My Personal Andon Cord

April 29, 2019

Have you heard of an Andon Cord? On the assembly line it’s that cord you yank on to stop the entire line when a problem is found. The idea is to stop everything until the problem you encountered is fully understood and fixed. That way we take the time to improve the function of the assembly line so that those sorts of problems never slow us down again. It’s a little example of that “slowing down to go faster” that those crusty old software curmudgeons blather on about.

But who listens to those old cranks anyway?

I was thinking about a recent Product Owner training I was running where I was told that the product owners didn’t actually sit anywhere near the team (that was assuming they had a product owner to begin with, but I digress). It turns out that the product owner for a given team was very likely located in another building or even perhaps another state or country altogether! This kind of colocation issue is fundamental to improving a teams performance. Address it and you will see meaningful improvement quite quickly. Fail to address it and you will be wrestling with the side effects and consequences forever without dealing with the underlying problem. 

So what did I do? Well, this was just the start of a two day training, so I had at least a day and a half more of training that I was expected to deliver. So I tossed that issue on the mountain of other issues that I was uncovering and moved on. Trainers gotta train, kids gotta eat. I raised concerns, told the right people, and moved on. Everyone kept moving.

Now in hindsight, I’m not sure if I should be proud of dismissing something that important. However, I know it happens all the time. But it makes me wonder, is there an issue sufficiently important that I would call the whole class to a stop in order to address it? What would cause me to stop the line as a trainer? Where is my trainer Andon cord?

If a fist fight broke out in class, I’d certainly stop the class. So there’s that. But what else? If someone was crying, I’d stop the class. If I found out someone was being hurt, I’d stop the class. But if I found out they were doing something stupid…I wouldn’t necessarily stop the class. I might pause long enough to mention that I wouldn’t recommend doing that. Maybe I’d hand them a Darwin Award (oh, now there’s an idea…). But stop the class? No.

Let’s look at that example of the product owners in a different location than the team. Colocation of product owners or customers is pretty fundamental. You would stop the line if you found out that the car’s tires are missing. If someone told you,”It’s OK, we keep them in another building.” You would probably be well justified in insisting that the tires get brought in pronto. There’s not much point in leaving silliness like that alone. So I’m asking myself, if the customer has paid me a few thousand dollars for the training, but instead of delivering the training, I stop the training to focus on that one problem…what would happen? Fixing that problem could probably mean a huge return on investment for them. Something far beyond the paltry amount they have spent on the training. It’s food for thought. 

On the other hand, typically these types of organizations are not in a place where they are accepting or tolerant of radical change. Usually few if any folks in the room are actually empowered to do anything to change the situation. Furthermore, even the folks who hired me may not have that power. You have to have a lot of credibility in an organization before you can even start talking about that sort of change. Credibility takes time, and that’s something that most trainers don’t have. You’re in, you do the training, and you’re gone. Poof of smoke. Vanished.

So in the big picture it probably depends on your context. If you are just in for a quick one-time training, then you really don’t have the credibility to stop and attack problems like this. On the other hand, if this is part of a long term engagement, then there is the real possibility of being able to deal with problems like this in real time. To be able to pull your Andon cord and stop the line. What a marvelous thought.


One Step Back, Two Steps Forward

April 15, 2019

I was confronted with a bit of a dilemma the other day. I was working out and reaching the limits of what I could lift. I could tell, because as I prepared for each lift, I was a little bit scared. I didn’t really know if I could do it or not. Then I would perform the lift, and barely, just barely, make it. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it. Afterward, as I lay on the floor hyperventilating, I had a lot of conflicting thoughts running through my mind. I’ve been working toward a lifting goal for a long time now. I’m getting tantalizingly close. I can’t stop now. I’m not getting any younger. Time is short. If I keep this up I’m going to seriously injure myself. This is really painful. It’s no fun being terrified of the weight. I can’t stop now. I don’t know if I can do it again. Dear God, I hurt.

I don’t want to make too much out of it, but suffice it to say that I was seriously conflicted. I’ve literally invested years in getting my lifts to where they are today. It’s hard to step back with that kind of investment behind me. On the other hand, that’s a lot of investment to waste by injuring myself. So it’s a real dilemma, especially when I feel like I’m so tantalizingly close to my goals. Part of me is screaming, you’re almost there! And the other part is begging, pleading to back off.

Where else do we see this kind of goal oriented struggle? Developing and releasing a product? Getting a promotion? Saving up for something big like a new house? We see it anywhere there is a large investment over time toward a meaningful goal. The danger is that if we over reach, we may lose the opportunity entirely.

In my case, I decided that the prudent thing to do would be to take a few steps back. So I rolled back the weights and the intensity a few notches and started over again. I was back to lifting weights that I had been lifting nearly 3 months earlier. Three months is a lot of time to lose! However, I noticed a few things:

  1. It was so easy! I felt my confidence come roaring back.
  2. I was so much stronger than I had been. Where before it had been a challenge, now it was second nature.
  3. I was performing cleanly and confidently, not scrabbling to survive the experience.
  4. I no longer feared injury.

The road has gotten a little longer, but now each step I take feels more confident and certain. This is where having a coach can make a really big difference. They can act as that voice of reason that will help to steer you through these decision points. They act as a relatively unbiased party that is invested in your success. They need to know the domain really well – I would never take a coach who didn’t know about weightlifting. They need to have an experimental mindset: everybody is different, things that work for one customer won’t work for another. And they need to be able to firmly give constructive advice for change, even when the customer really, really, really, doesn’t want to hear it. Perhaps then most of all.

I don’t have a coach right now (perhaps I should take my own advice). I know that if a coach had told me that I needed to go backward three months in my training, I would have resisted. That would be crazy talk. And yet here I am. I think I now appreciate it a little bit more when I work with managers. I often recommend that they do things that would appear to be backward steps. For example, I might recommend pair programming for their teams. I often get the horrified reaction, “You mean twice the number of people doing half the work?” Uh, yes. That’s a giant step backward. Especially when you feel as though your teams are performing at what may be the best they have ever done. I think I get it now. That’s not an easy sell.

But a good coach knows that a few steps backward can lead to later leaps forward. A good coach is invested in getting you there. A good coach knows you will build confidence and capability, and that has value too. And a good coach won’t back down when they know it will help you reach your goals.

Oh, and if you are looking for a good coach, I’m available.


The Trial of Empathy

March 3, 2019

I’ve been working with some managers lately who struggle with a variety of challenges. Like many folks, when faced with a challenge they tend to dig in their heels rather than seek change. Trying to advocate change to folks in this situation is hard. Nobody wants to hear about creative alternatives. They have big problems to solve and are feeling tremendous pressure. The existing processes are often making their lives even worse. People aren’t collaborating, work is constantly in progress and never done. It really sucks. You’d think that if you walked in the door and offered a viable way to relieve the pain, you’d be treated like a hero.

But that’s just not the case.

It’s much more likely that you will be summarily kicked out of the office. Why is that? There you are with the answer to their problems, why won’t anybody listen? First, they want help. The best way to accomplish that is to dive right in and pick up a shovel. Of course that’s really unpleasant. But they need to understand that you grasp the current state of affairs deeply, and the only way I know of to do that is to ride the dragon with them. It’s terrifying, but you need to earn their trust first. Once you have that, you can begin to show them the alternatives in small ways. You model the behavior that you want to bring. And then you can both evaluate the results – as equals. You both look at what you have done and ask the question, “Is this good enough?” If the answer is yes, then you can bet that they are in.

But there is a catch – You have to join them in the soup. And that is not very much fun. You have to share the burden and experience the same sort of pain that they do. Perhaps this is why I often find myself shying away from these situations. I really don’t want to feel the pain (if I’m honest anyhow). I’m not really interested in feeling that kind of pressure. It sucks and everyone knows it. But sometimes it’s necessary. I see coaches sometimes who are playing the sidelines but not getting into the game. They are content to play a prescriptive role – why? Because getting in the game hurts.

Sometimes that’s why empathy is hard.


Pernicious Escalation

February 21, 2019

I found this lovely pairing of words in Yves Morieux’s book, Six Simple Rules. He was talking about the corrosive effect that problem escalation can have on teams and management. I’ve seen this before and I know how hard it can be to deal with. On the one hand, as a manager you are there to help and you may feel somewhat flattered when the team comes to you with a problem. On the other hand, as Morieux suggests, an escalation represents a failure of the teams to find a way to arrive at a solution themselves.

First, an escalation often reflects an inability to cooperate on the part of the parties involved. The problem with cooperation is that one group or another usually has to give something up in order for the problem to be successfully resolved. And the thing they are being asked to give up or forego is usually something that they really want. I see this all the time in product management decisions. Two teams are working on features that have been stressed as of the highest importance to the organization. One of the teams falls behind and asks the other for help. It is clear that a choice has to be made. There are three options, Feature A, Feature B, or both (we’ll just leave neither out of the picture for now). One team or the other has to either work extra hard, or drop a key feature. All too often, both teams throw up their hands in frustration and escalate the problem. Why? Because they can’t find a way to solve the problem together.

Second, escalation defeats attempts to empower people and teams. If you give teams the power to make their own decisions, what you have really done is give them the power to make their own compromises. Compromise is hard and my observation is that it’s just human nature to try and avoid it if we can. Of course escalations’s just putting the power back in the manager’s hands. So it defeats the very purpose of pushing decision making power down in the organization – to move the decision closer to the people doing the work.

That brings us to our third and final reason that escalation is harmful. Escalation removes or distances decision making from the source of the problem. This is based on the premise that the best informed people to make a decision are the people who are closest to the problem. The further that you remove someone from the work or the source of the problem, the less likely the decision is to be well informed and useful.

So Morieux recommends that the first thing a manager should do when they receive an escalation request is to lock the two parties in a room and explain that they have to work it out together. They need to learn that the correct answer is some form of cooperation. If they can’t cooperate, then the manager should let them know that cooperation is essential to their performance and as such she/he will keep this in mind when reviews come around. That’s pretty tough…but I like it.


Eliminate Fear, Create Safety

February 20, 2019

Often silos within an organization are based on fear. There can be many different justifications for such fear. For example, the fear is expressed as territoriality, “This is my turf, no outsiders allowed.” You see this with teams who will not allow others access to whatever it is that they control. They use all sorts of justifications to support this (compliance, regulations, etc.), those reasons are often just smoke screens for the fact that they are afraid of opening up and letting others in. Outsiders are a threat. If you let someone in they get to see how you work, and maybe they will recognize areas of weakness (change, improvement). Sometimes they do not fear the outsiders as much as they fear their own management. This is typically manifested as a pattern of C.Y.A. (Cover Your A**) behavior. When this happens, you find resistance to letting others in because it may expose them to criticism by others.

How does fear manifest itself? If you are trying to talk to someone in another group and they start whispering to you so they can’t be overheard by others, that should be considered to be a strong indicator of a culture of fear. This is someone who feels that they cannot say certain things without some sort of punishment. On the other hand, the fact that they are willing to take a risk and share with you at all is a sign of trust on their part – trust in you.

What can we do about it?

First, we need to acknowledge that there probably is not much we can change in their environment. Whatever is causing the issues with fear hopefully has little to do with you. That means that all you can do is make sure that you do not aggravate the situation further when you are in their domain. The last thing they need to do is fear you too. That means that you have to be willing to deal with them in a fashion where they do not feel threatened. If they think you are going to escalate issues to their management, then you are not going to have a chance to build any trust with them. On the other hand, if they believe that they can bring difficult issues to you and that you will do everything you can to help them out, and then you have a shot to build a better relationship.

How can we create safety?

Ultimately, what we are after is the kind of relationship with the other group that can be open an honest. That does not mean everybody is happy all the time. Quite to the contrary, a healthy relationship, a safe relationship is one where the two groups can get upset with each other and express grievances. Signs of safety?

  • Disagreement
  • Emotion
  • Reassurance
  • Laughter
  • Good-natured teasing

Some of these things may seem contradictory. Emotion, especially strong emotion can seem very threatening. Disagreement and conflict can also be seen as a threat. However, in an environment where people feel safe, these things are part of healthy interaction. You need someplace where people can feel passionate (strong emotions). You need someplace where people can take a contrary position and debate alternatives (disagreement).


Cooperation vs. Collaboration

February 19, 2019

I was working for a small company that was acquired a few years ago. Soon after the acquisition was finalized, our senior VP invited his new boss to come visit us and meet with some of the leaders of our organization. I was invited to that meeting and introduced as someone who had been leading the agile transformation within our group. I remember shaking this guys hand and thinking he was probably some sort of ex-college football player. He was enormous, sporting a giant smile, and he did what he could to set us all at ease. He exuded confidence and power. After all, he was an exec with a fortune 10 company.

We were all given a chance to ask him questions. I wasn’t feeling very smart at all that day. In fact I was a little intimidated if the truth be told. So I asked what I thought was a pretty lame, if harmless question, “How can you help to promote collaboration between our two groups?” Like I said, weak stuff. His answer was priceless,”Collaboration? Isn’t that what they shot people for in World War II?”

Right then, I knew I was in for a rough ride.

I’ve been reading a book by Yves Morieux and Peter Tollman called “Six Simple Rules: How to Manage Complexity without Getting Complicated.” Yves Morieux first caught my attention in Ted Talk that he gave a few years ago. In that talk he made a compelling case for the over-complexity of today’s large organizations. His argument was that you needed fewer rules and constraints, not more, in order to improve. It turns out, he is speaking from experience. He has tried his approach out with multiple European organizations with some success apparently.

One of the things that he emphasizes early on is the importance of establishing and reinforcing cooperation rather than collaboration. Collaboration is good, he argues, but it’s too limited in scope. It can mean a little as we talked together, but perhaps didn’t actually do much. Cooperation, he argues, implies that at least one side had to give up something, and actually accomplish some work together. So he sees cooperation as a stronger statement than collaboration. Perhaps it is.

Do they shoot people for cooperation?


Trapped in Amber

February 17, 2019

Have you ever seen those blobs of amber with some hapless insect trapped inside? There it is, frozen in time, forever locked in a golden prison in whatever position it happened to be in at the fatal moment. That really must suck.

Seriously though, I think that in some metaphorical way I have some idea how that insect must have felt. One minute able to move freely, even to fly, and the next, unable to move a muscle or flex a wing. Often times I join organizations as an outsider. I’m there to provide help in some small way. On my good days I might even be able to help bring about meaningful change. It’s on those days that I feel like I can fly. I’m able to move through the organizational matrix freely, perhaps even dance a little along the way. 

So, with the usual qualifications, I consider myself to be reasonably adept at moving through the organization. However, I recently found myself in a very different situation. It was in a simulation. An exercise as part of a recent training. I was supposed to be an executive in a large company. I work with these guys all the time. I knew the rules of the game before it even started. I was going to crush this.

So, we started the simulation and I dove into it with enthusiasm.  I played by the rules and tried to do the right thing. As I was doing this, I could hear a little voice in my head saying, “OK, big guy, start dancing.” But for some reason I couldn’t. I was working within the system. I was stuck. Frozen.

It really did suck. 

I think this happens in a lot of organizations to a lot of people. You’re bright, creative, and motivated. Yet, somehow the rules of the system are configured such that you don’t feel like you have the power or ability to make any big moves. Everything feels constrained. Trapped in amber. There are many things that can contribute to this. Perhaps a rigid organizational hierarchy. Maybe a risk averse culture that doesn’t support new ideas. Or even explicit processes and rules that make any sort of change difficult. It might even be work overload. It could be one or many of these factors that come into play. All of them can lead to a state of ineffectiveness. An inability to move.

So how do you get out of this trap? Assuming you don’t want to end up some fossilized specimen, how do you escape these constraints?

Here are a few thoughts:

Wait– That’s right, just wait. Sometimes when we face something new, when the pressure is really high, we tend to short circuit a bit as we come to understand the new challenge. Once we have oriented ourselves, we find our confidence and our ability to move returns. This is what happened to me in that simulation. Once I had a little time to absorb the new stimuli, I found I was able to move again with confidence.

Pause and Take a Break – Sometimes we get so absorbed in the day-to-day that we just need a break. Removing yourself for just a bit from the pressure can give you the break you need to start thinking clearly again and see a way to move forward.

Leave– You may find that you simply have yourself in a situation where there is no winning. There is no meaningful solution. In which case, it may be time to move on. It’s unfortunate, but it happens.

Peer Support– It’s very likely that if you feel unable to move, your peers probably feel the same way. If so, perhaps it’s time to talk to each other. Maybe working together, providing support to one another, you can help each other out.

Mentor or Coach– Sometimes an outside perspective is what you need. Someone who has been there and understands what it’s like but isn’t living under that pressure in the moment. Someone who can provide guidance to help you get moving again.

Interested in Learning More?

I provide innovative agile coaching, training, and facilitation to help organizations transform to deliver breakthrough products and performance. I do this by achieving a deep understanding of the business and by enabling the emergence of self-organizing teams and unleashing individual passion.

To learn more about the services that I offer or to arrange for an initial consultation, please see thomasperryllc.com