Lean software development

The other groups at my current employer make fun of our group for having too many meetings. Our group makes fun of them for not getting anything done. (Okay, I’m exaggerating. Mostly.) But it’s true that meetings — however helpful they might be in keeping the stakeholders (or in XP terms, “customers”) and the developers on the same page — aren’t development. In lean manufacturing terms, meetings are waste.

I’ve talked to Jon at Gemba a few times over the years about how lean manufacturing techniques might be applied to software development, and I’ve always been a bit wishy-washy about it — somewhere between “well, agile is kind of like lean” and “how far can you really go applying techniques for repeatable operations on physical objects to something as variable and metaphysical as software, anyway?”

Now — well, actually, some time back, it looks like — along comes David Anderson, formerly of Microsoft, now of Corbis (the Getty Images competitor that Bill Gates originally set up specifically to digitize the stuff he wanted on the flat panels in his mansion), who’s not just scratching his head and talking about it, he’s doing it. With a fifty-person team and great success, apparently.

There are some tweaks. Cross-training is harder when you’ve got specialized business analysts (accountants, graphics people). Tasks are inherently variable, so there’s not really any concept of takt time. But a lot carries over, and while (if I do say so myself) I think my group’s process is already pretty lean-ish and — being that we get a lot done, keep our customers happy, and all always go home at reasonable hours — pretty damn good, I can already see where we could borrow stuff from Anderson’s kanban system to make it even better.

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