Melinda Harrington is a Senior Agile Delivery Manager at Bupa. In this article, she reflects on her visit to the Baum Cycle Factory as part of the Agile Australia 2016 Social Day.
You know your life has changed when you leave a factory tour enthusiastically telling your friends and family:
There was a real LIVE kanban board!
For the benefit of those (like my friends and family) who don’t understand my excitement, in Agile software development we have digital representations of kanban boards. We make them physical by writing things on post-its, however these aren’t tangible things. The one at the Baum Bicycle factory was a physical thing. The “board” was a series of big wooden boxes that slide from right to left.
If you are new to Agile and Lean thinking you may not realise the connection between building software and building something like a bicycle. Actually, the fundamentals for Agile software development started on the factory floor.
These big boxes represent the order in which bicycles are being built. In the boxes are the pieces that need to be collected before a bike can be started. On the left are those that are closest to being built. On the right are the bicycles that have been recently added to the backlog. Like a virtual kanban board, this makes the priority of backlog items visible. Seems simple. The concept is simple – but pulling it off isn’t easy. What it represents is a clear focus on the order in which things, in this case bicycles, will be done.
One thing that is interesting (and courageous in my opinion) is that the board is first come first served. The reason why that’s interesting (and courageous) is because the kinds of people who can afford to buy a bike like this are the kind that aren’t used to waiting their turn. It’s not easy to change the order and it’s really obvious if you do. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, they aren’t going to stop doing what they are doing to go and work on your bike. That allows everybody building bicycles to focus on one bike at a time. It also has the advantage of not having too many expensive bike parts in play at a given time.
The factory tour was part of Agile Australia 2016. I am not an expert in building bicycles. Actually, going to something like Agile Australia makes me think I am not an expert in anything. I am, however, somebody who helps teams discover ways that they can be more successful using what we’ve learned from others. That’s why we were there.
There are some aspects to Lean and Agile thinking that I found counter-intuitive when I was first introduced to them. I believe in them because I recognise that lots of people have demonstrated that they actually do work. One of those things is the concept of starting the most important thing and focussing completely until it is done. It may seem surprising that there are so few bicycles being built at any time. That is WIP, Work in Progress. You don’t want things to pile up at any point. That’s particularly challenging when some aspects of building these bikes take years to master – and some people will never get the feel.
One of the things that resonated with me was the visibility of progress for the people who talk to the customers. I wish I had that years ago. I used to work at a company that built adaptive keyboards and the software that accompanied the keyboards. I worked on the software but I also took the calls from customers who were getting their keyboards repaired. Customers wanted to know when they would get their keyboards back. Sometimes I would wander out the back to see if I could figure that out. If the keyboard wasn’t actually on the table at the time, I couldn’t tell. If I was feeling brave, I could ask the people who fixed them. That made them angry and I didn’t get useful information anyway. So I would go back with a guess. Having a system where everything is visible to everybody sounds fantastic. If you are transparent and honest, customers can deal with waiting because everyone hates uncertainty. In the Baum Cycle Factory, everybody can see where the bikes are on the production line.
In my first software product development job, there was no methodology, we just figured out what made sense to us. Common sense we like to call it. The problem with common sense is that it’s actually just opinion. You might think the same thing happens with a Lean, Agile approach. That’s not the case. Agile doesn’t mean “just make it up.” It means learn from others, try experiments (with a specific goal in mind), learn from your experiment, if it works – do more of it, if it doesn’t work – stop.
I recognise elements of what I do in this factory but I could also see that their experiments are specific to this challenge. There are visual boards on the walls – they aren’t the same as the ones I’ve made – but they aim for the same goals of transparency and communication.
Don’t take this the wrong way, but when we got to the end and saw the finished frames, I thought: “Is that it?” I say that because I saw all the hard work and time that went into getting to that point and it’s hard to see what’s different about these bikes – especially when they don’t even have wheels. I guess with anything, when you are not an expert, you can’t necessarily tell the difference. The tour impressed on me how extraordinary these bikes are. Most of us never have things made specifically for us by experts. I know that the magic of these bikes is the way they are built specifically for the individual who rides them. There are some things you can’t see but the quality speaks for itself.
I can understand intellectually that there is a correlation between a factory and working in an office. However, I haven’t tried transferring these skills to a factory floor. I would have been pretty scared to take this one on. This doesn’t really look like the work environment I am used to. I think the team that tackled this embodied the Agile value of courage.
Courage is also something that comes to mind when meeting Darren Baum. Most of us who experiment with Lean and Agile aren’t putting our own livelihoods on the line. When you risk your whole business because you believe this is the way to work, that’s courageous. When you deal with the constant doubts of others, it’s difficult to stand your ground and keep believing. More pedal power to you.