Increase personal productivity?

tomatoThe Pomodoro technique is used by a lot of lean-agile practitioners to improve their personal productivity and apparently it works. I’m gonna get going with it and I challenge readers of this blog to try it out. Anybody who lets me know that they have become a Certified Pomodoro Master, I will publicise it here on this blog!

The basics of the technique

  • Put all the activities you have to accomplish on the Activity Inventory Sheet.
  • At the beginning of each day select the tasks you need to complete and copy them on the To Do Sheet
  • Start working:
    • Choose the topmost task from the list
    • Set the Pomodoro to 25 minutes (the Pomodoro is the timer)
    • Work until the Pomodoro rings
    • Mark the task with an x on the To Do Sheet
    • Take a short break (3–5 minutes)
  • Keep on working, Pomodoro after Pomodoro, until the task at hand is finished, then cross it out on the To Do Sheet.
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take a longer break (15–30 m)


There’s a load more info. on why it works/goals and how to deal with stuff (managing interruptions etc.) on the Pomodoro website:

Why wouldn’t you give it a go?


Have you got the “lean-agile mindset”?

brainI spent some time this week evaluating the Value, Flow, Quality training course developed by  the agile consultancy Emergn. The course provoked some reflections on what adopting a lean-agile mindset means…

Intuitive Decision Making

The course asserts that way we make decisions is largely based on our intuition. Studies of how CEO’s make decisions shows that, although they often believe they are making rational fact-based decisions, it’s actually coming “from the gut.”  This kind of expert intuition is powerful stuff and can almost be magical – fire-fighters who run out of the house seconds before the floor collapses, chess masters who can glance at a board and declare that white can win in 3 moves, etc.

It was argued in the course that good intuitions take a long time to build up. Within IT development, the high variation both in the type of work, the length of time of most IT implementations and the short lifetime of most teams makes it hard to spot patterns. In a lot of cases, the feedback actually comes after the project is finished.

Lousy Rules of Thumb

Consequently, our intuition about IT development isn’t that great. So we fall back on more general rules of thumb. Which of these do you like?

  • Minimising cost is good
  • A standard process makes things easier and more efficient
  • If the customer needs something, then it must be done
  • Detailed plans allow us to monitor progress and stay on track
  • Ensuring clear handover points normally gives the best outcome

The course contended that these are fairly lousy rules of thumb for a product development context. It’s not that these are never true in a product development context. It’s more that applying them without knowing why rarely gives a good outcome – and often has the opposite effect to that intended.

So this is what a Mindset Change looks like

This made me think about what a lean-agile “mindset” really is. What we mean is replacing these general rules of thumb with some more powerful ones which are more relevant for product development. For us to accept this, we need to understand the “why” of these new rules of thumb (which is what the training course tries to address).

Let’s try some out. Which of these lean-agile oriented rules of thumb do you like?

  • The customer doesn’t know what he/she wants
  • Reducing batch size is good
  • Speed is normally more important than predictability
  • Maximising total value is good
  • A collaborative approach normally gives the best outcome

If you like these better than the first set, then you are already travelling the lean-agile path!

“Leaning” our customers – lean consumption

Piloting the first module of an upcoming Value Flow Quality course has provoked me to reflect on different ways of putting the external customer at the heart of what we do.

As part of the exercises for the course, I reviewed the dynamic priority list (DPL) of a team I have worked with (the list of requirements which have a priority score but work has not started yet) to see how much focus the external customer gets. Top marks to this team – all the items in the DPL on the day I checked had a value proposition with benefits to the company clearly identified! Some of the items in the DPL were error fixes. For most of these, the GCSS team had calculated the time that would be saved by company staff if the error was fixed and used this to work out the cost saving to the company in dollars.

So far so good – this is way,way better than many (or even most) development teams. Yet this way of evaluating errors really underestimates the value created by addressing the error (and hence affects prioritisation). By fixing an error we may also reduce the costs that our customers incur. It costs us money to answer the phone but it costs them money to ring us up. Reducing their costs in ring us up surely is worth something to us too?

This opens up the whole world of lean consumption i.e. lean applied to customers. The basic principles of lean consumption are (and I quote…):

  • Solve the customer’s problem completely, by insuring that everything works the first time. No customer wants to call a help line, so turn your help lines into kaizen opportunities to identify and eliminate the root cause of customer calls.
  • Don’t waste the consumer’s time. For example, challenge the need for queues of any sort. You will discover that queues always waste both the customer’s time and the provider’s money.
  • Provide exactly what the customer wants. The level of out-of-stocks of the right items and overstocks of the wrong items is remarkably high in almost every aspect of business. These consumer frustrations are almost completely avoidable with lean replenishment systems utilizing pull principles.
  • Provide value where the customer wants. Most providers secretly want the customer to come to them. For example, the best pricing is available in a Wal-Mart style big-box retail format that customers must drive miles to access. Yet most customers want just the opposite, with attractively priced goods conveniently available nearby. The application of lean principles can provide most value where it is wanted at lower cost.
  • Provide value when the customer wants. Most current-day sales and production systems encourage customers to place orders at the last moment with no warning. This makes level loading of production systems impossible. Yet most of us actually plan ahead, particularly for big-ticket items like computers, cars, and white goods. Some simple lean principles can turn strangers into partners who plan ahead with their providers, dramatically reducing costs for customers and providers.
  • Reduce the number of problems customers need to solve. Most of us would like to deal with only a few providers to solve our big problems – computing and communication, mobility, healthcare, financial management, shelter, personal logistics (better known as “shopping”.) Yet with the web we have been going in the opposite direction from industry. Firms following Toyota’s lead are asking a much smaller number of suppliers to solve much larger problems, even as consumers are asking ever larger numbers of strangers to solve tiny problems on a one-off basis, wasting time and creating frustration. Lean principles show a way to do much better.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? It would be interesting to start applying these principles. When you zoom out, the customer is operating a supply chain and he/she ultimately doesn’t mind where a cost reduction happens – either in the part of the process which he/she operates or the part he/she has outsourced to the company in question.

So back to my example with the error fixing. If making a change (in this case an error fix) reduces our operating costs by $1 per year then its clear that what it is worth to the company is simply $1 per year since this goes direct to our bottom line. If instead, making a change reduces the customer’s operating costs by $1 per year then what is this worth to the company?

A tricky question! Clearly for large changes which affect our customer’s operating cost, we can afford do market research into this to come up with a number. Maybe the change will increase our market share, allow us to charge higher prices or increase loyalty (or at least prevent a decline in any/all of these). We can talk to customers and make some assumptions and get a number. But for tiny error fixes? I don’t think so. We need a rule of thumb. What should it be? Of the $1 value that is created by reducing the customer’s operating cost, it’s unlikely that the company will capture it all (i.e. $1). It’s also unlikely that the company will capture none of the value ($0). So we need a number between $0 and $1.

If we were to standardise on an approach like this, we would be able to effectively evaluate and prioritise small initiatives that improve our customer’s operations. We would also be more careful about pushing cost from our process into the customer’s process. We would not just have the four benefit types (increase/protect revenue, decrease/avoid costs) but we would have an additional one “improve customer’s business.” Something to think about?

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