Book review: This is Lean

This is Lean is a high level book about lean, the philosophy of lean, not the methods and tools. The book was written by Niklas Modig, a Swedish researcher. He spends most of the book framing lean as an operational business strategy. I’m sure there is a large amount of bias from his academic experience leading to that conclusion, so I wouldn’t mind reading another book that frames lean some other way. If you’re aware of a book like that, let me know 🙂

If I had to summarize the book in a few words, I’d say it is about two types of efficiency; flow efficiency and resource efficiency. Resource efficiency is the degree to which your resources are utilized. Are your machines running all day every day? Are your programmers spending 8 hours a day writing code? Then you have 100% resource efficiency. Flow efficiency is about getting whatever you’re making done as fast as possible once cash exchanges hands. I’m am not really sure what would constitute 100% flow efficiency though, maybe a product being completed with no wait periods.


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Book Review: On Looking

On Looking: Eleven Walks With Expert Eyes is a book by Alexandra Horowitz on observation. Seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, all that good stuff. More than that though, On Looking is a book about perspective.

The book is broken into chapters where each chapter is a narrative from the author describing a walk she took around a New York neighborhood with some expert accompanying. The experts range from her toddler, to a geologist, to a person studying pedestrian traffic, to a person studying urban wildlife.

Each chapter stands well on its own. The stories were entertaining and the characters Alexandra walked with were endearing.

Certain characteristics of each expert jump out. Alexandra’s child likes to treat inanimate objects as if they are alive. Cars that aren’t driving around are sleeping, and when leaving steps you have to big them a farewell. The guy studying urban wildlife tended to notice not just the critters but also traces of their existence when they were not around. The man studying pedestrian traffic noticed things about how people walk (hints of illness) that would be invisible to most.

This is such a nice parallel to testing. Testing is sometimes thought of as a team sport. That can be interpreted as meaning that testing isn’t exclusively the job of people that self-identify as a tester. Developers, product folks, support team, and everyone else involved in creating the product, can test.

I had always taken that for granted and didn’t think about the reason it makes sense for multiple types of people to test. At a glance, it seems like the expertise is the important thing. Product people might have a tendency to test the product from a customers perspective, and developers might have a tendency to test in a technical or programmatic way. When I refer to expertise, I mean that in the Collins and Evans sense. But after thinking on this a while, I think there is more to it.

All the biases developed while developing an expertise shade how a person observes the world. This happens to the extent that you do things in an automatic way (system 1). A person studying typography doesn’t force themselves to notice the typeface on signs, it just happens because of years spent intently looking at typefaces. This has biased them to notice text very quickly and in a very specific way.

Tester friends have often commented on their inability to turn off the critical thinking that they have developed to make them a good tester. Developing this skill has changed how they experience the world and get along day to day.

When executing scenario tests, a tester has to role play. They put themselves in a mindset to think about testing in terms of how a user might behave in the software and the benefit they might get from its use. A product manager is biased to think like this because of their daily focus on people using software and the time spent developing their product management skills.

Back to the review. Overall, I enjoyed the book. I think this is a great text for deeper thought on expertise, bias, and how people experience the world in different ways. And, I think there are a lot of ideas that can be directly applied to testing.

book review: Taiichi Ohno Workplace Management

This book was a bit of a digression for me. I have read a lot books this year, but very little about management topics. This is a big hole in my software tool kit, so the change up was definitely welcome. Workplace Management is a book about managing the manufacturing process, well, sort of. Workplace Management is the text of a series of recorded interview with Taiichi Ohno about work he did at Toyota over his career.

Despite the fact that this is mostly about manufacturing, there is a lot here that is applicable to the software world. Obviously I’m not the first person to say that. The phrases ‘lean’, ‘stop the line’, and ‘just in time’ are pretty common in most software dev shops now. This book isn’t an introduction to lean, or kanban, or kaizen concepts so if you’re looking for that you may want to start somewhere else.

Here are a few of the big ideas I took from the book:
Do kaizen when times are good
It is so easy to get lazy and mentally slow down when times are good. Life is comfortable and releases are happening consistently, paychecks are on time (start-ups can be tricky) and there is never any after hours work. Taiichi thinks this is the most important time to figure out what you can tighten up and optimize. If you can be lean when times are fat, you should have better prepared to survive and thrive when times are lean. An interesting aside, Ohno also mentioned that you must make people feel the squeeze for them to generate good ideas.

The wise mend their ways
There is a full chapter for this topic. To me this is about honesty, ethics, and virtue. People make mistakes in the best of situations. In the book, Ohno mentions that even smart people with good intentions will be make mistakes and be wrong 3 out of 10 times. The phrase ‘the wise mend their ways’, to me, is about recognizing what isn’t working, being open to being wrong and failing sometimes, and trying something different immediately.

Direct observation rules
Through the book, I don’t recall Ohno emphasizing measurement at all. Maybe he did, I just don’t remember it. He did however tell many stories about being on the gemba (where the work happens), with customers, and with other companies in similar lines of business. He emphasized being there with the workers to observe, learn, and lead. The software world is mostly obsessed with measuring everything, so this was a refreshing point of view for me. My main concern here is about convincing people at higher pay grades that observation is a useful alternative, or at least supplement, to measurement.

Jido is a Japanese word (concept?) meaning automation with a human element. I recently wrote about this very topic for stickyminds, so seeing that this idea has a word in another language was interesting. In the Toyota system, this was embodied by having people watching auotmatic looms. If some problem was to occur, the person would press a button that would shut the machine off to prevent defective products from being made.

Mess with your employees a little bit
This part bugged me a little bit, I just chalk it up to cultural differences. There is a segment in the book telling a story about Taiichi calling a floor supervisor into his office. Once the supervisor made it to his office, Ohno scolded him for coming so quickly and telling him that if he were able to do that, then his employees must not need him. I think this sort of behavior is disingenuous, but again…culture differences.

Book review: Two Books on writing

Like most people, I haven’t written much of anything since the required English curriculum. That curriculum, more than anything, robbed me of a desire to write. Part of what I’m doing here at my personal blog and over at StickyMinds, is a lesson in learning to write things people will read and enjoy, but also to have it not be so difficult every single time. To help get things moving, I’ve read a couple books about writing, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method, and On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.

There are many many books on writing, it seems that every big name author has one. These two were at the top of recommendations from friends, so that’s where I started. Both of these books are fantastic, I really enjoyed and recommend them to anyone that wants to try writing again. These two books are similar in some regards but very different in others.

On Writing by Stephen King begins with a story about his development as a writer from his youth to present day. After the story, King goes on to talk about many aspects of writing he thinks are important. This book is written by and for fiction readers, but there are lots of ideas that will transfer to non-fiction writers as well. There are sections about adverb usage, dialog development, and story development. One of the parts that stuck with me the most was King’s description of ideas as fossils that must be unearthed. First they must be located and excavated, but after that you have to delicately clean the ideas up with smaller picks and toothbrushes.

Weinberg’s book, Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method covers this excavation and unearthing process in detail. As a novice with no particular method to employ when writing, this book was a life saver. The fieldstone method is a method Jerry uses to describe the process of finding, shaping, organizing, and forming ideas into something people will read.

This book draws a parallel between writing something and building a stone wall. Each idea is a stone that fits into the wall in some way. Stones come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials and each fits into a special place in a wall.

Weinberg on Writing: The Fieldstone Method was a a great reference book for me. I didn’t read the chapters in order, or even read the whole book. I had authentic writing problems to solve and was able to browse to the relevant chapter.

These books are both invaluable, I don’t regret the purchase at all. One thing they won’t do for you however, is practice. Stephen King recommends writing 1000 words per day in his book, I don’t recall Weinberg making a recommendation in his book but I’m sure he would recommend something. You don’t get good at running by reading about it and you don’t get good at writing by reading about it.