C. Keith Ray

C. Keith Ray writes about and develops software in multiple platforms and languages, including iOS® and Macintosh®.
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Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lean in a Nutshell

(originally posted 2003 Dec. 31 on my old blog-site)

On the Lean Development mailing list, John Roth summarizes the heart of Lean: (my emphasis)

Lean is the opposite of fat, and the only basic principle of lean thinking is to eliminate waste. As the saying goes, all else is commentary, or at least an elaboration on that one basic thought: find a faster, better, cheaper way to add value to the product, and do it at all scales, from the total, end to end process on down to the individual practices used to construct it.

[...] In manufacturing, the first exercise is to squeeze as much in-process inventory out of the value chain as possible. Doing that will force a huge number of other beneficial changes.

In Lean Software Development, the first exercise is to go to fixed length iterations, where you have a production quality deployable piece of software at the end of each iteration. Doing that one thing will force a huge number of other changes in the process. I can't emphasize those two criteria too much: production quality and deployable. If you need further testing, signoffs or work from some other department after the iteration ends, you don't have it.[...]

Let's look at the seven core principles of lean, and compare them to Extreme Programming practices:

1. Eliminate Waste. Waste is anything that doesn't contribute to adding value to the product. One-hour status meetings waste time, so XP has 15-minute daily standup meetings instead. Excessive documentation and planning wastes time and energy, so XP recommends creating just enough documentation and planning, at appropriate levels of detail. Debugging is a waste, so XP does test-driven-development, which reduces debugging time and reduces time spent manually testing. Slow communication to/from the Customer/Domain Expert is a waste, so XP recommends having the Customer on-site.

2. Amplify Learning. Creating software is a 'learning' process. Typically developers do this learning alone, and that knowledge doesn't spread around to other developers very quickly. XP does coding in pairs to spread knowledge around faster. (Code reviews can also do this, but with higher overhead.) The Customer/Domain Expert is learning, too, as he sees his ideas implemented and developers ask him for details needed for acceptance tests. XP teams often do Retrospectives each iteration to bring learning to the whole team. Having all the developers and Customer working in a "war-room" also helps the whole team learn together.

3. Decide as Late as Possible. In Release Planning, stories are "promises for future communication" - the Customer/Domain Expert describes each feature/story in just enough detail for the engineers to provide a rough estimate. In Iteration Planning, the Customer describes the story in more detail, so the engineers can break it down into a task-list and/or rough design. The Customer/Tester specifies acceptance tests, which test the "what" not the "how", and then the programmers do test-driven-development where "what" tests and "how" coding are interleaved in a short cycle.

4. Deliver as Fast as Possible. "Simple Code" does everything necessary for the current requirements, but not more, so the team can ship it quickly. Keeping the quality high via test-driven-development avoids coding on an unstable foundation, wasting time debugging. Having the Customer/Domain Expert within range of spoken questions allows getting requirements into code in a minimum of time.

5. Empower the Team. XP encourages all team members to design, test, and code, instead of restricting those activities to a few. It encourages people to sign up for tasks, instead of assigning them to those who may not be as willing or as able. Anyone can improve code at any time, as long as the tests continue to run - allowing new learnings to be reflected in the code/design.

6. Build Integrity In. With short iterations where something isn't "done" until it passes (automated and manual) acceptance testing, and test-driven-development insuring that every line of code is tested, the XP team always builds on top of working software. In every iteration, all automated testing is repeated frequently, detecting as soon as possible any "breakage" of code. Any bugs found by manual testing or automated tests failing are not just fixed, but also force the creation of new automated tests.

7. See the Whole. Before beginning the first iteration, the XP team has a release plan. The Customer/Domain Expert has created that plan with the development team, and together they maintain and update the plan throughout the project, measuring and charting progress. Code is only implemented according to the current and previous requirements, so there is no work wasted on a requirement that may be dropped... however, engineers are not going to write code that will be difficult to adapt to that future requirement in that future comes around. To use the (not very good bridge-building analogy): the draw-bridge may not have motors in this iteration, but the builders are not going to build the bridge out of stone in this iteration, ignoring the need for mobility in the future.

By the way, I hate the "bridge-building" analogy, because writing software isn't building, it is designing. Running the compiler and linker associated "build" scripts, etc., are the "building". If building a bridge were as quick and easy as running a compiler and linker, we'd build bridges multiple times in order to test them. Any comparison of software development to bridges should be to designing bridges - an iterative, learning activity where multiple solutions are designed and tested (via mathematical/computer models or physical models) until all the requirements are met.

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