Blog / The "r" in lean

April 22, 2014

Lean UC NYC 2014 was a jam-packed three days (four with the Balanced Team meetup) and there is no way I can accurately reflect what so many great speakers had to say but here are a few personal takeaways from day one.

In general the focus for almost everyone is firmly on the enterprise. Firstly, that’s where the money is for those not ready or brave enough to take on their own start-up venture, secondly there’s a massive challenge involved in helping large organisations think like start-ups to actually make better products.

Above all the advice seemed to be: act in context, be lean with a small “l”, focus on learning and don’t replace one linear system with another.

Jabe Bloom (@cyetain) introduced some of the concepts of Russell Ackoff and Idealized Design. His advice: to imagine a future unobtainable ideal and work back from there towards a desirable present. Identify your objectives and when goals are reached, refer back to this ideal but always in the current context. We cannot predict the future so should manage known constraints to create new systems that increase variety, rather than reduce it.

Alistair Croll’s (@acroll) new project is aimed at intrapreneurs, those responsible for innovating within well established companies. Companies repeatedly do the same things, often missing changes going on around them. Innovators use new technology but more significantly they continually reframe markets. To do this within the enterprise, the intrapreneur must be a pariah: ignoring feedback from best customers, destroying existing revenue streams, automating and lowering margins, encouraging transparency and openness, doing everything to get attention including that of deviants and weirdoes.

Carmen Scheidel (@scheidel) encouraged organizations to focus on learning with six tips to create an open and accessible learning culture, inviting outsiders in and allowing vision to flow through the company. Validated learning should apply to teams within the organization: allow teams to fail and learn from failure.

Ariadna Font (@quicola) shared her experience implementing lean UX at IBM over the past year. Their three part framework (not a process) includes market outcomes or “Hills”, sponsor users and user-led demos or “Playbacks”. With many “Hills” to climb, it’s important to choose one and get started, redefine good enough and iterate, treat milestones as checkpoints rather than causes of delay and create a culture of collaboration.

John Shook told of his personal 30 year journey through lean starting with his quest to find the best production system in the world - which he did at Toyota in Japan - and how he brought that back to the USA in a joint venture with GM - NUMMI. For John, lean is applied systems thinking and represents an heuristic framework, not a process to apply. Organizational change is best achieved by asking good questions rather than jumping to conclusions. Encourage and empower everyone to seek problems rather than expecting them to give answers and develop a culture of experimentation over implementation. Act your way to a new way of thinking, not the reverse.

Jeff Gothelf (@jboogie) asked us not to worship at the church of Lean and informed the congregation that lean is not a recipe for success. Overnight change is impossible and context is everything. In short don’t “do” Agile and Lean but rather “be” agile and lean.

Thomas Wendt (@Thomas_Wendt) drew fascinating parallels between lean and phenomenology to shed light on the difficult design relationship between a problem and a solution. Both favour action over thinking or praxis (practice more accurately) over theory. He explained how prototypes enable enactivism or engaged interaction, how testing reveals coping strategies and how interpretation (aligned with hermeneutics) uncovers embodiment and affordance. Thomas explained some of these unfamiliar (to me at least) philosophical phrases well in the context of lean’s build/measure/learn cycle.

Lynn Teo (@Lynn_Teo) offered more advice on business transformation through design thinking, suggesting designers be reflective and try harder to explain their discipline. They should find commonality between concerns and and collaborate in cross-functional teams. Lynn worked through five concepts identifying which stakeholders to involve in: ideation, process, experience, emotion and growth.

Trevor Owens (@TO) is taking his experience from the Lean Startup Machine into the enterprise space and spoke of entrepreneurs leaving large organizations to create successful start-ups due in large part to a desire for ownership that share options just won’t fulfil - Biz Stone for example. Corporations have tried many things; innovation labs, intrapreneur programmes and skunkworks, to nurture innovation without great success. He and Obie Fernandez have written a book The Lean Enterprise and suggest the Innovation Colony as a model that will work.

Dr. Deidre Kolarick (@deidrek2) asserted the value of good research and identified some pitfalls to watch out for such as false confidence and confirmation bias. She suggested you make a plan and stick to it - don’t cut research short once you’ve heard what you want to hear, get others to test your designs, observe others and have them observe your research and finally get help from expert researchers.

Mona Patel called for UX designers to get back into the deliverables business claiming that beautiful documentation is an extremely effective way of communicating value to decision makers. Agencies should stop charging for time and materials but rather offer a fixed price based on the deliverables and see the job through to deliver more value than the client thought you could. Use existing research but always do more to find better answers.

Jodie Moule (@jodiemoule) “ate her own dog food” and created a product (the Cook app) whilst writing a UX book - Sitepoint’s “Killer UX Design”. She advised that the make/think/check cycle must be followed by launch and that it’s important to engage with your early adopters in creative ways - she chose to cook with them. Aside from the importance of a collaborative, creative space, an obsessive approach to knowing your product and market and making sure you celebrate your wins, she emphasized that design truly matters.

Jen Guarino (@Jenn_Guarino) is on a mission to revitalize the US manufacturing industry which disappeared overseas decades ago. She discovered that demand for US made leather goods was growing beyond capacity to deliver. A perceived “skills gap” could be addressed by education but that an industry desperate for the workforce was unwilling to pay decent wages. Skills have not been replaced by technology and are an asset which should be valued. Production at scale should not mean low quality, poor service & poor convenience. Above all there is dignity in a trade and we should reconsider the labour force as “Makers”, placing people front and centre in beautiful factories such as those of Shinola watches.

Alicia Juarrero took us deeper into systems thinking, revealing that the Western world has a tendency to build systems for stability, iteratively removing defects to design a structure that will not fail. This linear and deterministic model relies on one-to-one causal relationships and takes no account of context dependence. Adaptive systems on the other hand select for resilience not stability and tend towards self-organization with more complex relationships between the parts and the whole. As the US military apparently realised long ago, these systems require management by modulation and regulation rather than command and control to manage enabling constraints rather than stabilizing constraints.

Bill Beard (@writebeard) asked us to consider “branding moments”, seeing all points of customer interaction as opportunities to increase “likability”. Emotions lead customer decisions and the call to “Fuck it, ship it” has been used as an excuse to release substandard products. Fix your product first but if it fails, show better messages. Show compassion when your customers fail and help them more if they forget their password. Create positive unexpected moments and cherish every click. In short, Bill suggests, we should take time to demonstrate our passion.

Melissa Perri (@lissijean) offered some advice on how to get lean buy-in within your organization especially if there has already been a bad experience. Don’t rush in but educate and demonstrate the value. Test one assumption and communicate savings in terms of opportunity cost and use plain English rather than lean jargon. Above all, experiment and learn and if the boss says “no”, keep trying.

Lane Halley (@thinknow) introduced the Balanced Team - a community of practitioners involved in an on-going conversation about agile and UX. UX is an outcome not a role and the movement creates opportunities for collaboration across disciplines (e.g. design and development) through “salons”. Trust is created, experiments shared and failure is celebrated in the spirit of learning.

Dave Snowden (@snowded), as he apparently does tend to, took the final slot of the day to blow everyone away with his view on systems thinking. He moves fast and it’s difficult to summarize but he spoke of complexity, exaptation, co-evolution, multi-ontology and monitoring modulators over manipulating drivers. Using the organization of a child’s birthday party as an example he revealed the limitations of linear systems and advised us amongst other things to manage what we can manage. The brain is not a computer and humans are never “green fields”. We need to create adaptive systems that evolve to a future, more resilient state. His Cynefin framework for sense making is fascinating and he left everyone wanting to know more. Here’s my favourite note - “Follow no path, leave a trail” (paraphrasing Muriel Strode it seems).