Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Book review: Lead with Respect - A Novel of Lean Practice

Book review: Lead with Respect - A Novel of Lean Practice

As I said in a previous post, I'm a sucker for a business novel. Lead with Respect is another business novel by father and son team Michael and Freddy Balle.

My goal in reading this was to get an idea of how lean management might apply to software development.

The story starts with Jane the CEO of Southcape software who is working on some software for a famed Lean company called Nexplas. As you might expect, things aren't going well. The software doesn't do what's required and milestones aren't being met. This sets the stage for the sensei/student relationship between Jane (CEO of a software company) and Andrew (VP of a manufacturing company). Throughout the book, Andrew imparts knowledge to Jane (and hopefully the reader too).

The core theme of the book is, as the title suggests, respect. Respect, in the lean sense, is much wider than the dictionary definition of respect. In Lean, respect means:

  • Engage everybody all the time in problem solving, together, by making every effort to understand each other's point of view.
  • Guarantee the quality, productivity and flexibility as we try to cut nonsatisfaction and nonvalue-added work.
  • Share success and reward involvement and initiative which makes our respect promise credible and sustains our long-term growth. Customer satisfaction simply can't happen without employee satisfaction.

"Lead with Respect" rallies against a preconceived notion of Lean as grinding people into the ground, cutting costs and working them till they drop. I've never had this view of lean, but I can see how it would make excellent FUD for competiting philosophies.

So what does a Lean manager actually do? Put simply:

Our job as managers is to create conditions where people can be successful at their job. And what that comes down to is working together to solve the problems we face.

This all sounds easy, right?

What are problems? The book ties problems down to continuous improvement through the familiar equation that a job is the sum of work and the continuous improvement that must be a part of employment. We should accept that continuous improvement is a part of the job. I don't think this is a difficult case to argue. In software engineering (and other knowledge work) if you aren't constantly learning, then you are falling behind. This differs

Lead with Respect argues that our job is to support people in this journey of continuous improvement. Continuous improvement is about change; change is scary! We should work with people to break larger challenges into smaller, every day steps. The link is made (again) with kaizen and standards, namely that you can't have continuous improvement without some standards.

To improve performance we have to improve processes. To improve processes we have to improve individual's competence and their ability to work with others.

In the book, Jane improves her performance as a team using things that are familiar to most software engineers who've got any experience of agile. Pair programming, test-driven development and listening to customers. None of this is surprising. Towards the end of the book, another tool for conversations is introduced in the form of A3 Problem Solving. This is something that sounds like a process nonsense, but the book does a good job of explaining that it's about the scientific method. By following a structured approach it provides a way to have structured conversations which in turn makes it easier for others to understand the problem and potentially coach people to a solution. This is something that Mike Rother explores in his book, Toyota Kata which is yet another item on my ever-growing reading list.

Was this book a good read? Well, it was enjoyable enough, the characters were believable at least. I'm not sure I got as much out of it as the earlier book and some of the discussions about software felt a bit unrealistic. The key themes definitely seem transferable to any discipline.