Lean In

My experience of moving to lean

A bit of a different blog post this time as I wanted to write from a more personal view point, mainly because I feel so much ownership of moving KMP Digitata to a lean business.  The desire was driven from a frustration with a waste of time that was the traditional spec document. 

I’d reached breaking point with it – so often we’d craft a spec document that detailed down how everything would work, what fields should exist in the CMS, how the site should look and interact and any number of possible use and test cases we could cover.  The documents would run to 10’s if not 100’s of pages and often took a good week to write, the problem was that in the end they were at best a millstone round our necks, removing any flexibility we had to create a solution and at worst, totally wrong and therefore ignored.

I’d find that at the end of what was then our waterfall build process we’d review what we built and there would be things that didn’t match the spec, things that had been added outside of the spec, things that we hadn’t built.  I’d find myself answering questions around functionality with “it’s in the spec” and I’d hear answers like “I don’t know, I didn’t read it in that much detail”

There is a better way 

Frustrated with the waste of my time, I figured that there must be a better way, and there was.  We were in the process of introducing Agile at KMP and had just got to a point where we were happy with our project management process,  our head of UX introduced me to lean UX and it intrigued me, so I dug further into Lean – I read voraciously on the subject, talked to anyone I could about Lean and Lean principles and it resonated.

I carried one principle above all forward – Don’t waste valuable things

And there were so many valuable things we were wasting, the most valuable of all was time. Time that you can’t get back. We were wasting resource, paper, server space, electricity, miles travelled.  But I kept coming back to the time issue.

We had to develop a culture that did not waste, that questioned things (though we were already good at that), that empowered everyone to pull a metaphorical andon cord when they felt there was waste. We’d create an agency that was built on valuing things and focusing on the most valuable things first.  We’d create an agency where we’d drive exceptional value for clients by solving complex problems using technology at a blistering pace.

A new model 

It took us nearly 2 years to get here, but get here we did, and I’m proud of what we have achieved.  The road hasn’t been easy and we only got here thanks to some forward-thinking clients, and exceptional team of people with a sense of curiosity and bravery.

Our new agency model takes all of the stuff that was already great about KMP Digitata:

  • A focus on the human
  • Results driven
  • Empowered people
  • Curiosity
  • Quality
  • Creativity

And we added to it

  • Less waste
  • Move at pace
  • Just enough documentation that evolves
  • Shared understanding and goals
  • Continuous improvement

We’re now enjoying a way of working that puts us closer to our clients, fosters innovation and exploration, drives improvement and lets us help our clients move with blistering pace digitally.  As a result we’re more productive, deliver better outcomes and do a lot less overtime.

There have been a few challenges we had to overcome and becoming Lean is not an easy process –
It seems that some organisations and people are just not wired that way, and that’s OK, this works for us and leads us to working with a certain type of client.  It might not work for you and that is OK too. Here are a few things to watch out for if you do want to be more lean:

(Some) People (Developers) like the comfort a spec brings

Even if they don’t read it, there are a lot of developers out there who like the comfort of a specification, it is more binary – you built it to spec or not.  When there are a multitude of ways to achieve an outcome you need talented, problem solving developers who enjoy the scope of exploration.  

We navigated this part of our journey carefully, we worked as a team to find out what ‘enough’ documentation is – and the truth is, this varies dependant on the project. But we work from the end result backward until we have enough and that involves collaboration. In most cases we’ll look at the outcomes, journeys, assumptions and opportunities, we’ll work towards a list of desired outcomes and functionality – we’re not afraid to avoid user stories here, we just try not to solve the problem with our requirements. 

We quickly move to a more visual prototype and test it, as a team with real users, we feed that back into our process and add to our documentation (we’ve found confluence and Jira work for us on this front).  We tweak and experiment with this process, for example we’ve piloted google sprints and incorporated the best of that and our development team embrace the unknown and out of that comes brilliant solutions like the award-winning timeline for Aberdeen Airport.

A perception that overtime = good busy

We had to work hard to overcome this one, we have a team that works exceptionally hard and that will move heaven and earth to get the job done.  

We pride ourselves in getting our clients to their desired results faster – for example, we’ve just completed a CRM project for one of our clients to integrate with MS Dynamics that in under a month has saved them thousands in lost productivity.  We delivered this at pace within working hours all by being focused on the outcome of stopping manual processes that were costing the client a fortune.  We thought creatively and simplified the approach outlined by the CRM consultants so that we could work with the internal team and deliver the project at a fraction of the time and budget.  

The problem is that to get here we had to shift culturally, and ensure that being here all hours is seen as a failure – not as “good busy.”  There is a whole other blog post I could write on this, but the key thing is this has had a massive impact, we’re more productive now that we’ve ever been and by simply focusing on less waste we all get more free time. As a team we still sometimes hear the doubting voices that see our Fika break as “lazy and unproductive” but we’ve stopped worrying about those voices as more often than not they get left behind as we outpace them.

People always seem to gravitate to the old way

I’m not sure whether it is a psychological thing, or whether we are all just so engrained in a way of working that it can be uncomfortable to change the way we work – even when it is clear that it is for the better and we’ve had times where we’ve slipped back into the comfort of the old way – I’ve been especially prone to that.  Thankfully the team is strong and we support one another so we’ve managed to pull ourselves back and have re-enforced the feeling that we were going in the right direction.  It still happens to this day.  I think we always will, it is just part of the human condition.

To help us stick to our principles (and to show anyone that joins us afresh what we are about) we’ve codified this into a manifesto and a way of working (see our earlier blog post).  We’re still on this journey, but I’m confident, and proud enough to say that we’ve now become what we set out to a couple of years ago.

That being said we’ve just moved the goalposts again, I mean why would we want to stand still?




Footnote: Simon's lean reading list

If you are interested I can help you on your lean journey, in the meantime, here are some very clever people, who wrote some great books that helped me get here:

Lean UX


Lean Startup

The five dysfunctions of a team