practice, including:
Hiranbe equates Agile Kanban to ‘Task Kanban’ in that, like Agile, it doesn’t show processes, such as Development, Testing and Deployment, but instead relies only on visual cues that show the status of a story, such as To Do, Doing and Done. He uses this photo of a Task Kanban implemented by the JUDE development team at Change Vision, Inc. to illustrate:
Unlike Agile or Task Kanban, Sustaining Kanban has separate and serial processes (Development, Testing, etc.) and the Kanban cards move between those processes from left to right, as shown in this example, a pieced-together image of Yahoo’s Kanban system from Jeff Patton in his article, Kanban Development Oversimplified.
How Yahoo’s Kanban board works:
Although at first glance you might think otherwise, Hiranbe explains, “Sustaining Kanban is not a classic waterfall process, where all the requirements are ‘designed’ at one time, ‘developed’, and ‘validated’ at another time, which would cause all the cards to move in a group. Instead, the cards move one by one, like the one-piece-flow of manufacturing.”
Using the Yahoo example, you can clearly see the “flow of work” concept used in Sustaining Kanban is different from the “iteration” concept of agile. And, in order to be a true ‘pull’ system, rules would need to require that only the next group to the right is allowed to move the cards on the board.
Hiranbe describes Lean+Agile Kanban like using Agile Kanban synchronously within each process and using Sustaining Kanban asynchronously across the whole value stream of processes
Patton also found a smaller “portable” Kanban system he in a project being developed by Central Computer Services, Co. At Central, a team works in several smaller sub teams (usually pairs). When a sub-team pulls a user story, they break it down into their tasks and post them onto their own portable Kanban board (in this case, a bulletin board they can carry with them).
In Central’s case, the Kanban system consists of two levels:
Central uses the term ‘Kanban-nano’ to refer to its agile-Kanban system.
The idea of using a simple task board with index cards or sticky notes is as old as Agile itself.
Even after seeing only a few styles of Kanban in place for agile software development, it’s certainly not a stretch to imagine other variations that could be used in order to create hybrid agile-Kanban systems. One example is Scrumban, fully discussed by Corey Ladas in his 2008 paper, in which he describes Scrumban as “Incrementally enhancing Scrum with more and more pull-like features.” In doing so, Ladas says, flow becomes smoother as process capability improves, providing opportunities for kaizen.
The beauty of the Kanban system: it’s very visual. If logjams occur they’re obvious and action can be taken to address them.
Over time, the process of improving the system is considered ‘smoothing’ or production leveling, and is sometimes referred to in production as “heijunka”. It’s a technique for reducing waste and is an important part of the production efficiency in the TPS and in lean manufacturing in general.
So, at least to this point, you might agree as I said in part 1:
“At the very least, incorporating Kanban into an Agile environment by combining rules 5 and 6 of the TPS seems to make a lot of sense, i.e., using Kanban is a means to fine tuning in order to stabilize and rationalize the process.”
Phew, that’s enough to read for now. In Part 3, I’ll discuss some of the tradeoffs that might occur and if bringing Kanban into an agile environment necessarily means we lose the collaboration between teams with different perspectives, a very important part of product development in my mind.
I’ll also provide some additional resources you can use to find more information on using Kanban in an agile environment.
I’ve never made it a secret that I am a fan of agile management practices, both inside and outside of software development. Historically, however, two things within the agile space have always been a little bit frustrating to me:
I have heard about Kanban systems applied to software development for a while now, but mostly through conversations with other agile practitioners. After doing some research, I’ve found that there were not many resources on the internet about Kanban and how it is used in agile development. So I decided to pull something together here and use it as a basis for further discussion.
First, what exactly is Kanban?
The word kanban is Japanese. Roughly translated, it means ‘signboard’, ‘billboard’ or ‘card you can see.’ In its original usage in 17th century Japan, Kanban was a wooden or metal sign often used to represent a trademark or seal.
In more modern times, however, Kanban became a term used in Just-in-time (JIT) manufacturing systems that seek to reduce in-process inventory and its associated carrying costs, most notably by Toyota. Thus the concept of Just-in-time manufacturing has also become known as the Toyota Production System (TPS).
JIT or TPS is a lean, pull system of production. American manufacturing has traditionally been based on a push system where the manufacturer estimates the quantity of product it must produce in order to meet forecast demand. A push system can result in either a shortage or surplus of materials needed for production depending on the accuracy of that forecast.
Conversely, pull systems like those used in the TPS rely on observed and not forecast demand. Signals at different points in the process are used to determine when more parts are needed. To illustrate the concept simply, imagine a parts bin on the factory floor with a Kanban card (signal) inside that carries part identification. When the bin is empty, the bin and the card are taken to the factory’s store for replacement. The factory store replaces the empty bin with a full one containing its own Kanban card. The factory store then presents the empty bin and its Kanban card to the appropriate step in the supply chain for replenishment.
In such a system, as long as there is one spare in the factory store, the process will never run out of needed parts and supply costs are only incurred when they’re actually necessary. While it may not seem revolutionary at first blush, it turns out that it is. This subtle shift in thinking can have a dramatic impact on efficiency and waste.
The general flow of Kanban would look something like this:
By now, you’re probably thinking:
“This is all well and good in a factory production line, which is a very linear process where the product moves from one assembly stage to another in orderly fashion and once the product moves form point A to point B, it doesn’t come back (provided quality is satisfactory when it arrives at point B). But software development doesn’t always operate in a linear process.”
It’s true that flow is often non-linear with software development. It’s not always a clean handoff from elaboration to development to testing. Sometimes design and development are happening in parallel, for example. Plus, we’re talking about labor and not physical, raw materials.
However, Kanban is in use in lean non-manufacturing environments and, in fact, Kanban has already been adopted in some agile software development environments. That’s likely because Kanban is relatively easy to adapt to specific environments because there aren’t a lot of rules.
Kenji Hiranabe1 succinctly lists the rules of Kanban as:
And, in fact, Toyota’s TPS itself has only six very simple rules:1.
In non-manufacturing environments, the primary purpose of Kanban is to facilitate efficient workflow. In manufacturing it’s about having the right part in the right quantity at the right time. This is as opposed to producing based on guesswork and estimation. It’s about being lean. Very lean.
The real question then, is “Does Kanban conflict with Agile concepts/principles?”
The best answer might be, “In some ways, maybe. In some ways, maybe not.”
Over the last several years a large number of Agile practitioners have begun to include thinking from lean manufacturing in their Agile approaches, thanks to trailblazers like Tom & Mary Poppendiek in their book Lean Software Development. But Kanban, at least as discussed thus far, seems to break the primary rule of today’s common agile practice: the fixed development time-box. Kanban systems are continuous, not iterative, yet both exist to promote workflow efficiency.
In his article, Kanban Development Oversimplified, Jeff Patton illustrates some of the conflicts between Agile and Kanban. With Kanban development:
Implementing Kanban in an Agile environment might require a bit of ‘shoehorning’ to make it work. But Kanban and Agile share some basic tenets: improve efficiencies in a non-prescriptive environment where rules are kept to a minimum. In this way, they certainly seem complementary.
At the very least, incorporating Kanban into an Agile environment by combining rules 5 and 6 of the TPS seems to make a lot of sense, i.e., using Kanban is a means to fine tuning in order to stabilize and rationalize the process. And, just as Agile has evolved into several different flavors over time, like XP and Scrum, it’s not a stretch to imagine Agile-Kanban hybrids like Scrum-ban just might create a synergy for software development that neither could achieve on its own.
I’ve laid the groundwork by providing some context on the possibility of using Kanban in an Agile software development environment. Just as I think different forms of Agile shouldn’t be seen as conflicting but as complementary, I also think it’s important to keep an open mind and consider that Kanban and Agile have the potential to be complementary and not contradictory. The subtle shift in lean thinking turned out to be revolutionary in classical production, and it may just have a significant impact in the world of agile as well.
In Part 2 I’ll take a look at how Kanban is currently being adopted in Agile environments and the key tradeoffs that might result.
The term ‘conflict’ typically carries with it negative connotation. But it’s something I have been thinking a lot about lately, and I feel like conflict is not necessarily a bad thing. As our company continues to grow at a very rapid trajectory, there are lots of new faces, roles, and even whole organizations. Managing the responsibilities and roles during the growth has been a challenge, to say the least. The reality, however, is that friction in this kind of situation is unavoidable. I’d even go as far as to take that a step further. I am not sure I want to avoid it. I think that open and healthy dialogue about disagreements can be a good thing.
I was happy to see that my thoughts on the topic of conflict were seconded by many authorities in the management arena. There is a fascinating book titled: “The Right Fight”, which espouses the belief that conflict is a welcome element in any organization. The authors have coined the term “productive dissent”, which is essentially harnessing the power of well organized and respectful debate.
For most people, including myself, the last thing we desire is an argument. However, when working in a collaborative environment, some level of conflict is unavoidable. The key is using disagreements as a catalyst to improve our overall work environment and customer experience. This may sound far fetched, but I have seen where productive dissent has been a powerful tool.
If you think about it, to stay competitive in the marketplace, a company must continuously evolve. Stagnation literally equals death, no matter how good your initial product or service is. Technology, the competition, and customer expectations will demand constant improvement. Embracing the principles of the “right fight” is a great way to stay on the cutting edge.
So, what does that really mean?
I am very fortunate to be a part of an organization filled with extremely intelligent and motivated individuals with diverse backgrounds of experience. However, inherent in this is the fact that, at times, we may disagree with each other about the specs of a project, the ideal organizational structure, or the best process. Instead of agreeing to disagree, we should instead aim to get all thoughts and perspectives placed on the table for consideration. When you approach issues in this way, wonderful things can happen.
It’s often not until you really get into someone else’s thought process by allowing full and honest discourse, that you uncover the gems of innovation and creativity. In this Euntreprenuer.com article titled “Conflict in the Workplace”, the columnist stresses the point that for a leader, “How employees deal with conflict is usually a direct reflection of the tone or atmosphere you set for your company. If you shy away from conflict, so will your employees. If you confront others in a negative manner, so will they. If you embrace conflict as a potentially positive engagement between individuals or groups, they will, too.”
This statement made me reflect on my own management style and manner of handling conflict. While I always make a conscious effort to be inclusive of the viewpoints of others, I am sure that I can do more to foster a culture that appreciates and grows from any disagreements we may have. My ultimate goal is progress and I fully embrace it — no matter what the source.
Jeff Weiss, a prolific author on collaboration in the workplace is quoted in the Harvard Business Review as saying “Assume you have something to learn, assume there is a more creative solution than you’ve thought of.” This wisdom, along with striving to identify common ground and branching out, are keys for the successful resolution to workplace conflict. This is advice that can be used in our interactions within the company structure, as well as in our everyday lives.
To me, good teams are built on healthy relationships. Healthy relationships don’t mean that avoidance of conflict. In fact, they mean quite the opposite. Healthy relationships are about trusting someone enough to share your honest feelings with them, even when that means you disagree. In the end, you and the other person are better for it. And perhaps most importantly, the whole company is better for it.
The next time you encounter a conflict, employ the principles of the “right fight” and observe the outcome. I would love to know how it works out for you. (I’ll certainly let you all know how it works out for me…)
I don’t like requirements documents. There, I said it. I’ve been thinking about this latently for a number of months now, but all of this thinking really caught up with me this weekend. We’ve been thinking a lot lately about evolving our product management practices and there are no shortage of opinions around the office and from experts in the community. As such, I’ve tried to do a lot of listening, reading, learning, and reflecting over the last few weeks. Here’s what I’ve come up with so far.
There are many flavors of requirements out there. Depending on the product management practices you use, you are likely to have some of the following: product requirements documents (PRDs), market requirement documents (MRDs), business requirements documents (BRDs), software requirements specifications (SRSs), and feature specifications (FSs). For the sake of simplicity, I’ll just refer to all of them as PRDs or specs.
There are a number of shortcoming with PRDs. I’ll take the time to just list a few here:
To me, a good set of requirements is supposed to describe a product that we are reasonably confident will be successful in front of real users. But why does it exist in the first place? Well, it’s core purpose is to facilitate discussion and decision making around the product in question. Typically, there are a lot of stakeholders (with a lot of different paradigms) around that table: QA, Engineering, Marketing, Merchandising, Operations, Executives, etc. So a good spec is able to quickly communicate what this product does and how it will do it. The goal of such a specification is to create more clarity than confusion. It should be your single source of truth. Finally, a sustainable spec is one that is built for change. Your product will no doubt evolve and change as you gain more insight from users.
Delivering on all the expectations of a good specification is much easier said than done. There are a lot of things that a spec has to do, and it’s only really useful if you can create it in a reasonable amount of time. Furthermore, in most typical formats, the spec ends up getting thrown in the trash after the product is launched. So you really don’t want to invest that much time into it.
Also, there is a timing issue here. How can we have any degree of confidence that our product will be successful without actually having tested the product in front of real users? If you look at most specification creation processes, you’ll find that people are writing tens or hundreds of pages well-before they’ve actually put anything in front of a user. What’s worse is that they haven’t even begun to think about the interaction or visual design of the product yet. That’s counterintuitive to me because it goes against the most important rule I have learned in my time managing products: The user experience is the most important part of any product. It’s not about ‘what it does.’ It’s about ‘how it does it.’
Now don’t get me wrong. Some really forward-thinking product teams actually pay close attention to interaction design and visual design in their PRDs. Some of them actually sketch out ideas and test them in front of users while building their requirements documents, which is a huge win. If you are in that select group of forward-thinkers, you are definitely a step ahead. But, in this scenario, there is an obvious question that we are left with: if you are actually beginning the process of product discovery (and doing real user testing), why are you using a document as the format to store your findings and insights?
When we look at all of the things that a specification is supposed to do well, it becomes clear that building a good one is a really tall order. But when we combine the goals of communicating the needs of the product with actually validating/discovering the solution, an answer emerges: a high-fidelity prototype!
The beauty of a high-fidelity prototype is that it actually provides people with a realistic sense of the user experience of the product. A good prototype describes the functionality of the application while leaving very little room for imagination. High-fidelity, to me, means that the interface is clickable, but that the backend is not necessarily functional. In most cases, it will be ‘stubbed’ or simulated. While every single corner case need not be designed, the major use cases and features should be fleshed out. After all, the idea is to capture the proposed user experience.
Imagine the kind of robust dialogue that can be had around a high-fidelity prototype versus a 50-page spec. All of a sudden, these disparate stakeholders with very different frames of mind, will all (literally) see the same thing. They will not only have a sense of what the functional requirements are, but they will see the proposed information architecture, user flow, interaction, and visual design. They can actually understand how this product will come together and will have a much more robust understanding of what it means to them. Also, they’ll have a single source of truth. No need to dig through several email chains to find the answer to the question about a certain use case. Just click through the prototype to find your answer.
If you think a high-fidelity prototype will help facilitate discussion and decision making around a product, just wait until you see what it does for your engineering team. Beginning engineering without having fleshed out the user experience can be very costly. Typical specs are so ambiguous that the really tricky product management decisions are faced only after the engineers have begun writing code. Also, typical written specs leave so much open to interpretation that its very likely engineers will write code that doesn’t do precisely what you intended. This usually creates time pressure for PMs and engineers. The pressure generally causes them to make hasty decisions without user input and to re-write code without taking the time to be thoughtful.
But a high-fidelity prototype changes a lot of that. The experience has been thought through much more significantly by the time the engineers begin writing (back-end) code. Furthermore, there are few (if any) better ways to communicate the needs to an engineer than to show them precisely how the application is supposed to behave. They can actually foresee some of the challenges ahead and can be much more thoughtful about the architecture. That’s not to mention that their velocity is likely to increase because they have more clarity on what they are building.
Last, but certainly not least, is the effect on the user. The great thing about using a high-fidelity prototype as your ‘source of truth’ is that you can actually put it in front of users to get feedback. This enables you as a product team to ‘test early and often.’ And instead of taking all that extra time to ‘write up’ your learnings from user testing, you can just work with the interaction team to evolve the prototype. Which means you can iteratively test it again and again until you’ve gotten the experience right. You are able to test much more easily at this stage because the cost of change is so much lower than it will be further downstream. Once you are ready to begin implementation on the prototype, no additional administrative work is needed (in the form of writing pages and pages). Instead, you can just begin involving engineering in the discussions around the prototype and they can begin turning it into a real product.
If you’re a skeptic right now, that’s OK. It’s likely that your existing process is painful enough that you’ll get open-minded about this sooner or later. Next time you have the opportunity to create a product spec, you should consider working with your design team on creating a prototype instead of spending weeks or months writing a longer PRD. Get that prototype in front of real users (and the rest of your product team and stakeholders) and use it as a catalyst for dialogue and decisions. When it comes time to implement, bring your engineers into the conversation. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at the result.
I am thrilled to see the agenda for Magma Rails coming together. I have a real sense of pride in the fact that I helped start the company (Crowd Interactive) that is putting on the first ever Ruby on Rails conference in Mexico! What’s more is that it really looks like it is going to be a great conference.
Some amazingly talented people will be giving talks there, and I am happy to say that I know a few of them personally. The ones to really look out for will be by:
I am truly heartbroken that there won’t be a live webcast of the conference. I wasn’t able to be in Mexico this year for it, and it would have been nice to tune in! That’s OK. I’ll try to make it out next year. I’ll be looking out for all the #MagmaRails tweets.
Anyway, I am really proud to have played some small part in the rails revolution happening in Mexico. Kudos to all the Magma Rails and CI guys for taking it a step further.
One of the questions that gets escalated to me most often these days is some permutation of, “What is the difference between product management and interaction design?” It is particularly hard to answer questions like “where does one end and the other begin?” These are not simple questions to answer because the roles do have some overlap and it is important that both of these roles collaborate closely in any organization.
Before I answer the question, I should say two quick things:
To me, product management is really about two things: 1) defining and assessing the market opportunity. 2) working with the cross-functional product development team to discover a solution. Here are some of the core activities that come to mind:
Of course, the job of a PM on a good product team becomes very iterative. Few, if any, good products are developed linearly. Instead, new information and insight is yielded throughout the process, which drives updated requirements and solution-validations.
Interaction design (IXD) is a partner organization to the product organization, much like engineering is. (More on this later…) An IXD’s goal is to build something that is usable and valuable for the end-user. A good IXD gets at this goal in two ways: 1) getting to know and understand the user 2) thinking through (in detail) and ideating potential experiences for the user. Some of the core activities that come to mind:
The interaction designer has a lot of work cut out for herself. The key to doing a solid job is to have the time needed to do the right kinds of discovery as well as being iterative in conceptualizing solutions. Again, learning about the customer is not a linear process. Often times, new information and insight is brought to light in the middle of the design cycle. This is why being agile and iterating on design is so important.
It doesn’t matter how detailed we are about dividing up roles and responsibilities between IXDs and PMs. At the end of the day, they both have a lot of shared responsibilities. They both need to be connected to customers and stakeholders. They both need to be iterative and work with end-users to understand if needs are actually being met. They both need to be willing to change their deliverables (whether they are product requirements or prototypes) based on new insights that are brought to light.
Product management and interaction design is a close collaboration no matter how you slice it. I view PM as a bit higher-altitude when it comes to defining a solution. IXD is closer to the ground, and has much more of a hand in defining how the experience comes together. While both groups need to work to respect boundaries and allow the other group to do its job, they both need to work hard to be on the same page. If PM and IXD cannot work together in harmony, then you are destined to have a product that just doesn’t feel right.
I was reading this great blog post about the problems with estimating business value by Mike Cohn, and found that it identified a problem that has been nascent in my mind for a little while now.
I won’t summarize the whole blog post here (you should just go read it!), but I will talk about how it gets me to thinking.
We’ve recently started our company-wide steering committee process, and I have had a hard time deciding how fine or coarse-grained we should get when we make the relative priority tradeoff decisions.
One of the values of getting fine-grained is that you can, theoretically, maximize ROI. You can identify the lowest-hanging fruit by getting to the user story level. Instead of looking at a large grouping of stories, which may have varying levels of importance to the business, you can look at the stories one-by-one and decide which ones are the most relevant right now (particularly based on their level of effort.)
The problem with this approach, however, is that this approach can be more complex than it seems in practice. The core reason is shared costing. There is often times architectural work that is shared across multiple stories. Or, there is work that can be combined and will take less time than if done separately. One example we’ve thought about recently is our checkout system and our return system. It’s probably more important to us to tackle the checkout enhancements. But, if we combine the checkout and the returns in one initiative, then we can tackle much of the architecture at once, and it will probably take us 60% of the effort that it would if we did it separately.
How do we take that into account at the ‘steering committee’ level? I think the answer is that we don’t. There are too many complex tradeoffs that exist like this when you get to the user story level. I think we are better served at the epic level.
I’ll experiment more soon and report back!