Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Week with a Lean Manufacturer

I recently spent a week working with the team from MTM Recognition, in Oklahoma City. Raymond Lewallen leads the team, and he hired me to work with MTM's developers on context specification, both for .NET code using mSpec and for the web UI using Selenium and RSpec.

MTM is a Lean manufacturer. The company makes awards, trophies, rings, and a host of recognition materials for businesses, schools, and sports teams and events. Most of the work that MTM does is small batches of products that are frequently custom designed and built for a single batch. Its circumstances are almost a cliché of quintessential Lean.

While I was there, Ray and Troy, one of MTM's developers, took me on a on a tour of the plant. Troy had previously worked on the manufacturing side and knows his way around. He transferred to IT when he wouldn't stop building unofficial shadow IT apps to serve his purposes as a manufacturing worker. Talk about domain expertise!

I had a suspicion before we entered the plant that I had sincerely hoped would play out. The plant didn't disappoint!

Walking into MTM's plant, I couldn't find the trappings of Lean. There were some obvious visual indicators in some of the workspaces, but there were no glaring neon signs announcing Lean. What we saw mostly were signs of people making the products that MTM's customers had ordered. We had to ask to have queues and signal cards pointed out, and the folks at MTM pointed out how Lean was manifested and used.

Lean was just how things were done, but it wasn't the whole point. The point was carrying on the company's tradition of building quality products that took MTM from a one-man-in-a-garage operation to a respected and trusted 100 million dollar company.

When software developers latch on to a new thing, we tend to want it's trappings to be so flagrant and obvious that you can't but trip over them in our work areas or in conversation. Considering It's understandable, but it’s also a bit disconcerting.

After living through a catastrophic failure with Agile that ended with the costly write off of a year's worth of time spent and the dismissal of the entire product team, my concerns over Agile's loss of focus on product, producing, and productivity were powerfully punctuated.

Agile teams can become fascinated on the process to the distraction of the purpose that the process serves. In the case of the aforementioned failed project, it had become so bad that at one point the product owner and I mused that it seems like the team believed that it had become charged with producing Agile process rather than software product. When Agile becomes the whole point rather than merely a means, things can go very wrong.

What really struck me during the tour of the MTM plant was the master crafts people on that MTM has on its staff, working in design, production, and quality assurance. MTM has some very competent and talented people plying their trade in service to MTM's customers. Everything from sculptors, to jewelers, painters, metal workers, and typesetters. It's clear that producing at the pace and quality that MTM has built a reputation for requires people of considerable skill.

There's power in the tools that we use, and as crafts people we can even derive pleasure from our appreciation of fine tools themselves, but we are so susceptible to having our attention lured away from the most important aspect of having them and wielding them: productivity, product, and producing.

I appreciate Lean because it is so focused on product and producing, and on shaping an organizing that is hell-bent on the goal. It makes no apologies for remaining focused on the goal and for bending everything to the service of the goal and sustaining its achievement and its betterment.

Agile can be a disruptive technology. It’s vital as software developers that we remain vigilant against our susceptibility to allowing agile to be disruptive to our software development efforts themselves.

Ampersand GT

Working with software developers and organizations to help realize the potential of software product development through higher productivity, higher quality, and improved customer experience

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