Comments on John Seddon's Re-Thinking Lean Service

We'll cover the differences between failure demand and value demand, and how you might look harder at the nature of demand in your organisation in my course on 27th November - "Building the Lean Web Development Team"

Things I get out of this Podcast, my instinct was right. In order to get the best out of the Toyota Production System, you have to stick with the meta-principles. The details, about how to build cars of the rate of demand, rather unsurprisingly don't apply to software development - or web development.

His major insight, which doesn't attack "genuine" lean thinking, but which completely alters the way that it's implemented in software is saying that the Toyota Production System was shaped by the shape of demand. Curiously, although Womack and Jones and Taiichi Ohno talk about the nature of the economic cycle being the reason that Taiichi Ohno approached building cars in the way he did, Seddon doesn't mention this. But this is important as well. It's what I call the "Delta Blues" it's not enough to know what demand is now, or what it has been, you need to know how it changes over time. Is there a pattern? This isn't the stock market. Previous performance is a guide to future performance.

The other major, contribution of this piece which is especially important for web developers is the distinction between value demand and failure demand. I see now that the lack of this distinction has almost made a nonsense of trying to implement Agile practices in a web development environment. When you're making things in a factory in a "traditional" way, a substantial amount of the work that you do is work that you've planned to do (value demand). In web development, when I sit in on sprint retrospectives, it turns out that about half of the work that was done in any sprint wasn't planned, it was reactive to the customers need, mostly because things hadn't gone the way they should have (failure demand). A large amount of this seems to be farting about with hosting, browser compatibility, caching causing old files to still be visible. All that kind of stuff.

Seddon's point is that if you really want to improve the efficiency of your service company (and lets for now, assume that a web development company is a service company) then you have to understand and tackle the failure demand and set up systems to deal with it. There's hardly anything about this in Agile, there's nothing about this that I've seen in the writing about Lean for software.

One thing that you can do, which I'm certain is not being done, is to train the people who field the reports of failure demand in the technologies and techniques that they need to deal with the most common failure demand problems.

What Seddon says is that you have to look hard at your business and see what the crucial problems are. Then you have to try to find solutions. One of the ways to find solutions is hypothesis testing - try a bunch of different solutions, but make it clear to yourself what solutions you are trying and that they are just hypotheses.

Some counter-intuitive things that emerged form Taiichi Ohno's investigations which probably do transfer to services is that end-to-end time is cost, not activity. So many companies that I go into are obsessed with keeping their designers and programmers busy the whole time. Even some of the programmers and designers don't like to be seen to not be scheduled at capacity, or over-capacity. Some managers have seriously said to me that they don't think their developers will work hard enough unless they schedule for them far more work than they can possibly do in the time. Obsession with activity cost obscures the end-to-end cost. i

Some questions that you need answers to if you're a web development agency.

  • What is the normal relationship between value demand and failure demand? I.e. If a project seems to be a "£10K" value demand project, how much failure demand will it generate?
  • What is the nature of that failure demand? How much of it is preventable through changes in procedures?
  • What is the pattern of demand throughout the year? Even over the years? What can you do in times of low demand to improve the performance of the company?

Some criticisms of Seddon's approach. He's an academic. So he assumes that everybody else in the world is stupid. I think most of the people I meet are pretty smart and doing the best they can with the information they have. Telling people that they're STOOPID just doesn't work as a consultancy approach. But for me, having thought about this a lot over the last few years, his analysis is compelling. I think the division between value demand and failure demand is absolutely crucial for web development companies to understand.

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