Agile 2007 Conference Notes – Mary Poppendieck on Leadership

Okay, I’m only here for one day, and the first part of the day was me giving a workshop and then the next part was a presentation on Ruby and Selenium which was interesting (but unfortunately nothing to write home about) and then…

Mary Poppendieck spoke. Here are my notes.

The Role of Leadership

Notes from a talk by Mary Poppendieck with some commentary by Mishkin Berteig.


Taylor: “The Principles of Scientific Management”
– Assumptions: workers do as little as possible, they don’t care about quality, and they are not smart enough to know the best way to do the work.
-> experts therefore define the best way to do a job and you pay your workers extra to follow the expert’s instructions
-> results in happy workers and profits for the company
Note: this is almost exactly the opposite of the Agile Axioms

Charles R. Allen: “Industrial Training”
– method: Preparation -> Presentation -> Application -> Testing
Here’s another example of the Learning Circle.
– on the job training best
– 1917 this approach tested w/ shipbuilding training
– – train the supervisors to train workers
– – 88000 people trained
– wrote a book: “The Instructor, The Man and The Job”
– “If the learner hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.”

WWII: “Training Within Industry” (TWI)
– inexperienced workforce to build weapons and munitions
– train first line supervisors
– – job instruction: how to train
– – job methods: how to do the work
– – job relations: how to work with workers
– abandoned after the war
-> exported to Japan to help them rebuild
TWI Premises: Good Supervisor
– knows the work
– knows responsibilities
– skill in instruction
– skill in process/work improvement
– skill in leadership

Toyota Production System (TPS)
– in 1950’s Toyota looked at Ford and GM and saw that they were far more productive than Toyota
Taiichi Ohno (1912-1990) founded TPS
– – Just in Time Flow (eliminate waste)
– – Stop-the-Line culture (mistake-proof the process)
– – – originally made LOOMS
– – – 1st self-stopping automated looms that stopped with defects
– – Relentless Improvement
– – Books: “Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management” and “Toyota Production System: Beyond Large-Scale Production

I haven’t read these yet, but the way Mary talks about them, I’m sure they are very interesting. In fact, she had a very long quote from Taiichi Ohno’s Workplace Management about “Standard Work”:

– Standard Work
– – document the way work is done

    right now

to use to compare in the future – a baseline for improvement
– – often used by experts to create an ideal process – this is a

    big mistake

– – standards evolve

There were lots of funny-in-the-way-that-we-obviously-get-it-so-wrong-in-most-large-companies parts of the extended quote from Ohno. I couldn’t take it all down, and I forgot that I had a digital camera handy so the gist of it was that by documenting your current work, you will be documenting an imperfect processs… deliberately! This imperfection will actually be annoying to workers and therefore they will be motivated to improve the process. If the process goes more than a month without improvement, then the team lead is stealing his/her salary.

Deming: 1980 “System of Profound Knowledge”
– Appreciation of the System
– – never sub-optimize by focusing on one part of the system
– – look at everything: suppliers, producers, customers
– Knowledge of Variation
– – most variation is inherent in the system therefore don’t blame workers for systemic problems
– – provide leadership in changing the system
– Theory of Knowledge
– – Scientific Method (PDCA)
– – Use data
– Psychology
– – don’t use #’s for people
– – Skill, Pride, Expertise, Confidence, and Cooperation motivate people

Respect People
– move responsibility and decision-making to the lowest possible level
-> when workers are annoyed by their job… do they:
– – complain (stone cutters)
– – ignore it (making a living)
– – fix it (cathedral builders)

I really like this “assessment tool”, but it is still very complicated to convert a group of stone cutters into a team of cathedral builders. First of all, the process of changing attitudes can take a great deal of time and effort. Secondly, not all people will even agree with the goal (cathedral building) and so will never come on board. Thirdly, I think there needs to be some room for people to be temporarily “making a living” if they have things outside of work that are their passion or crisis.

(adapted from “The Toyota Way” p181)
Top Down and General Management Expertise:
-> bureaucratic: “follow the rules”
Top Down and In-Depth Understanding of Work:
-> task manager: “here is what to do and how to do it – now do it!”
Bottom Up and General Management Expertise:
-> group facilitator: “you’re empowered”
Bottom Up and In-Depth Understanding of Work:
-> builder of learning organizations: “here’s our purpose now let’s do it and learn along the way”
– this last type of manager is where most of Toyota’s managers fall

John Shook (
Three Models of Leadership from the Lean Management and the Role of Lean Leadership Webinar:
– Old “Dictator”: do it my way
– 1980’s Empowerment: do it your way
– Lean: follow me and let’s figure it out together
@ Toyota a leader:
1. acts as a teacher who knows how to do the job and how to teach it
2. gets each person to take the initiative to solve problems and improve his or her job
3. ensure that each person’s job is aligned to provide business and customer value

Brilliant Products
– require deep understanding of both business and technical domains
– who decides?
– priority by committee: no responsibility
– marketing by checklist: no innovation
– behind every great product is a single person
– – great customer empathy
– – deep technical insight
– – distinguish between essential and incidental
– Chief Engineer at Toyota
– Product Champion at 3M

Leadership Roles for Products:
– Champion:
– – marketing leader
– – technical leader
– Functional Leader
– – job instruction
– – methods improvement
– – job alignment
– process leader (temporary): coaching
the process facilitator?
– project leader (temporary): funding/tracking

Case Study: Zara (Fashion Clothing Stores)
– from design to store in 2 wks
– twice weekly orders
– – deliver globally in 2 days
– – on hangers, priced
– – shipping prices are not optimized!!!
– manufactured in small lots
– – coops in Spain
– – West European labor rates
– – labor costs are not optimized!!!

New Items/Year

Full Price Sales

Unsold Items

% Sales on Adverts

% Sales on IT




< 10%









In order for Organizations to perform brilliantly, there are 2 pre-requisites:
– everyone in management agrees what they want
– everyone in management agrees on cause and effect
-> does everyone on the Management team speak the same language?

Mary then went on to discuss the topics of Cost Cutting, Conformance to Plan, Standards, Utilization, Accountability, and Measurement and contrasted a non-lean with a lean approach or attitude. Most of these ideas can be found in essays on her web site or in her books:

Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit for Software Development Managers


Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash (The Addison-Wesley Signature Series)

Both of which are excellent.

Mary has an excellent speaking style: lots of energy, lots of light but poignant irony and sarcasm, and a totally riveting set of ideas. I really feel honored to have heard her speak. I also asked her a question about Toyota: management span of “control” and rewarding staff for the number of different jobs that they can do. Basically, she said that in software you might want to do something different and you should read her paper about compensation in software teams [pdf].

Here is her pdf of the presentation materials.

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