It’s People, Not Machinery

Before we learned Toyota doesn’t know jack about software, the software community embraced Lean Manufacturing hoping to mimic Toyota’s legendary quality & efficiency.

In her post Creating a Mess by “Eliminating Waste, Esther Derby reminds me how principles built on assembly line manufacturing efficiencies don’t necessarily translate to people-centric businesses like software.

…any tool can and will be misapplied. This is especially true when a tool is plucked from one context and applied in another and when the use of the tool is divorced from the thinking and philosophy behind the tool. ~Esther Derby

Bill Clinton‘s advisor James Carville coined the phrase

It’s the economy, stupid.

In the same vein, I advance a rule of thumb about the making and consuming of software:

It’s people, not machinery.

The simplest caution I offer is “…start by understanding”, not by applying the tired bromides of manufacturing efficiency.

Lean’s three-legged stool of waste, overburden, & workload unevenness are more readily measured and tweaked in the context of machines and assembly lines — not so easily with people.

Yvon Chouinard, founder & visionary behind the outdoor equipment company Patagonia, has a mantra “Let my people go surfing” which is shorthand for

My business is focused on the fulfillment of my employees, and by extension, the fulfillment of my customers.

Encouraging your teammates to ditch work when the surf’s up is distinctly not a production-driven view that activity equals cost.

I cringe when referred to as a resource. I’m not a lump of coal to be burned. The phrase “efficient use of resources” is much less offensive to me when applied to carbon-based fuel than when applied to people.

Over-clocking a CPU & demanding higher output from people probably doesn’t overlap on any Venn diagram.

If it’s your job to nag me to cut waste, I’m left to wonder how and why you exist.

As a teammate, you may lean on me. But as a misguided efficiency weenie, please don’t Lean on me.

5 thoughts on “It’s People, Not Machinery

  1. Thanks Bob!!

    It is about the people and, moreover, it is also about the relationships between the people. When relationships are healthy and safe people are engaged and productive. When relationships are ill and fear exists then there is a lot of “relationship waste” that can be eliminated. An organization is a sum of the relationships between the people in and outside of that organization.


  2. Hi Bob-

    Thought provoking post. My background is very traditional “lean manufacturing” – I worked in industry for 10 years, including a software company startup that was making software for helping run “lean factories.” We certainly weren't using lean principles in the running of that business (and it failed… for a number of reasons).

    I've been working in healthcare for 5 years now. You're right that all lean tools don't apply the same way in other settings.

    But I think you're giving short shrift to manufacturing by assuming that manufacturing businesses aren't also primarily about people. Most factories aren't completely automated. Things like creativity and problem solving are just as critical as they would be in a hospital or a software company.

    What happens, I think, is that Lean ideas get combined with the bad ideas of traditional management (including the practice of calling people “resources” – something that turns my stomach as well.

    Instead of thinking of the 3Ms – muda, muri, mura, think about the two pillars of the Toyota Way – continuous improvement and “Respect for People.” I think that applies very broadly, as do the lean management mindsets (including those adopted by Eric Ries and the lean startup crowd, like “don't blame people”).

    Lean doesn't have to be overly mechanistic – in a factory or a hospital or a software company. Lean creates an environment where people WANT to reduce waste (because it makes their job easier). We shouldn't have to nag them.

    “My business is focused on the fulfillment of my employees, and by extension, the fulfillment of my customers.”

    This isn't true just in software — it's very true in manufacturing (and healthcare).

    I'd encourage you to keep learning about lean and to keep challenging things. “Start by understanding” – that includes always better understanding your own system and better understanding lean.

    I'll be curious to continue following this thread.


  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for being gracious and for keeping me honest 🙂

    I agree that Lean has been quite successful in the manufacturing realm – I'm a 3 Toyota family.

    Perhaps this post devolved into a bit of a rant about all the folks in the software community – mostly non-practitioners on the conference circuit – trying to apply lean manufacturing principles to making software.

    Over the past 10-15 years, I have watched fellow programmers become quite adept at improving and demonstrating the quality of their code. There might be more efficiency one could wring out of the average software team, but one has to wonder if the average programmer has the intrinsic motivation to follow yet another waste-reducing or efficiency-increasing practice. The definition of waste seems subjective. Most teams I have worked on in recent years have also mastered the art of workflow (i.e., no one’s twiddling their thumbs and no one is working unwanted overtime).

    Since we’re reasonably efficient from an operational standpoint, the pressing issue for me is:
    How do we understand how to build the right thing?



  4. Hi Bob-

    I understand the need for the rant. No industry is served well by blind copying from another industry and there are always opportunists looking to make a name or make a buck on that “fad.”



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