Do Agile, Toyota Production Method and Lean Construction Go Together?

What do agile, Toyota Production Management and construction have in common? Everything. The story is told by Mary Poppendieck in her talk, The Tyranny of the Plan. A big, big thank you to Chris Gagne for transcribing the talk.

From Hardware to Software and Back Again

Why does a coder have anything useful to say about construction? Years ago Japanese companies started selling videotape in the U.S. below the cost of American vendors. One of those vendors was 3M. It set up a team to learn how the Japanese did it. 3M made Poppendieck, one of its process control programmers, part of the team. This was long before Lean. All 3M’s team could find was a terrible translation of Taiichi Ohno’s book. Without options or time, 3M had no choice but to give Ohno’s ideas a try.

3M’s US plant began to beat Japanese videotape vendors on price and quality.

Poppendieck continued to explore the convergence of Toyota Production Method and code development. She coined the term lean software development in a book by the same name, published in 2003.

The Problem: On-time-and-budget Delivery

Mary coaches software developers on Lean and Agile and she noticed a disturbing trend. Project management tools were more sophisticated than ever. But on-time-and-budget delivery seemed to be less and less predictable.

The cadence of pacemaker tasks dictates the project's pace.

The cadence of pacemaker tasks dictates the project’s pace.

So Poppendieck looked at old-school project management. That is, the era before computers. She discovered that builders used to be the masters of delivery.

In the 1920s New York general contractors put up 60- and 70-floor buildings in 12-18 months as a matter of routine. Starrett Brothers and Ekene designed and built the Empire State Building in 18 months. Between September 1929 and April 1931, 102 floors were erected. Tenants began moving in during May 1931.

Because of the Crash of 1929 and World War 2 the Empire State Building was the last skyscraper built in New York for nearly 20 years. The knowledge died out due to old age and war.

Today many believe that government red tape prevents us from matching the pace of the 1920s. Poppendieck found that today’s labor laws are modeled on the best practices of the 1920s-era skyscraper projects. Those buildings are still sound today. So builders didn’t skimp on materials or workmanship to speed up work.

Lost Secrets Found Again

The secret  was rediscovered when the lost project notebooks of the general contractor on the Empire State Building were found a few years ago.

Based on decades of doing and learning the builders discovered that “pacemaker tasks” controlled entire projects. For the Empire State Building the tasks were:

  1. Structural steel
  2. Concrete floors
  3. Windows and trim
  4. Cladding

How these tasks are managed is critical. One key is for work crews on these pacesetter tasks to maintain a steady cadence. Another key is to decouple the pacesetter tasks from each other. These two insights helped the builders to eliminate cascading delays.

This is what Ohno means when he writes about Flow. It is the secret of the Toyota Production Method and it’s been hiding in plain sight.

Many still think Lean is about waste. But waste is only a symptom of disrupted Flow. You can eliminate waste and it will pop up again and again until you fix whatever obstructs Flow.

The Magic of Goal, Deadline and Budget

Poppendieck noticed another important difference between then and now.

Today we follow a design-budget-build sequence. Delivery date is a byproduct.

Back then, New York builders used deadline, budget and total number of floors as the driving factors. Design was the byproduct of these constraints.


Walking vs Driving – which is better?

Who knew a pint of Ben & Jerry's has less calories than a gallon of gasoline?

A well done infographic is fabulous communication tool. Why? because it caters to the way the brain works. The infographic at right is a great example.

Before we dive into the details, let’s take a very short detour into the brain. Much has been made of the fact that brains are poor at dealing with complexity. Recently a new understanding has begun to emerge from neuroscience labs. In fact our brains have evolved some very clever techniques to work around this weakness. Our brains practice “chunking.” Chunking is both very descriptive of what our brains do and a sign that at least some scientists have a sense of humor.

Neuroscientists coined the term chunking to describe the way our brains process complexity. Instead of trying to track every fact the brain quickly associates the stream of incoming data with some existing high-level representation it already has stored. So you don’t have to recall each and every detail. All you recall is the chunk. And somehow when we recall the chunk we get all the detail associated with it. Nobody knows how, exactly.

The car vs human infographic juxtaposes two forms of transportation that couldn’t be more dissimilar: your car and your feet. But it does this with very simple forms, and lots of white space. Detail and density are the enemies when your brain is prepping for a good chunking. The graphic shows the energy content of the fuel of both vehicles, the burn rate at cruising speed, and the waste each transport system produces.

All this encourages you to explore the relationships. Cruising at 60 mph your car burns 1.125 calories a minute. At your body’s 4 mph cruising speed you burn about 5 calories per minute. It’s easy to imagine the implications. For instance the graphic shows that a car produces about 30 pounds of CO2 per day. The average car commute is 32 miles round trip. You  can walk that distance in 8 hours.   And depending on who’s counting, in a walk of that duration you will emit between 1 and 2 pounds of CO2.

So what this infographic does is put you into the optimal state for learning, known as a flow state. That is, a state where the balance of challenge,  concentration and skills are rewarded with insight.So you’re more likely to remember just how energy intensive driving your car really is.