clean firetrucks

Seth Godin suggests that Clean Firetrucks are a sign that the firemen are focussing on the wrong things: instead of washing their vehicles they should be out preventing future fires. In my opinion – and who am I to decide how a fire station should be run? – they should be doing both.

If I were the manager of a fire station, I would be looking to clean firetrucks as a sign of many positive things – primarily that the lean notion of 5S was being applied. A clean, tidy, well-maintained workplace is essential to high throughput. Problems can be detected sooner, maintenance is easier and quicker, and morale is generally higher. Not to mention the firemen’s professional pride: who wants to be seen rescuing a puppy from a burning building, only to take it back to a vehicle that has ‘also available in red’ scrawled in the dust on the back?

In software development we have an additional workplace: our code. When we fail to keep it clean and tidy our productivity falls and our systems’ adaptability falls even faster. (This is where the exponential cost-of-change curve originates – untidy gemba.) When I see dirty firetrucks in a software shop, I know to expect low productivity, high turnaround times on feature requests, and defects in abundance. Broken windows, as the Pragmatic Programmers put it.

Lean thinking says that time spent keeping gemba tidy repays itself many times over in terms of increased throughput and sustainable pace. And besides, I happen to like clean firetrucks…

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