“Stand in the circle”

While catching up on my reading of lean blogs today I stumbled on a post by Jon Miller at Gemba Panta Rei, called Give Me 60 Minutes and I’ll Give You a Lean Transformation, in which Jon describes a very simple — and quite theatrical — means of driving improvement:

“This exercise starts with picking a spot in your gemba and standing in that one place for 30 minutes. Find 30 things to improve in 30 minutes. Write them down. Take the next 30 minutes and make at least one of the improvements you wrote down.”

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Cornell University Library

Taiichi Ohno, the architect of lean manufacturing in Toyota, would teach his staff how to see waste by telling them to “Draw a circle and stand in it!” Could that work in a software development organisation?

First, I would note that a software development organisation doesn’t consist solely of programmers at work – all of the usual office activities will also be happening too. The developers may not be the bottleneck, and standing in various different spots around the organisation will thus likely bring different parts of the overall value stream into view.

Second, and as the commenters on Jon’s post point out, a lot of what goes on in an office is “invisible” because it is conducted in the virtual workplace “inside” computers. This is doubly true of software development. But as Jon suggests, the list of 30 problems could include the fact that status or progress aren’t visible, and from there its only a small step to the introduction of things like burndown charts or traffic lights for the build.

So I think the approach is feasible from a purely practical point of view; but what of the psychological / cultural angle? How might a roomful of developers react to someone with a clipboard watching them for 30 minutes every couple of weeks? I feel the person standing in the circle must have the team’s permission to be there – perhaps being a member of the team, one of the developers, most of the time. There’s no harm in the team asking someone else to do the job occasionally, to provide a fresh look and see things the team might miss themselves. But the idea that improvements can be imposed, or that one’s performance and behaviour are being monitored, is anathema. The team must decide it wants to improve, and must decide to adopt the lean kaizen approach; then the team can “appoint” one or more observers to help it find waste in the team’s activities.

On balance I think “standing in the circle” is worth a try, given sufficient introductory training to ensure that appropriate permission is granted by everyone. I’m interested to find out what kind of things appear on the list – particularly after a few weeks of running the technique. Please let me know what happens when you try it!

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