Toyota in crisis and the merits of navel-gazing

December 22, 2009 Leave a comment

I caught this article today on Twitter which looks at some of the reasons for Toyota’s current financial state (two consecutive years of reported losses after half a century of outstanding performance).

The article is a really interesting read. But you only have to read the first paragraph to get to the part that really stuck out in my mind.

Shoichiro Toyoda, the 84-year-old family patriarch and honorary chairman of Toyota Motors, responded to this by announcing a stunning shake-up of top management. He chastised top managers for losing sight of the fundamentals that had made the company so outstanding and promised that the company would “return to basics.” The company’s financial reversal occurred, he indicated, not primarily because of the recession’s severity, but because after 2000 the company’s top executives made the mistake of pursuing finance-driven growth and pricing at the cost of sacrificing the basic principles that had made Toyota thrive.

In a situation where many leaders would look outward to explain their organization’s situation, Toyoda looks inward. “Here’s what we’re doing wrong”. “Here’s what we can do better”.

This is not to say that an organization’s situation isn’t to some extent a result of external factors – it isn’t a closed system. And it’s not to say that an organization should just shrug off the external factors – part of responsible management is to be aware of the external factors that might impact your organization’s success and, to whatever extent possible, manage these factors. But realistically you can only have so much leverage over these external factors. Internal factors, on the other hand, you do have control over (or should have control over).

Just from personal experience I also tend to think that the inward looking, reflective mindset tends to be much more compatible with the “learning mindset”. After all, if the reasons for my situation are “out there”, where I have little or no control, there’s not much I can do about it, and therefore not much motivation to look for more answers. On the other hand, if the answer is “in here”, where I do have control and can do something about it, I’m much more likely to keep thinking and learning until I find a solution.

When teams fail to meet their sprint commitments…

December 18, 2009 Leave a comment

It is bound to happen: the team over-commits on the work they are plannng to deliver for a sprint. It happened just this week, actually. Ok, I’ll be honest – the team has been slipping for two straight iterations now. So what’s a team to do?

The initial instinct of many teams is to increase the duration of the sprint – in our case, from 2 weeks to, say 3 or maybe 4 weeks.

The more appropriate response, however, is somewhat counterintuitive: decrease the sprint duration.

This approach is described in Johanna Rothman’s excellent intro to Agile project management, “Manage It!”.

Why does this work?

We can start thinking about the underlying reasons that might result in a team to miss their sprint goals.

  • Why did the team miss their sprint goals?
    • They didn’t have enough time to complete what they committed to.
  • Why didn’t they have enough time?
    • There they overcommitted.
  • Why did they over-commit?
    • They were wrong about the effort required to complete their commitments.
  • Why were they wrong?
    • Their estimations were off.

So if we drill down to actual root causes here, we find a perfectly plausible reason for the slippage: the estimates were off. We need to do better estimates. Increasing the sprint duration is really just an attempt to alleviate the symptoms – not address the root causes.

How does a shortened iteration help with better estimates? If we are using our sprints properly, then should only be committng to stories that can be completed during a single sprint. Shorter sprints force the team to decompose stories into smaller chunks (Rothman calls these “inch pebbles”) in order to fit them in. Smaller chunks are generally easier to wrap your head around and easier to estimate. Smaller chunks tend to have less variation and are therefore more likely to be delivered on target. In Lean terms, we can think of smaller sprint commitments as smaller batch size – a good thing.

Of course, there is no guarantee your team will learn how to better estimate what they can commit to. Even if this were the case, shortened iterations have one additional benefit: you know that you’re off track sooner. And knowing, as they say, is half the battle.

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Hello world! (and damn you, Internets)

November 4, 2009 Leave a comment

Oh damn you internets. I should be sleeping but instead I’m taking another stab at setting up a blog. Third time lucky, right? We’ll see…

In a way, I have Twitter to thank for my revived interest in starting a blog – you can only say so much in 140 characters. I don’t care how terse think you are, some ideas just take more words. Something tells me I have no future in either advertising or politics.

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