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Q&A on the Book Learning to Scale

Key Takeaways

  • The predominant management approaches, focused on managing processes and monitoring objectives, lead to spreading the "big company disease" which slows the company down and hampers growth.
  • Managers can avoid this phenomenon by focusing on learning rather than execution and control.
  • The Thinking People System is a comprehensive model for a learning organization, proven over decades by industry giants.
  • Learning is accelerated by making production issues visible and digging into their root causes.
  • A learning system is in itself a complete strategy, helping the company achieve performance levels unattainable by competitors.

The book Learning to Scale by Régis Medina explores how to apply lean as an education system to scale companies and help people think about their work and learn together to create value. It provides an enterprise model built on how people learn and grow based on the idea that when people understand what they do and why they do it, they become better in what they do and the company moves faster.

InfoQ readers can download the starter kit for Learning to Scale.

InfoQ interviewed Régis Medina about the challenges companies face when they grow, lean as an education system, strategy for continuous learning, engaging teams in solving the right problems and how to get a deep understanding of problems, pull systems for developing software, fostering a spirit of engagement and improvement in teams, intensifying collaboration at the C-level, improving profit and loss performance through a focus on lead-time and quality, and propagating and aligning learning throughout the whole company.

InfoQ: Why did you write this book?

Régis Medina: I see entrepreneurs and managers who want to build great companies and great products, but they struggle as their company starts slowing down when it grows. People are less engaged, quality suffers and customers start to complain, until everybody becomes frustrated with all the daily problems.

20 years ago I saw Agile as a way to overcome these issues, but the results have been disappointing at scale. I now think it is too narrow to really help at the company level. For the past 10 years I have been studying the practices of Toyota, and discovered a radical model which has transformed the auto industry and inspired giants such as Amazon, Pixar or Zara. 

I have been working hard with startup and scale-up CEOs to adapt these practices to modern tech companies, and witnessed firsthand how it transformed them. The executives were spending much less time dealing with daily crises, and individual contributors were finding more pleasure in working and coming up with improvement ideas. As a result, profitability and growth were on the rise.

I have written this book to help others benefit from what we have learned.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Medina: It is primarily intended for CEOs and C-level executives of startups and scale-ups, in all areas of business: product management, software development, marketing, sales, operations, etc. The problems I address in this book appear when the company grows past 15-20 people, and become exponentially difficult after 50 people and above.

InfoQ: What challenges do companies face when they start to grow?

Medina: They face what we call the "Big Company Disease", which takes different forms:

  • Employees start following procedures rather than thinking on their own to help specific customers. This can be for instance customer service agents who stick to their script, or salespeople who push their products with a predefined pitch without actually listening to what customers say.
  • Teams and departments fight over resources to serve their own interests over those of the whole company.
  • Individual contributors see their improvement ideas consistently dismissed by their managers and colleagues, until they decide to quit.
  • Teams are confused about which technologies are really driving the company's growth. They either abandon heritage technologies, which are loved by customers, or stick to technologies that have become a hindrance.

InfoQ: In the book you mentioned that lean is not a production system, it's an education system. Can you elaborate?

Medina: It depends on what we call "lean," since the term has been used in wildly different contexts. There were first the lean projects led by big consulting firms to drive productivity gains in industrial or service operations, then we had the "lean kanban" movement for software development in the late 2000s, and finally the "lean startup" movement exploded afterwards. This has led to a growing confusion about what lean really is.

If we go back to its origins, "lean" refers to the study of Toyota management practices outside of Toyota. It was started by a MIT research project in 1985, which compared the Japanese and occidental approaches to automotive manufacturing. At that time Toyota was already showing exceptional performance, and it ended up becoming the world's largest manufacturer 20 years later.

What Toyota understood early on is that the western approach to industrialization, with a strong focus on processes and management by objectives, leads to employee disengagement and poor performance. An industrial operation is a very complex system, involving thousands of people for a single car, and subject to tens of thousands of daily problems. You need a skilled and creative workforce to be able to adapt to the resulting complexity. 

Toyota managers realized that most of these problems were the result of people's misconceptions about their work. They developed the Toyota Production System, which we now call the Thinking People System, as a comprehensive approach to developing team members by helping them study these problems in depth, face their own misconceptions and invent astute countermeasures to improve performance. Their goal was to produce better people to produce better cars.

InfoQ: What does a strategy for continuous learning look like?

Medina: For the CEO and the executive team, this is what we call the 4F:

  1. Find: solve operational problems on the field, with the teams, to find out what everyone needs to learn in order for the company to gain a competitive advantage.
  2. Face: bring executives to accept their own responsibility and their own misconceptions, before committing to solve them together, as a team.
  3. Frame: visualize these problems in such a way that every individual contributor can learn and find new solutions, at the local level, to contribute to the overall goal.
  4. Form: regularly visit the teams to support them in driving learning, sharing their best ideas and designing the new products that will drive future growth.

For instance, Amazon understood early on that short delivery times were a core competitive advantage, at a time where five or more days were the norm. They relentlessly worked on removing those limits, on the field, and they still continue to do so. This requires colossal amounts of learning across the company, from logistics to purchasing to IT systems.

This is very different from the usual "command & control" approach, where the executive team decides on a global strategy and drives all the teams to execute a predetermined plan.

InfoQ: How can managers engage teams in solving the right problems?

Medina: In fact the kanban system is the core of a larger mental model, the Thinking People System, which helps lean practitioners analyze their business to find improvement areas.

The model raises deep questions about any business activity: 

  • Do we deeply understand the situation and needs of each individual customer?
  • What prevents us from having a steady, continuous flow of value across the company, without stagnation?
  • What is preventing team members from doing quality work right the first time?
  • In what ways do we prevent team members from working effortlessly, freeing time and energy for them to contribute their ideas for improvement?
  • What do we need to change in the next evolution of our products to create more value for customers?

InfoQ: What can we do to get a deep understanding of problems?

Medina: There are two things that leaders can do.

The first is working on small, concrete daily problems, rather than large issues. This is the essence of kaizen: dramatic, large-scale improvements are the result of solving a myriad small problems everywhere everyday.

The second is spending more time analyzing specific problems with team members and asking: "What is the mistake we keep repeating that led to this specific issue?"

Suppose that you discover a software defect where the user uploaded a file that was too large, resulting in a system crash. This raises many questions. Why didn't the product manager discover the problem? What is her current practice for checking the quality of her work? What is her own theory of quality in her job, and what is she studying to expand it? What could she change in her work standards for avoiding this kind of problem in the future? Same questions for the UX designer, the developer, the QA engineer, and so on.

InfoQ: How can a pull system for developing software look?

Medina: Most teams nowadays use some kind of kanban, for instance using a Trello board. When a product manager finishes a specification document he "pushes" it to the next column, so that a developer can start working on it. This is a push system.

A pull system is based on a logic of withdrawal. In our example, the developer knows that the specification should be ready at 3 PM, and comes and fetches it at that time. If the product manager encounters a problem that could prevent him from finishing on time, he needs to call the team leader to dig into the issue so that both can find out what needs to be improved to prevent the same problem from happening again.

InfoQ: How can team leaders foster a spirit of engagement and improvement in their team?

Medina: They first need to realize that we all have a finite amount of mental energy to spend on solving problems every day, and we often squander it on the many small problems we encounter - tools not working properly, missing key information, repairing mistakes, and so on. The first thing team leaders can do is to solve the root cause of these problems so that they don’t occur again, creating the conditions for each team member to work effortlessly. With work becoming less taxing, they can start team-level study activities, which will tend to be more creative - for instance finding novel ways to increase performance when creating a piece of software, finding new ways to design their marketing material, etc.

InfoQ: What can be done to intensify collaboration at the C-level?

Medina: The CEO can dedicate one or two hours a week for the executive team to step back and reflect on their own learning. To improve communication, it really helps to set up an "obeya" - a dedicated visual management clarifying a set of core questions, for instance:

  • What is our north star?
  • What did we learn from customers this week?
  • Is our learning having a positive impact on performance?
  • How can we better collaborate on leading changes to the company's core systems?

InfoQ: Why should companies focus on lead time and quality if they want to improve their profit and loss performance?

Medina: Customers are always looking for good products delivered as fast as possible. Conversely, defects and stagnation along the value stream usually generate additional costs. A strategy of quality improvement and lead time reduction is thus a potent way to drive revenue and reduce costs simultaneously.

InfoQ: How can we propagate and align learning throughout the whole company?

Medina: A system for driving learning across the organization is based on four main components:

  • Executives visiting the teams with a regular cadence to discuss their improvement efforts
  • Front-line managers setting up kanban systems for all activities to discover what needs to be learned
  • The management team maintaining a system for aligning goals in the spirit of OKR, but geared toward learning - Objectives and Key Learnings, in a sense
  • The management team organizing a series of repeating events where teams can share what they learned

To start with, managers can start visiting their teams and asking a simple question: “What are you trying to improve?”

About the Book Author

Régis Medina was one of the early pioneers of Agile methodologies in the late 90s. In 2009, he embarked on a journey to explore the practices of Toyota, eventually making several trips to Japan. At the same time, he worked with more than a hundred teams to adapt this model to modern tech companies. He now works with prominent entrepreneurs of the French Tech community to build fast and resilient scale-ups.

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