Friday, July 17, 2009

Lean Reading List

I read Mary and Tom Poppendieck's first book on Lean Software Development, "Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit" in 2005. It went in one eye and out the other.

I was the Software Development track chair for Austin's InnoTech conference in November of that year. Mary was gracious enough to accept our invitation to come to Austin to keynote the track and to moderate a panel.

I listened to Mary's talk and got a few more clarifying tid bits from it, but mostly, I dismissed it at the time as some form agile sideshow that didn't quite measure up to the specifics that XP brought to the table. A number of us went out for burgers with Mary after the conference and continued the conversation, but I don't think anyone in the group was fundamentally moved by Lean.

I wasn't equipped with the experience to see Lean for what it was. Later, I realized the deep hubris that encumbered my thinking and the vanity that would lead me to expect that I could intuit a subject as vast as Lean from a single book, the way I could with XP and Scrum.

I suffered a serious set-back in 2007. My career's pinnacle dream project was flirting with disaster.

The company I worked for faced an intractable intellectual property constraint that limited our product's market to a small fraction of the whole. In November of 2006, I sold the company on an ambitious plan to solve the problem by building our own platform that we would have unlimited rights to sell. We started exploratory work and envisioning in December. The undertaking had significant executive sponsorship. When our board of directors voted to not fund the project, the CEO bought out the board and gave us the green light. We started official work in earnest in January.

In November of 2007, I sounded the failure warning alarm to my management, and I kept sounding it. In January of 2008, with the situation becoming increasingly intractable, I parted ways with the project and the company. Three months later, after having given the team a chance to pull itself together, the project was canceled and the team was dismissed from the company - from the most junior technologist, up to the executive overseeing the project.

I was frustrated by having felt handcuffed by Agile development orthodoxies that no longer fit the problems of the team, and yet were followed mechanically, and reinforced by management that was captivated by its first exposure to Agile.

I told some of the details of my experiences to a friend. We talked about Agile, in many variants, including Lean Software Development. My friend recommended that I read about the Theory of Constraints and recommended "The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement" by Eliyahu Goldratt and Jeff Cox. In reading The Goal, I recognized the detailed mechanical process that I faced in the failed project. At that time, I hadn't connected what I had begin to learn in The Goal with what I know about Agile Development and the gaps in Agile that I had begun to see after seven years of immersion.

Following The Goal, I wanted to read more into some of Lean's roots. I had largely avoided the Toyota literature up till that point, and I wasn't convinced that I would get much from The Toyota Production System. I knew a number of people in my community who had read The Machine that Changed the World and The Toyota Production System, but I never really got the sense that the reading had connected them with the transformative learning that I had experienced in Agile development.

Before committing to throwing myself into the Toyota literature, I wanted a sample of what I might be getting into. I started with an article. I read "Decoding the DNA of the Toyota Production System" by Steven J. Spear and H. Kent Bowen published in the Harvard Business Review.

In this article, the authors talk about the things that companies seemed to miss when trying to duplicate Toyota's successes using Toyota's methods. I'm a sucker for stories of unasked questions. The rest of my reading about Toyota and Lean in general would be an exploration of the unasked question. The authors' message: Toyota's fundamental nature as a learning organization is often overlooked, with undue attention paid to Toyota's more obvious practices and mechanics.

And this is what drew me in to the Toyota literature. Here I saw the parallels to my failed organization, my own nature as a learner, a seeker, a pathfinder, and a teacher. I recognized the many of the intractable problems that I had observed in the behavior of my failed organization.

On my team, it had become an unspoken entitlement conferred that people were not required to take direction. This was largely exasperated by a management approach that was fixated on social experimentation and which was not capable of guiding the technical execution or product design imperatives of the project. It was an Agile methods laboratory that produced no real acceptable features for a year.

I learned in Spear's and Bowen's article that the organizational structure, mechanics, and protocols that I felt would benefit the team were the basis of Toyota's organization and culture as I was coming to understand them.

The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker was my first read into the Toyota literature. I chose this book to specifically continue learning about the Toyota DNA rather than dig into Toyota's specific process mechanics. Understanding that focusing on the process mechanics led to common problems in learning and adopting Toyota's methods, I wanted to hold off on the obvious aspects longer.

I read the Toyota Way with the observations of the Harvard Business Review article fresh in mind, as well as the mind-opening lessons about work management and problem solving from The Goal providing a backdrop.

Cautious of becoming yet another Toyota disciple, I took a turn away from Toyota-specific literature and back toward Lean in general and read "Lean Thinking: Banish Waste and Create Wealth in Your Corporation" by James P. Womack and Daniel T. Jones. This book tells the story of the companies and people taught by Womack and Jones as they traveled around the world after writing The Machine that Changed the World. It reinforced and what I had learned about learning culture and continuous improvement as well as organizational structure and process in the books that preceded it.

While this reading and studying was happening, I was also tweeting about my experiences and studies, and having numerous long conversations on the phone with some of my peers who had themselves started studying the same material. I also revisited my failed project with the previous product owner, who was still with the company, and still succeeding in his own work.

If I had read this material in a vacuum, without any of the constant interaction with my professional network, and the continual revisitation of previous failure, I believe it would have been a much less informative and transformative experience. My circle of friends and network of colleagues continues to inform my learning, and I expect that it will continue to do so.

I turned the reading back to software, choosing to read Mary and Tom Poppendieck's second book, "Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash". Reading a Lean software book from my vantage at that time was a very different experience than when I had read the first Lean software book. The subject had now come to life. It was tangible, and it was deeper than what I had presumed previously. From here, my perspective of Lean Software Development takes meaning beyond my perspective of XP and Agile culture and mechanics.

I had organized the ALT.NET Open Space Conference the previous year, and hadn't want to simply fall into the trap of trying to duplicate an original moment. I wanted another theme for the second annual conference. Over the course of many of those conversations with friends and colleagues, we talked about the essential force of the ALT.NET movement as something akin to Lean's Continuous Improvement. The theme of the second conference became Continuous Improvement, with hopes that we would come to understand it more, and maybe understand better whether ALT.NET is indeed a Continuous Improvement culture.

I subsequently read another Toyota book, "Extreme Toyota: Radical Contradictions That Drive Success at the World's Best Manufacturer" by Emi Osono, Norihiko Shimizu, Hirotaka Takeuchi. This book takes on seeming contradictions in Toyota's culture and organization, such as the simultaneity of both a flat organization and a rigid hierarchical organization and the imperatives of a learning culture and continuous improvement that unify the two. The book also spoke about the climate of contradiction that Toyota uses to stimulate creativity and problem solving.

Tom and Mary accepted our invitation to come to the Continuous Improvement Conference in Austin and share their experience with learning organizations, software development, product development, scientific method, and leadership. I can't imagine that Mary and Tom got as much out of the experience as we did, but they had a lasting impact on our community.

Mary and Tom often say that Lean Software Development is informed more by the Toyota Product Development System than the Toyota Production System. Dave Laribee got to the Toyota Product Development book before I did and warned me that it was quite dry but worth reading, and it was. "The Toyota Product Development System: Integrating People, Process And Technology" by James M. Morgan and Jeffery K. Liker spoke a great deal more about requirements, design, planning for work, and creating workspaces, as well as the risk-mitigation processes that Toyota uses. This book also goes into greater detail about the Toyota's people and roles, and fostering "towering technical competence".

The TPDS book also talks about Lean leadership and the Chief Engineer role. It further reinforces the notion of managers and group leaders as having great technical competence, often knowing the work of their staff better than they do, and being paramountly responsible for teaching their staff though the scientific method and Toyota's A3 report technique.

Dave read David Anderson's book, "Agile Management for Software Engineering: Applying the Theory of Constraints for Business Results" while I was reading the TPDS book, and I followed the TPDS book with David Anderson's book. I wish I would have read this book years ago, but again my biases obstructed my perception of the value I would get from it. In this book, David Anderson ties the Theory of Constraints directly to software development and translates pull systems and throughput accounting to the work.

Dave turned me on to Cory Ladas' writing on the Lean Software Engineering blog. I read a few articles, and then went back to the start of the blog and read forward. Much of that writing has been compiled into his book "Scrumban - Essays on Kanban Systems for Lean Software Development". Cory’s writing goes quite deep into pull systems and Kanban for software development. This material and David Anderson’s book offer a profound exploration of applying the mechanical aspects of Lean.

I put into practice what I learned both from my own experience and from studying and study groups on a project with a distributed team in Austin starting in August 2008. My instinct at first was to overlay their existing organization and process with Scrum. Instead, I looked for signs of what was keeping the organization back, established some basic measurements, and did my best to teach what I knew about how to solve these problems. It wasn't trivial work, but it reaffirmed my experience and study of both the cultural and behavioral aspects of Lean, as well as the mechanics, such as Kanban. The experience also continued to reaffirm XP practices as the tactical foundation of both Lean and Agile strategies.

While in Austin, Mary and Tom mentioned the book "Managing to Learn: Using the A3 Management Process to Solve Problems, Gain Agreement, Mentor, and Lead" by John Shook, which tells the story of the techniques and processes used in learning culture and learning organization, and goes much deeper into the the teacher/student relationship and responsibilities that are the foundation of Lean.

The book that really brought Lean Software Development together for me wasn't a book that is necessarily about software development, but about the kind of work that software development is: Product Development.

I'd heard Mary and Tom say for years that Lean Software Development is a closer kin to Lean Product Development than Lean Production, or in reference to Toyota, Lean Software Development is informed more by the Toyota Product Development System (TPDS) than the Toyota Production System (TPS).

In Don Reinertsen's, "The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development", many of the instincts, intuitions, and insights that had been guiding my own work were given a voice, and augmented with Don's experience and perspective. This is a book that is as much a watershed moment in my career as Kent Beck's "Extreme Programming Explained: Embrace Change". It's a book that stitches together many disconnected pieces of learning through a number of years of experience and observation, and then builds a new level on top of this reinforced foundation.

I think that this book deserves to be read much earlier in the list than in the chronology of my own studies. Even if you don't get past the half-way point - it's a clear elucidation on persistent problem in software development management, and the failure to manage software development from a product development perspective rather than a manufacturing perspective, and the failure of software managers to recognize that they don't know the difference.

I've had Atul Gawande's, "The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right" on my desk for the the past nine months. I haven't opened it yet. It's been on my mind.

On a recent visit to the Toyota plant in San Antonio, I met Mark Graban, who was also there for the tour. I asked him about the book, whether he had read it, and to try to get a feel for where I might put this book in my reading priority. I suggested to Mark that I've got a feeling that it might give me some insight into mistake-proofing, and for enriching the use and usability of my Lean work management app, Floverse.

Mark highly-recommended this book, and so, to the top of my list it returns. I'll update this article once it's done.

And there are yet more books that I've been meaning to get to, many of them in the nascent Lean Startup field, where Lean is applied as a methodology to entrepreneurship and product and business startup. These books will likely get a mention in this article at some point along the way as well.


I wrote this article because people in my network asked me for some recommendations on books on Lean. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that listing some titles and links might not be entirely responsible.

The books that I read and the order in which I read them is inseparable from the context in which I read them. This isn't a canonical list and it shouldn't be treated that way. There are many, many more resources available.

I've benefited tremendously from the choices I've made for study and for engaging community to enliven that study. I wholeheartedly recommend the books I've talked about here, and I would even recommend going through them in the order that I read them. In retrospect, the reading order worked well as an evolutionary thread and helped me reinforce a deeper understanding of subtler aspects of Lean while continuing to layer on ever broader knowledge.

Nonetheless, your mileage may vary, and if your experiences are quite different from those I've laid out here, then you might disregard my own learning adventure and concoct your own.

Either way, foster a community to learn with, and sit at the feet of as many masters who'll tolerate your presence. Anything you learn from a book is just material until you light it up with experience (or reflection) and turn it into knowledge. Learning in isolation rarely has the yield of learning enlivened by experience and community. That's not always the case, but if you have a tendency to hide in a cave, understand that much of Lean is a social practice.

I still haven't read The Machine that Changed the World or The Toyota production System. I may read them at some point, but my goal isn't to consume every Toyota book that I can find. My goal is to synthesize as much understanding as I can, and the past two years have been very rewarding in this regard.

I recently founded the Lean Software Austin group, and I'm looking forward to continuing the study and the work in Lean principles and software development as this community grows as a learning organization itself. The story doesn't end here, but the narrative reading list does (for now).

For your convenience, here is an actual list of the reading I referenced in this article:

Ampersand GT

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