My two favourite Agile Australia 2014 talks

Having some chaos on your projects is good, as it can show you what you didn’t do well this time, and also reveals what you can change and improve for the next time.

At this year’s Agile Australia in Melbourne, the theme was  “Embracing Disruption”, and a lot of the talks in the conference line up featured some sort of chaos and change as a way of looking at things differently or making improvements.

Helping to keep me focused on the many talks I went to over the two-day period was an unlimited supply of coffee from the DiUS caffeination stations.

Agile Australia 2014 DiUS Coffee Stand

For this post, I wanted to review the two talks that I thought were the most interesting.

The first talk, ‘Lessons from Japan’, is heavily based on Lean and Kanban management styles.  I had already read and understood a lot about the approach, but by gaining an insight into the human side of this management style, I came away from the talk with the realisation that it’s possible for individuals to significantly influence organisations to make massive changes.

The second talk,’ Agile meets Special Forces’, which was the talk of the entire conference in my opinion, showed that people who work in polar opposite environments actually have very similar underlying principles about how people are trained, work together, and have a common goal.

Lessons from Japan – There is no instant pudding (Herry Wiputra and Ben Sparrow)

Agile Australia 2014 Lessons from Japan

This talk was based on a Lean tour that Ben Sparrow’s company, Shinka Management, provides to expose clients to the Lean and extreme management styles/systems of some major industries and manufacturing processes in Japan.

While I have used the Lean/Kanban management style in the past and possess a good understanding of the principles and practices, Herry and Ben provided a different insight into the style by including a human element in their talk and showing how influential people in organisations have used the very basic rules to change and shape their futures.

Their Lean tour takes the group around some of the big names in Japanese manufacturing and shows them how each organisation sees the Lean process model differently and what they strove to achieve and at the same time actually found better process models.  Examples of organisations included Rinnai Boiler Manufacturing and Toyota using the Toyota Production System (TPS) model.

The speakers asked the audience to Google the following phrases “Agile is”, “Scrum is”, and “Lean is”. Let’s just say the only phrase that got positive results was Lean.

Agile has been given a bad rap over the past few years, primarily due to organisations not implementing it correctly and trying to take short cuts i.e. inflating story points to meet targets set or cutting out important milestone meetings.

The talk made a cultural distinction between Agile and Lean:  Agile looks at the project as a thing of substance, where as in Japan they see Lean as more of a way of life.

Agile/Lean (Aus)Lean (Japan)
How good are weHow much have we/can we improve
Agile/Lean is only a projectThis process helps to move us forward
Agile/Lean cause we canLean for a reason
Agile/Lean Big, Slow, OutsourcedLean to be Small, Light, Compact, In-House

The table above illustrates that in Japan the Lean experience is much more than a project by project thing. It is almost like a working and breathing process that drives people to continuously push the boundaries and encourages innovation, and that you don’t need fancy tools and software to be innovative.  Simple ideas can be effective and cost you nothing more than a pen and a sheet of paper to draw a diagram.

Another methodology that was briefly discussed was the 5S method.  I had never heard of this before but a quick google led me to a great site: This methodology is very appropriate for manufacturing environments where material efficiency is very important.

The 5’S are:

Sort – What is needed, and what is not needed and causing “noise”.

Set – Organise the workplace so that everything has a place and purpose.

Shine – A clear workplace is a productive and safe workplace.

Standardise – Set of “Rules” or process that will be adhered to by all

Sustain – Ensuring that the first 4 steps are implemented and stay implemented.

Some of my key takeways from the talk were:

  • Having a certification is often seen as an ego driven thing.
  • Experience counts over anything else and having a mindset that we should never stop learning in our organisations.  By learning and adapting we can continuously improve ourselves, and the processes we use.
  • Long term thinking, there are rarely quick wins.
  • Visualise your problems.
  • Trust and respect is very important to have in a company. The staff makes the company not the company make the people.
  • Continuous improvement in people, processes and product.
  • It takes time!!

The final quote from the talk that I found defining was “there is no improvement for a workplace with no problems”.

Agile meets Special Forces –  Leadership that lives disruption (James Brett and Scott Kinder)

Agile Australia 2014 Agile meets special forces

The presenters were James Brett, an Agile expert in the digital field for the last 18 years, and Scott Kinder, a former Special Forces Operative with tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These guys met while picking their kids up from school and formed a friendship and a common interest via their respective jobs.

Once they began to talk more about what they did in their working lives, they realised that in many ways the world of Agile is very like the training and work that Scott did while in Special Forces.  James and Scott worked in two very different environments, but had the same goal of shaping high-performance teams made up of the right people.

The key things that they see in both their roles were:

  • Tools, in Agile we have software and methodologies, in combat you have weapons.  Both of these require skilled individuals that have trained and practiced to extensive lengths.  Scott made a comment that on average a basic entry Special Forces soldier will have 10,000 hours of training before they are even deemed acceptable to join the recruitment process.
  • Working in groups, team work is essential in both roles.  Working as a team in Agile with a common goal to complete a project, and in combat to work as a team to complete a mission successfully.  Working within a team helps to build trust, reliability, speed in completion of tasks, and improve efficiency.
  • Environments, these can be friendly or hostile in both events and being able to manage the environment and the people within then can be critical.
  • Leaders, they are needed to help direct and support the team with the common goals and also to avoid obstacles and resolve conflict.

From the Special Forces side Scott was able to give great insight into how they see the soldiers.  They insist on quality over quantity, and this is true given that most Special Forces teams have less than a dozen members, and thus Special Forces teams cannot be mass produced thing.  These are specially selected individuals who train for hundreds of hours, and need a mix of Special Forces and non-Special Forces skills.  It’s not always about the ‘mission and shooting’ stuff, the ‘human’ stuff like compassion is at times more important than any hardware in the Special Forces arsenal.

James continued on to discuss how Agile concepts link closely to the Special Forces goals.  Agile truths are as follows:

  • Great teams succeed despite processes – Great teams will always overcome challenges and obstacles regardless.
  • Spend your money on fewer, better people – 5 exceptional team members are worth more than 15 average team members.
  • Don’t isolate high performance teams – If high performing teams are doing great things then ensure that the people around you are aware of this and expose the success.
  • Put high performance teams on the right work – Put the high performing teams on the right projects, like the A-team quote “If you have a problem, and no one else can help” then use your high performing team.
  • Envision your capability and build it – By envisioning what you are capable of as a team, you can build it.

The final thing that James and Scott presented was the S.E.E. (Select/Educate/Empower) points

  • Select the critical thinkers
  • Select inherent ability
  • Select adaptability
  • Educate growth oriented
  • Educate problem solving
  • Educate x-functional
  • Empower leadership
  • Empower creativity
  • Empower autonomy

Overall, the conference was a great success and I gained some unique insights into how others in the IT industry see Agile and its agility within their respective careers and companies. See you at the conference next year in Sydney.

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