How Depersonalizing Work and Managing Flow Can Humanize the Workplace

[article]
Summary:

Using metrics such as cumulative flow to monitor throughput and quantitative thinking may not seem very humanistic, but by depersonalizing the work being done, we can focus our energies on solving actual problems instead of conducting a daily witch-hunt and shaming people into high performance.

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about Scrum stand-up meetings is the purpose. People think they are intended to convey status.

They aren’t.

According to the most recent edition of the Scrum Guide, the daily scrum’s purpose is “. . . for the Development Team to synchronize activities and create a plan for the next 24 hours.”

The Scrum Guide contains many prescriptions, such as who may and may not attend the scrum. The ScrumMaster is responsible for policing that the rules contained in the guide are obeyed.

Once More, from the Beginning
A classic Scrum standup has each person in the group take a turn answering these three questions: What did I do yesterday? What will I do today? Are there any impediments preventing my progress?

If I were to show this to somebody who never heard of agile before and asked him what he guessed the purpose of a meeting like this was, I’d expect him to say “status.” So we’ve replaced weekly status meetings (which were bad, right?) by reporting on a daily basis what we’re doing. That seems ludicrous to me. 

When I converted from status meetings to stand-ups, it was at the same low-trust organization where I worked for nearly eight years. I had started using “number of layoffs survived” as a measure for individual success. My number was seven, so I must’ve been very valuable indeed! I tell this story to set the stage for the general level of trust.

Without any explanation, teams of fifteen to twenty people were now required to go into a conference room every day and answer the three questions. They were told this meeting should be short, so it would only be booked for the prescribed fifteen minutes. 

Absent of safety, I suspect many people going to the meeting reinterpreted the questions, so in their heads, the questions sounded like this: Were you productive yesterday? Will you be productive today? If you are not productive, do you have any excuses?

Naturally, nobody felt comfortable being brief; people were terrified and tried to justify their existence when interrogated by the engineering director who ran the meeting. I was no better; I was trying desperately to survive my coming eighth layoff.

Do you have any excuses for not having been productive? was the least appealing question of the three.

The likelihood anybody was going to admit to not being productive and offer up an excuse was extremely remote—especially when everyone was trying to survive the next layoff so their families didn’t starve in the post-dot-com bust wasteland we were assured awaited us on the outside.

After thirty minutes, the next team of fifteen to twenty was standing outside, noses pressed against the glass, wondering why our meeting was still going. 

Fast Forward to 2013
I recently suggested that I was not a fan of the three questions to another consultant, who had clearly never heard anybody speak ill of a trusted agile tradition.

“I love the three questions!” he insisted.

So I explained to him my concern that they do not encourage agency and gave examples. He then surprised me by saying, “Right, but there’s value in the social shame of making people who aren’t pulling their weight expose themselves on a daily basis.”

User Comments

6 comments
Margaret Wolfe's picture

From the perspective of a SCRUM Master, the purpose of the stand-up is to get a handle on impediments so they can be removed or worked around. While there may be truth to peer pressure of non-performance, public shaming is not the purpose. As a matter of fact, I think the whole focus on blame is contrary to the roots of Agile.

April 17, 2014 - 11:56am
Margaret Wolfe's picture

From the perspective of a SCRUM Master, the purpose of the stand-up is to get a handle on impediments so they can be removed or worked around. While there may be truth to peer pressure of non-performance, public shaming is not the purpose. As a matter of fact, I think the whole focus on blame is contrary to the roots of Agile.

Good topic, Adam.

April 17, 2014 - 11:57am
Adam Yuret's picture

Thanks Margaret for the thoughful comment, 

 

I agree that the blame and shame is antithetical to any healthy working environment, agile or otherwise. I do think it's good to talk about impediments but putting that discussion into a tightly managed ritual (I've seen many scrum masters cut people off mid-sentence because there was risk of overrunning the "15 minute rule" sadly many scrum masters seem to percieve their role as enforcer of the legalistic framework. I think it's good to coordinate in the morning, but it's better to solve problems when they arise (rather than wait till standup) and to make work visible. As Jim Benson says "The problem with the 3 questions in standup is that it means we don't know the answers to them continually."

:-)

Again, thanks so much for the comment. 

 

April 17, 2014 - 12:18pm
Mara Svenne's picture

Great article, Adam.  Have you read:  "the Lean Startup", by Eric Ries?  It talks about building learning into what you build.  And so - if someone reported on what they learned yesterday, would actually be valued.

April 17, 2014 - 12:08pm
Adam Yuret's picture

Thanks Mara, 

Yes, I've read Eric's little blue book. I think it's good for helping people understand that product management should involve customers but would love for people to read it and use the information as a springboard to learn more about actual lean principles. Sadly too many people are dropping the word "startup" from Eric's meme and much confusion about what lean means ensues. 

I know Liz KEogh uses "What did I learn yesterday, What do I hope to learn today... etc" instead but I feel like that approach risks making a meaningless semantic change to the ritual and risks the same rote ritualism. That said, I've seen standups be really effective, just love for people to think outside the framework and adapt approaches to their context. 

Super important to understand the nature of knowledge work when applying approaches and frameworks to our efforts. Anything that causes dialog and critical thinking is fine by me. :)

Thanks again for the nice comment. :-) 

April 17, 2014 - 12:24pm
Ed Kelly's picture

Excellent article Adam.  I'm a big fan of Reinertsen 's book on Product Flow.  I use Rally, which has a couple of Cumulative Flow diagrams.  I'd like to see a follow up article with details on measuring flow and interpreting a flow diagram. 

April 18, 2014 - 10:44am

About the author

Adam Yuret's picture Adam Yuret

Adam Yuret provides lean and agile consulting services to organizations ranging from enterprise fortune 10 corporations to small non-profits and health care providers seeking help in adapting to the new post-agile paradigm of short learning cycles and continuous delivery pipelines as Principal Consultant at Context Driven Agility (CDA) Consulting. Adam is a "celebrated international speaker" (he presented in Canada and some people actually clapped!) who's been featured twice on InfoQ and invited to speak at numerous conferences, including San Francisco Agile 2012, Conference for the Association of Software Testing 2010, Software Development & Evolution Conference 2012 and many local events in the Seattle Area.

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