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InfoQ Homepage News Leadership is not Obsolete for Self-Organizing Teams!

Leadership is not Obsolete for Self-Organizing Teams!

In this popular talk from Agile2007, The Role of Leadership in Software Development, Lean software thought leader Mary Poppendieck reviewed the last century's managment theories, including Taylor, Toyota and Deming, and went on to talk about "the matrix problem", alignment, waste cutting, planning, standards and other topics including the role of measurement: "cash flow thinking" over "balance sheet thinking".

It is generally acknowledged that Japanese innovations in management raised the bar for manufacturing internationally in the 1980s:
“Only after American carmakers had exhausted every other explanation for Toyota’s success – an undervalued yen, a docile workforce, Japanese culture, superior automation – were they finally able to admit that Toyota’s real advantage was its ability to harness the intellect of ‘ordinary’ employees.”
-- Gary Hamel, “Management Innovation,” Harvard Business Review, February 2006
Poppendieck, formerly a process control engineer, participated in the change from statistical process control to Lean-style manufacturing processes at 3M. Her experiences there of excellent teamwork, improved productivity and continual improvement spurred her on to develop a similar approach for software development, resulting in her first book with husband Tom, called Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit.

Laughingly calling this her "controversial talk," Poppendieck skipped her usual intro-to-Agile slides and dove directly into her current research on leadership. Starting with Frederick Winslow Tayor's assumtions (circa 1900) that "workers will do as little as possible, and workers do not care about quality," she traced changes in management theory through Charles Allen's industrial on-the-job training in the '20's (exported to Japan after the second world war), the Toyota Production System (springboard for the ideas of Lean Manufacturing and Lean Product Managment today), and Charles Deming's formulation of Systems Thinking in the '80s.

Poppendieck summarized this history into three styles of leadership: 1) Old “Dictator” Style: “Do it my way…”; 2) 1980s “Empowerment” Style: “Do it your way... ”; 3) Lean Style: “Follow me…and let’s figure this out together.”

Within the Toyota Production System, the role of the leader is:
  1. to act as a teacher;
  2. to get each person to take the initiative to solve problems and improve his or her job; and
  3. to ensure that each person’s job is aligned to provide value for the customer and prosperity for the company
The section on standards was quite entertaining: the Lean idea of standards is subtly different from what many assume in North America. Rather than defining the performance threshhold (perform up to this standard, and you're OK), it is seen as the minimum threshhold: if you are still only meeting this standard in a month, then you've not improved, you are a "salary thief"! According to Taiichi Ohno, standards only serve as a baseline for improvement:
There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly. Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over. The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen. It is kai-aku [change for the worse] if things get worse than now, and it is kaizen [change for the better] if things get better than now. Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?

When creating Standard Work, it will be difficult to establish a standard if you are trying to achieve ‘the best way.’ This is a big mistake. Document exactly what you are doing now. If you make it better than it is now, it is kaizen. If not, and you establish the best possible way, the motivation for kaizen will be gone.
The leader's job is to help people follow standards which they themselves made, and to guide them in continually improving their work, thereby evolving and updating their own standards.

View the InfoQ video of Mary Poppendieck's 90-minute talk from Agile2007: The Role of Leadership in Software Development.

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