Category Archives: Featured

Agile vs. Lean: Explained by Cats

Over the past few years, Agile has gained popularity. This methodology emerged as a solution to manage projects with a number of unknown elements and to counter the typical waterfall method. Quality practitioners have observed the numerous similarities between this new framework and Lean. Some have speculated that Agile is simply the next generation’s version of Lean. These observations have posed the question: Is Agile the new Lean?  

ASQ Influential Voices Roundtable for December 2019

The short answer to this question is: NO.

The longer answer is one I’m going to have to hold back some emotions to answer. Why? I have two reasons.

Reason #1: There is No Magic Bullet

First, many managers are on a quest for the silver bullet — a methodology or a tool that they can implement on Monday, and reap benefits no later than Friday. Neither lean nor agile can make this happen. But it’s not uncommon to see organizations try this approach. A workgroup will set up a Kanban board or start doing daily stand-up meetings, and then talk about how they’re “doing agile.” Now that agile is in place, these teams have no reason to go any further.

Reason #2: There is Nothing New Under the Sun

Neither approach is “new” and neither is going away. Lean principles have been around since Toyota pioneered its production system in the 1960s and 1970s. The methods prioritized value and flow, with attention to reducing all types of waste everywhere in the organization. Agile emerged in the 1990s for software development, as a response to waterfall methods that couldn’t respond effectively to changes in customer requirements.

Agile modeling uses some lean principles: for example, why spend hours documenting flow charts in Visio, when you can just write one on a whiteboard, take a photo, and paste it into your documentation? Agile doesn’t have to be perfectly lean, though. It’s acceptable to introduce elements that might seem like waste into processes, as long as you maintain your ability to quickly respond to new information and changes required by customers. (For example, maybe you need to touch base with your customers several times a week. This extra time and effort is OK in agile if it helps you achieve your customer-facing goals.)

Both lean and agile are practices. They require discipline, time, and monitoring. Teams must continually hone their practice, and learn about each other as they learn together. There are no magic bullets.

Information plays a key role. Effective flow of information from strategy to action is important for lean because confusion (or incomplete communication) and forms of waste. Agile also emphasizes high-value information flows, but for slightly different purposes — that include promoting:

  • Rapid understanding
  • Rapid response
  • Rapid, targeted, and effective action

The difference is easier to understand if you watch a couple cat videos.

This Cat is A G I L E

From Parkour Cats: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCEL-DmxaAQ

This cat is continuously scanning for information about its environment. It’s young and in shape, and it navigates its environment like a pro, whizzing from floor to ceiling. If it’s about to fall off something? No problem! This cat is A G I L E and can quickly adjust. It can easily achieve its goal of scaling any of the cat towers in this video. Agile is also about trying new things to quickly assess whether they will work. You’ll see this cat attempt to climb the wall with an open mind, and upon learning the ineffectiveness of the approach, abandoning that experiment.

This Cat is L E A N

From “How Lazy Cats Drink Water”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FlVo3yUNI6E

This cat is using as LITTLE energy as possible to achieve its goal of hydration. Although this cat might be considered lazy, it is actually very intelligent, dynamically figuring out how to remove non-value-adding activity from its process at every moment. This cat is working smarter, not harder. This cat is L E A N.

Hope this has been helpful. Business posts definitely need more cat videos.

How the Baldrige Process Can Enrich Any Management System

Another wave of reviewing applications for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award (MBNQA) is complete, and I am exhausted — and completely fulfilled and enriched!

That’s the way this process works. As a National Examiner, you will be frustrated, you may cry, and you may think your team of examiners will never come to consensus on the right words to say to the applicant! But because there is a structured process and a discipline, it always happens, and everyone learns.

I’ve been working with the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) for almost 20 years. In the beginning, I used it as a template. Need to develop a Workforce Management Plan that’s solid, and integrates well with leadership, governance, and operations? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 5). Need to beef up your strategic planning process so you do the right thing and get it done right? There’s a framework for that (Criterion 2).

Need to develop Standard Work in any area of your organization, and don’t know where to start (or, want to make sure you covered all the bases)? There’s a framework for that.

Every year, 300 National Examiners are competitively selected from industry experts and senior leaders who care about performance and improvement, and want to share their expertise with others. The stakes are high… after all, this is the only award of its kind sponsored by the highest levels of government!

Once you become a National Examiner (my first year was 2009), you get to look at the Criteria Questions through a completely different lens. You start to see the rich layers of its structure. You begin to appreciate that this guidebook was carefully and iteratively crafted over three decades, drawing from the experiences of executives and senior leaders across a wide swath of industries, faced with both common and unique challenges.

The benefits to companies that are assessed for the award are clear and actionable, but helping others helps examiners, too. Yes, we put in a lot of volunteer hours on evenings and weekends (56 total, for me, this year) — but I got to go deep with one more organization. I got to see how they think of themselves, how they designed their organization to meet their strategic goals, how they act on that design. Our team of examiners got to discuss the strengths we noticed individually, the gaps that concerned us, and we worked together to come to consensus on the most useful and actionable recommendations for the applicant so they can advance to the next stage of quality maturity.

One of the things I learned this year was how well Baldrige complements other frameworks like ISO 9001 and lean. You may have a solid process in place for managing operations, leading continuous improvement events, and sustaining the improvements. You may have a robust strategic planning process, with clear connections between overall objectives and individual actions.

What Baldrige can add to this, even if you’re already a high performance organization, is:

  • tighten the gaps
  • call out places where standard work should be defined
  • identify new breakthrough opportunities for improvement
  • help everyone in your workforce see and understand the connections between people, processes, and technologies

The whitespace — those connections and seams — are where the greatest opportunities for improvement and innovation are hiding. The Criteria Questions in the Baldrige Excellence Framework (BEF) can help you illuminate them.

An Easy Way to Make Minimum Viable Product (MVP) Totally Not Viable

The classic viral MVP cartoon from Henrik Kniberg (https://blog.crisp.se/2016/01/25/henrikkniberg/making-sense-of-mvp)

5 minute read

The Minimum Viable Product (MVP) concept has taken off over the past few years. Indeed, its heart is in the right place. MVP encourages product managers to scope features and functionality carefully so that customer needs are satisfied at every stage of development — not just in a sweeping finale at the end of development.

It’s a great way to shorten time-to-value and test new market concepts before committing. Zappos, for example, started by posting pictures of shoes on the internet without having an inventory. They wanted to quickly test to see whether people would even consider buying shoes without trying them on.

Unfortunately, adhering to MVP won’t guarantee success thanks to one critical caveat. And that is: if your product already exists, you have to consider your product’s base state. What can your customers do right now with your product? Failure to take this into consideration can be disastrous.

An Example: Your Web Site

Here’s what I mean: let’s say the product is your company’s web site. If you’re starting from scratch, a perfectly suitable MVP would be a splash page with one or two sentences about what you do. Maybe you’d add some contact information. Customers will be able to find you and communicate with you, and you’ll be providing greater value than without a web presence.

But if you already have a 5000-page site online, that solution is not going to fly. Customers and prospects returning to your site will wonder why it vaporized. If they’re relying on the content or functionality you previously provided, chances are they will not be happy. Confused, they may choose to go elsewhere.

The moral of the story is: in defining the scope of your MVP, take into consideration what your customers can already do, and don’t dare give them less in your next release.

Imperfect Action is Better Than Perfect Inaction: What Harry Truman Can Teach Us About Loss Functions (with an intro to ggplot)

One of the heuristics we use at Intelex to guide decision making is former US President Truman’s advice that “imperfect action is better than perfect inaction.” What it means is — don’t wait too long to take action, because you don’t want to miss opportunities. Good advice, right?

When I share this with colleagues, I often hear a response like: “that’s dangerous!” To which my answer is “well sure, sometimes, but it can be really valuable depending on how you apply it!” The trick is: knowing how and when.

Here’s how it can be dangerous. For example, statistical process control (SPC) exists to keep us from tampering with processes — from taking imperfect action based on random variation, which will not only get us nowhere, but can exacerbate the problem we were trying to solve. The secret is to apply Truman’s heuristic based on an understanding of exactly how imperfect is OK with your organization, based on your risk appetite. And this is where loss functions can help.

Along the way, we’ll demonstrate how to do a few important things related to plotting with the ggplot package in R, gradually adding in new elements to the plot so you can see how it’s layered, including:

  • Plot a function based on its equation
  • Add text annotations to specific locations on a ggplot
  • Draw horizontal and vertical lines on a ggplot
  • Draw arrows on a ggplot
  • Add extra dots to a ggplot
  • Eliminate axis text and axis tick marks

What is a Loss Function?

A loss function quantifies how unhappy you’ll be based on the accuracy or effectiveness of a prediction or decision. In the simplest case, you control one variable (x) which leads to some cost or loss (y). For the case we’ll examine in this post, the variables are:

  • How much time and effort you put in to scoping and characterizing the problem (x); we assume that time+effort invested leads to real understanding
  • How much it will cost you (y); can be expressed in terms of direct costs (e.g. capex + opex) as well as opportunity costs or intangible costs (e.g. damage to reputation)

Here is an example of what this might look like, if you have a situation where overestimating (putting in too much x) OR underestimating (putting in too little x) are both equally bad. In this case, x=10 is the best (least costly) decision or prediction:

plot of a typical squared loss function
# describe the equation we want to plot
parabola <- function(x) ((x-10)^2)+10  

# initialize ggplot with a dummy dataset
library(ggplot)
p <- ggplot(data = data.frame(x=0), mapping = aes(x=x)) 

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) +
     xlab("x = the variable you can control") + 
     ylab("y = cost of loss ($$)")

In regression (and other techniques where you’re trying to build a model to predict a quantitative dependent variable), mean square error is a squared loss function that helps you quantify error. It captures two facts: the farther away you are from the correct answer the worse the error is — and both overestimating and underestimating is bad (which is why you square the values). Across this and related techniques, the loss function captures these characteristics:

From http://www.cs.cornell.edu/courses/cs4780/2015fa/web/lecturenotes/lecturenote10.html

Not all loss functions have that general shape. For classification, for example, the 0-1 loss function tells the story that if you get a classification wrong (x < 0) you incur all the penalty or loss (y=1), whereas if you get it right (x > 0) there is no penalty or loss (y=0):

# set up data frame of red points
d.step <- data.frame(x=c(-3,0,0,3), y=c(1,1,0,0))

# note that the loss function really extends to x=-Inf and x=+Inf
ggplot(d.step) + geom_step(mapping=aes(x=x, y=y), direction="hv") +
     geom_point(mapping=aes(x=x, y=y), color="red") + 
     xlab("y* f(x)") + ylab("Loss (Cost)") +  
     ggtitle("0-1 Loss Function for Classification")

Use the Loss Function to Make Strategic Decisions

So let’s get back to Truman’s advice. Ideally, we want to choose the x (the amount of time and effort to invest into project planning) that results in the lowest possible cost or loss. That’s the green point at the nadir of the parabola:

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen")

Costs get higher as we move up the x-axis:

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=100, label="$$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=75, label="$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=50, label="$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=25, label="$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=0, label="$ 0", color="green")

And time+effort grows as we move along the x-axis (we might spend minutes on a problem at the left of the plot, or weeks to years by the time we get to the right hand side):

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=100, label="$$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=75, label="$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=50, label="$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=25, label="$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=0, label="$ 0", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=2, y=0, label="minutes\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=20, y=0, label="months\nof effort", size=3)

Planning too Little = Planning too Much = Costly

What this means is — if we don’t plan, or we plan just a little bit, we incur high costs. We might make the wrong decision! Or miss critical opportunities! But if we plan too much — we’re going to spend too much time, money, and/or effort compared to the benefit of the solution we provide.


p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=100, label="$$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=75, label="$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=50, label="$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=25, label="$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=0, label="$ 0", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=2, y=0, label="minutes\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=20, y=0, label="months\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text",x=3, y=85, label="Little (or no) Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=18, y=85, label="Paralysis by Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     geom_vline(xintercept=0, linetype="dotted") + geom_hline(yintercept=0, linetype="dotted")

The trick is to FIND THAT CRITICAL LEVEL OF TIME and EFFORT invested to gain information and understanding about your problem… and then if you’re going to err, make sure you err towards the left — if you’re going to make a mistake, make the mistake that costs less and takes less time to make:

arrow.x <- c(10, 10, 10, 10)
arrow.y <- c(35, 50, 65, 80)
arrow.x.end <- c(6, 6, 6, 6)
arrow.y.end <- arrow.y
d <- data.frame(arrow.x, arrow.y, arrow.x.end, arrow.y.end)

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=100, label="$$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=75, label="$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=50, label="$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=25, label="$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=0, label="$ 0", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=2, y=0, label="minutes\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=20, y=0, label="months\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text",x=3, y=85, label="Little (or no) Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=18, y=85, label="Paralysis by Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     geom_vline(xintercept=0, linetype="dotted") + 
     geom_hline(yintercept=0, linetype="dotted") +
     geom_vline(xintercept=10) +
     geom_segment(data=d, mapping=aes(x=arrow.x, y=arrow.y, xend=arrow.x.end, yend=arrow.y.end),
     arrow=arrow(), color="blue", size=2) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=8, y=95, size=2.3, color="blue",
     label="we prefer to be\non this side of the\nloss function")

Moral of the Story

The moral of the story is… imperfect action can be expensive, but perfect action is ALWAYS expensive. Spend less to make mistakes and learn from them, if you can! This is one of the value drivers for agile methodologies… agile practices can help improve communication and coordination so that the loss function is minimized.

## FULL CODE FOR THE COMPLETELY ANNOTATED CHART ##
# If you change the equation for the parabola, annotations may shift and be in the wrong place.
parabola <- function(x) ((x-10)^2)+10

my.title <- expression(paste("Imperfect Action Can Be Expensive. But Perfect Action is ", italic("Always"), " Expensive."))

arrow.x <- c(10, 10, 10, 10)
arrow.y <- c(35, 50, 65, 80)
arrow.x.end <- c(6, 6, 6, 6)
arrow.y.end <- arrow.y
d <- data.frame(arrow.x, arrow.y, arrow.x.end, arrow.y.end)

p + stat_function(fun=parabola) + xlim(-2,23) + ylim(-2,100) + 
     xlab("Time Spent and Information Gained (e.g. person-weeks)") + ylab("$$ COST $$") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=10, y=5, label="Some Effort, Lowest Cost!!", color="darkgreen") +
     geom_point(aes(x=10, y=10), colour="darkgreen") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=100, label="$$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=75, label="$$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=50, label="$$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=25, label="$$", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=0, y=0, label="$ 0", color="green") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=2, y=0, label="minutes\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=20, y=0, label="months\nof effort", size=3) +
     annotate(geom="text",x=3, y=85, label="Little (or no) Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     annotate(geom="text", x=18, y=85, label="Paralysis by Planning\nHIGH COST", color="red") +
     geom_vline(xintercept=0, linetype="dotted") + 
     geom_hline(yintercept=0, linetype="dotted") +
     geom_vline(xintercept=10) +
     geom_segment(data=d, mapping=aes(x=arrow.x, y=arrow.y, xend=arrow.x.end, yend=arrow.y.end),
     arrow=arrow(), color="blue", size=2) +
     annotate(geom="text", x=8, y=95, size=2.3, color="blue",
     label="we prefer to be\non this side of the\nloss function") +
     ggtitle(my.title) +
     theme(axis.text.x=element_blank(), axis.ticks.x=element_blank(),
     axis.text.y=element_blank(), axis.ticks.y=element_blank()) 

Now sometimes you need to make this investment! (Think nuclear power plants, or constructing aircraft carriers or submarines.) Don’t get caught up in getting your planning investment perfectly optimized — but do be aware of the trade-offs, and go into the decision deliberately, based on the risk level (and regulatory nature) of your industry, and your company’s risk appetite.

The Achilles Heel of Customer Journey Mapping

Journeying through western Wyoming in August 2011. Image Credit: me.

Achilles was that guy in Greek mythology whose mother, when he was born, wanted to protect him soooo much that she held him by the heel and dipped him in the power-giving waters of the River Styx — making him bullet proof (and much more; no bullets then), except at the heel, because for some reason she didn’t think about just dunking him a few inches deeper. Maybe she didn’t want to get her hand wet? Who knows. (In the research literature this is called perverse unintended consequences — it happens in business too. You try to make an improvement or protect against a particular hazard and oops, you made it worse.)

Customer Journey Maps (CJM)

I’ve been reading a lot about the Customer Journey Maps (CJM) technique used in marketing (see Folstad & Kvale (2018) for a fantastic and comprehensive review). It formalizes the very good suggestion that when you’re trying to figure out how to engage with prospects, you should put yourself in their shoes. Empathize with them. Figure out what they need, and when they need it. Then, identify how your company can not only meet them there — but connect with them in a compelling way.

CJM also goes beyond conceptual modeling. For example, Harbich et al (2017) uses Markov models to predict the most likely path and timing of a customer’s journey. Bernard & Andritsos (2018) mine actual customer journeys from sales force automation systems and use them in a Monte Carlo like way to uncover patterns. There’s even a patent on one method for mining journey data.

Benefits of Journey Maps

Annette Franz says that “done right, maps help companies in many ways, including to…

  • Understand experiences.
  • Design [new] experiences.
  • Implement and activate new experiences.
  • Communicate and share experiences.
  • Align the organization… get executive commitment for the customer experience (CX) strategy, get organizational adoption of the customer-centric focus, provide a line of sight to the customer for employees, and help employees understand how they impact the experience.”

But like Achilles, Customer Journey Mapping has a vulnerable spot that can wipe out all its potential benefits. (Fortunately, success lies in the way your organization wields the tool… so there’s a remedy.)

The Achilles Heel of CJM

Here’s the problem: creating a journey map does indeed ensure that you focus on the customer, but does not ensure that you’re focusing on that customer’s experience. Diagnosing Voice of the Customer (VoC) is hard [long explanation; shorter explanation], and there are tons of ways to do it! Through journey mapping, you may accidentally be focusing on your company’s experience of that customer throughout the stages of the journey. 

Diagnosing the Symptoms

How can you tell? Here’s a non-exhaustive list of ways to diagnose the symptoms, based on recent research and observing companies who do this since about 2009 (please add in the comments if you’ve observed any other ones):

  • Do you ever hear “How can we move the customer from [this stage] to [the next stage]?”
  • … or “How do we get more customers to join us [at this stage of the journey]?”
  • … or maybe “How can we get customers to [take this action] [at this stage of the journey]?”
  • Does your customer journey address differences in customer personas, or do you have a one-size-fits-all map? Rosenbaum et al (2016) says “We contend that most customer journey maps are critically flawed. They assume all customers of a particular organization experience the same organizational touchpoints and view these touchpoints as equally important.”
  • Do you systematically gather, analyze, and interpret data about what your current customers are experiencing, or do you just kind of guess or rely on your “experience”? (Hint: subconscious biases are always in play, and you’ll never know they’re there because they are subconscious).
  • Do you systematically gather, analyze, and interpret data about what your prospects would benefit from experiencing with/through you, or do you just kind of guess or rely on your “experience”?
  • Do you focus on ease of use over utility? (Just like perfect is the enemy of perfectly OK, easy can be the enemy of possible if you’re not careful. This often shows up in the journey mapping process.)

Like I mentioned earlier, this is definitely not a comprehensive list.

The Solution

What’s the solution? ASK. Ask your customer what they need. Find out about their pain points. Ask them what would make it easier for them to do their job. Finally, ask them if you’re getting it right! And even though I said “customer” — I do mean you should ask more than one of them, because needs and interests vary from person to person and industry to industry. Just interacting with one customer isn’t going to cut it.

Ask early, ask often! (As people learn and evolve, their needs change.)

Improving the Method

How can we improve the quality of customer journey mapping? Share your insights and lessons learned! CJM is a promising technique for helping organizations align around empathetic value propositions, but just like agile methods, it’s got to be applied strategically and deliberately… and then checked on a continuous basis to make sure the map is in tune with reality.