Cycle count

Hearing aids: left, right. Disposable batteries lasting two days each.

A tiny Bluetooth remote + condenser mic paired to three devices, as well as both hearing aids. Rechargeable battery somehow lasts for 10-14 hours (depending on how desperately I claw at those radios).

An iPhone whose battery is always drained 18 hours later. iPhones are for people with short days and simple lives.

An iPad. Sucker can hold a charge. I use it for reading and writing. It is a screen for words, and words are what we have. Also, the iPad’s little keyboard, which has disposable batteries that change with the seasons.

A Macbook Pro. Several golden hours. Many more if I’m just looking at the computer rather than doing anything with it.

A Nintendo 3DS. Rechargeable battery, good for four hours or so. More than I ever play, these days. More than enough for a trip through the cataclysmic end of a pocket universe. Last days, last rites. This world collapses and is not rebuilt, again and again.

A small faceless watch (also pedometer and sleep tracker). Disposable battery lasting about two months.

Living with these devices means that I take a short midnight stroll around the house before bed, setting small, expensive objects in place and plugging them into various chargers. It means I have a nest of whatever-to-USB cables that I drag with me when on the road.

Because of these objects I can speak with the people around me and the people far away from me. I can make things, and try to understand and explain them. I can listen to music. That’s good enough for me, and I am grateful for them.

Because of these objects I am reminded that we are all set against the clock; that we can be renewed, albeit temporarily; and that we can only do what we do a certain number of times before the possibility for renewal is itself depleted.

And I suppose am grateful for that, too.

The blue and the green

Noted without comment:

There is only one crime, in the local sense, and that is not to turn blue, if the gods are blue: but, in the universal sense, the one crime is not to turn the gods themselves green, if you’re green.

From Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned.

Any physical thing

Ten years ago today, a colleague said, by way of explanation, in a meeting of people talking about software under fluorescent lights:

“An object is any physical thing in the directory.”

The person was referring to a software construct and its relationship to another software construct. It was just a passing comment, and I don’t remember the intent of the meeting or its outcome. (Given the organization, let’s assume the meeting had no purpose and that we did not meet it.) But I do remember writing the remark down, and mulling it over, and knowing that I was ready to move on; it wasn’t long before I’d quit that job and started things that were at least different and possibly even better. That said, I sometimes find myself returning to that phrase, while waiting for a train to arrive or a phone call to end: What is an object? Any physical thing. Where do you find such physical things? In the directory. What is the directory? — and so forth, until the train whistles or the call is finished and it’s time to move on to the next physical thing.

The glass

Now here’s a little parable, or joke:

The optimist says that the glass is half-full.
The pessimist says that the glass is half-empty.
The lean consultant recommends finding a smaller glass.

This parable, or joke, is a pocket-sized exemplar of what’s good — and what’s insufficient — about lean thinking.

What’s good

There’s an acknowledgement of contingency. People have their own beliefs, perspectives, and intuitions. These can be respected without reference to validity or necessity.

It’s a response to the situation as encountered. No part of this story is about finding individual culpability or placing blame. Neither is there any discussion about how things “should” be, or even how much water is “enough”. (Although how much water people want is a different matter entirely.)

It’s about making a discrete, intentional change. You know, given an existing situation that isn’t to everybody’s satisfaction, even an arbitrary change might wind up making things better.

What’s insufficient

The proposed resolution isn’t necessarily a useful improvement all by itself. It could be meaningless tidying up, and could in fact be valuable;
either way it’s disconnected from the larger environment and intents shared by both the optimist and pessimist. The basic principles that were bundled up into lean (a) have to do with correlating the work everybody is doing with the actual purpose of the organization they work in and (b) very rarely come up in “lean work” or “lean projects”.

There’s a tremendous amount of fatigue out there related to lean thinking and lean transformations. We’ve all seen this kind of thing before: feel-good rearranging of deck chairs; a dollop of anal retentiveness over box lunches and cheerful whiteboards.

Unfortunately, that’s skepticism that lean has earned over the decades, and you have to respect people who feel that way.

Lean and related jargon are terms that have reached peak fluff. (Example: last week a trainer for a proprietary, nightmarishly over-complicated content management system told me that the product in question was lean because “you can administer it from a web browser and not a desktop application and it has great ROI.” That is a direct quote.) All this damage is the reason I try to talk around the term “lean”, and prefer instead to focus on the underlying practices and motivations — which, ironically, are usually as novel and exciting to people as lean itself is overtired and stale.

No capital L

What is lean, anyways? Is it a system, a tool, or a cult? As always, depends on who’s buying, and who’s selling. Here’s my advice:

If you want to learn about lean, read only books from before 01980, with one exception: W. Edwards Deming’s Out of the Crisis. This was published in 01982 but is in fact a retrospective of his decades of work. If you do read the book, count how many times he uses the word “lean”, and then use it about as often as he does.

Also, you might want to get yourself a smaller glass.

Problems and solutions

A long time ago, my mother-in-law Sue told me that some problems just don’t have solutions. I knew she was wrong. I knew that every problem has a solution — that having solutions are what problems are for. Of course, I was wrong, and she was right.

Some problems have solutions that you can see, but can’t get to. Some solutions are even worse than the problems they’d solve. And some problems are just plain tricky: the swords of mighty kings forged into gordian knots. Other problems are solved merely by waiting for a person to die or for an empire to crumble. And whenever you solve the worst problem you’re facing, the second-worst problem immediately steps up to take its place.

Storytime with Jerry Weinberg

A friend recently tweeted this quote from Jerry Weinberg’s “Secrets of Consulting” (a phenomenal book with a lousy title):

That quote reminded me of my own summary of “Secrets of Consulting”, which, true to his homilist technique, I call the “don’t be a jackass” rule:

The “don’t be a jackass” rule

Problems are everywhere. Acknowledge that you, under your own strength, are not going to solve every problem you see, or every problem you know how to solve — and if you try to, you’re just being a jackass.

(What’s this all about? Well, go read Weinberg’s book, or soak in Todd Clarke’s visual book notes for the same. I recommend both.)

Finding 15% solutions

What I’ll often do, instead, is turn to one of my favorite liberating structures, a little bauble called 15% solutions.

For me, the search for 15% solutions begins with the recognition that the biggest, thorniest problems we face are just another part of our environment. Our problems are located in the same big soup as our colleagues and peers; as people we like and people we don’t; as our organizations, affiliations, and communities; as our responsibilities, creditors, paradoxes, and best-laid plans. Furthermore, most things in this jumble are as hard to change as the built environment, even if they aren’t physical stuff that’s too big to move or profoundly meaningless boxes and arrows on a flowchart or orgchart.

But there’s always a little wiggle room. Small things you can change without getting permission, or by begging forgiveness. Things left uninstrumented or directly within your grasp. That’s the 15%.

A 15% solution is what you arrive at when you stop worrying about the intractable systems of the world as they whirl without cease under encroaching darkness, and instead identify the tiny, immediate, and maybe effective things you can do right now.

If you do this by yourself, that’s great.

If you do it with a few other people who are stuck in the same problem, that’s even better. (In fact, the amplifying effect this can yield is the point of the liberating structure.)

In other words

  1. Don’t leap at problems, or you’ll just find more problems.
  2. Don’t leap at solutions, or you’ll be a jackass.
  3. Remember to try the easiest things first.
  4. It can be pretty hard to find the easiest things.

“Problems and solutions” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.

I’ll have a definition of “done” when I’m dead

One of the great bugbears of scrum and scrumbut systems is the Definition of Done (DoD, not to be confused with the Pentagon). Managing a product by post-hoc reporting works best when everybody on the “team” can point to a wiki page somewhere and proclaim, “My feature is done!”

Now on that wiki page, behind the cobwebs and broken links, is a bulleted list. It lists things such as: the code is written; the tests pass; the things are prepared; other things have been accepted; — or whatever else the management had everybody decide at last year’s Why The Product Is Late summit, in that classic consensus-building exercise where the manager speaks and everybody else waits, silent yet eager, for the moment of quiet assent to pass.

After a developer has checked in her work and proclaimed “my feature is done!” she is absolved. In a state of grace she drifts towards the weekend.

That’s our first definition of done. We’ll call it DoD (1).

Sometimes one might ask: what does it mean to be done with this product?

The answers come from way over there, outside of the technical group. The product is being sunsetted, repositioned, moved upmarket or downmarket. Retired, put to pasture, abandoned. Maybe frozen: the changeless, icy core around which the salesforce orbits.

If a feature can be done when it’s “done!” on Friday morning, a product can be done in the same way a puppy is done. Either it grows into something else or it just doesn’t make it. That’s DoD (2).

But what about you? Yes, you. What does it mean for you to be done? Are you done when the product is? When you have enough money to retire, or are forced into management? When you give notice? When your contract is up, and you from your labors rest? Let’s call this hairball DoD (3).

The Ann Arbor Chronicle is the newspaper in a town I once lived in. After writing for long enough to gestate an actual living human being, Dave Askins, the Chronicle’s editor, published a fascinating editorial grappling with the job. His readers compared the gig to running a marathon. But, Dave wrote:

“It’s not really clear what counts as the finish line — when I die, perhaps? The idea of attending Ann Arbor city council meetings until the day I die is a fairly sobering prospect. I’m not sure that’s what I signed up for.”

That was four years ago, but I remember it as the most acute condition of DoD (3) I’ve ever seen.

Now, I’ve used the word “done” in each of these senses, and more. It’s as slippery and unhygienic as a river otter. But here at Different Chairs, I call something “done” when it’s ready to start.

Before your product is ready to radiate out into the ether and help real people change the world in real, measurable (if tiny!) ways, it’s in development. It’s in process. But when it’s useful enough to keep somebody’s attention long enough to help them do something — guess what? — it’s done. Instead of wondering what’s the most important thing to do, or worrying about your development schedule and the tenuous ligaments holding it to reality, or the fact that time speeds up as you fall behind schedule, relax: you’re done! It’s time to watch how people use the experience you’ve created for them, and learn from their mistakes and yours, and improve the experience in worthwhile and surprising ways.

That is to say: once you’re done, you can really get started.

“I’ll have a definition of ‘done’ when I’m dead” was originally published in the Different Chairs journal.

Against balance

Alongside the gray road, you will encounter people who speak of work-life balance. You have a hard time taking that topic seriously.

The idea of work-life balance reminds you of people who put milk in their coffee. If the coffee isn’t good, just drink better coffee.

After a few years on the gray road, you’ve learned a few things. Not because you’re so smart, but through blistering repetition.

You’ve learned that most people haven’t had good coffee. They think that’s what coffee is. (You used to think that yourself.) That kind of coffee, of course, you balance out with milk, soy milk, almond milk, rice milk, hemp milk, cream, and sugar.

And work like that, work so bad that people start talking about work-life balance and with standing meetings where everybody sits for half an hour and organizational culture and institutional values and birthday parties?

Work like that, you balance with life.