Saturday, September 14, 2013

Artist Island

Once there was an island called Artist Island. The people on this island made a very good living by gathering stones from Stone Island, forming them into stunning jewels and selling the jewelry to people in the Land of Festivals. At first, people from Artist Island visited the Land of Festivals to see what kind of jewelry would be popular and then scouted out the right kinds of stones on Stone Island. But that was not a very efficient use of the time of these excellent artisans, so after a while the people from Stone Island were asked to bring their stones to Artist Island. Later, to further improve efficiency, the Stone People were asked to deliver the finished jewelry to the Land of Festivals. Since the Stone People were now the ones in contact with the Festival People, they became responsible for ordering the jewelry as well.

The people of Artist Island continued their search for efficiency. It took a long time to shape a pile of stones into a pile of jewels, and by the time a pile was done, the Stone People complained that the designs were out of date. So the artisans learned about Lean and decided to reduce work-in-progress. They worked on stone piles for no longer than two weeks, and brought smaller piles of jewels to the boat dock for shipment to the Land of Festivals.  However, the transport boats were still quite large and took some time to fill up, so it still took a long time for jewelry to get to the Festival People, and the designs were still out of date.

Then the Stone People came up with an idea. If they invested in smaller boats, they could deliver jewelry to the Land of Festivals in much smaller batches, shortly after it was made. Gradually they switched from large boats to small boats, and as they did, they started using the same small boats to deliver stones to Artist Island. Now a stone could be dug out of a mine, taken to Artist Island, formed into a jewel and delivered to the Land of Festivals in about a month. The jewelry designs were much more up-to-date, and sales improved.

But there was still a lot of unsold jewelry in warehouses in the Land of Festivals, because sometimes the jewels had flaws and sometimes the artisans didn't understand what the Stone People were asking them to make. Quite often the jewelry was boring because the Stone People weren't aware of the many marvelous kinds of jewels that were possible, so they didn't order many interesting designs.

The Earthquake
About this time an earthquake shifted the rocks holding water in the lake, and the water level receded.  Artist Island became a peninsula connected to the mainland. Some enterprising artisans decided to walk to the mainland and talk to the Festival People. They discovered that the Festival People didn't really like their jewelry designs very much, and so the artisans went back home and produced some new designs. After a few trips, they learned more and more about the festivals, their timing, their themes, and the kind of jewels that would be best for each one. They began to produce jewelry specially designed for each festival, and sales soared.

Of course, the artisans weren't using their time quite so efficiently anymore, because some of the best craftspeople spent part of their valuable time walking over to the mainland and talking to the Festival People. But then again, contact with customers energized the artisans, and they brought their enthusiasm back to Artist Island. The new designs were wildly popular, so none of them ended up stored in a warehouse. Thus the people of Artist Island were able to sell more jewelry and charge higher prices than before.

The artisans found that the Festival People were looking for unique jewels, so they asked the Stone People to look for new kinds of stones. But the new stones that the Stone People brought were not suitable for forming into jewels, and the artisans began to wish they had kept a few of their old boats so they could go and look for new stones themselves. One day some of the artisans went exploring their new peninsula and discovered a shallow sandbar connecting Artist Island to Stone Island. So they were able to wade over to Stone Island to help the Stone People look for better stones.

Because they knew what they were looking for, the artisans soon discovered new types of stones that could be easily formed into jewels. Actually, the new stones were much bigger than the previous ones -- they barely fit in the small boats -- so the Stone People had ignored them. The large stones gave the Artist Island people a novel idea: perhaps they could make cups and bowls from the new stones. Several different kinds of stones were brought to Artist Island and artisans eagerly tried their hand at making household items. This turned out to be easier than the intricate work of making jewelry, so even apprentice artisans were able to shape the new stones. The Festival People loved the new dishes and bought many pieces in addition to the jewels they always enjoyed.

Of course, the artisans weren't using their time quite so efficiently now that some of the best craftspeople were working with the Stone People as well as the Festival People. But then again, dishes involved less intricate work so more items could be produced and it was much easier to avoid flaws. Furthermore, the Festival People were eager to buy every single item the artisans could produce. No longer was finished work gathering dust in warehouses. Thus the artisans were able to make and sell many more products than before. Finally, since the household items were considered a necessity, business remained good even during tough economic times.

The New Landscape
Let’s take a tour of Artist Island a few years after the waters receded and turned it into a peninsula. The former island has three different kinds of artisans. First of all there are the enterprising artisans who learned to empathize with customers and look for new stones to shape in novel ways to solve customer problems. They are deeply engaged in their work and have created tight feedback loops so they can continue to develop products that customers love and bring innovative new stones to the market.

This group of artisans has revised the definition of efficiency.[1] They don’t worry too much about resource efficiency -- that is, keeping every artisan busy. They focus on flow efficiency -- that is, keeping each stone moving from Stone Island all the way to customers in the Land of Festivals with as little delay as possible. They have found that with greater flow efficiency, they get higher quality, more rapid customer feedback, and thus they are more likely to make products that delight customers. The enterprising artisans are doing very well.

But not everyone on Artist Island noticed that the waters receded, or if they noticed, they were not eager to abandon their comfortable routines. The traditional artisans believe in resource efficiency -- that is, making the most efficient use of their valuable time. So they continue to receive boatloads of stones from the Stone People, form them into the kind of jewels they are asked to make, and send the jewelry to be sold in the Land of Festivals. It’s not their problem if the Stone People order the wrong jewels, or if the boats are so large that their work is out of date by the time it reaches the Land of Festivals, or if half of their jewelry ends up in warehouses, unused by the Festival People. Their job is to deliver what they are asked for in a timely manner, and to continually reduce their costs.

Of course, the work is not very challenging and it’s difficult to get enthusiastic about making piles of jewelry that no one is likely to use. Because of this, many traditional artisans are leaving to join the enterprising artisans, attracted by the opportunity to think for themselves, the challenge of improving their artistic skills, and the satisfaction of seeing their work appreciated by the Festival People.

There is a third area of Artist Island -- one that wasn't mentioned earlier -- an area that has been around ever since stones began to be used for practical items. Here we find the parts-makers, artisans who form stones into parts for automobiles and airplanes and medical devices and control systems and things like that. They make up almost half of the population of Artist Island. The parts-makers work with vehicle and device designers to make sure their parts fit and operate properly. Recently they have learned a few things from the enterprising artisans, such as focusing on flow efficiency (moving stones through their work area without delay), understanding the needs of their customers (both the device designers as well as device customers), and constantly looking for new stones that can better meet these needs.

The Future
As the years go by, the enterprising artisans will move to the mainland to work side-by-side with the Festival People. The parts-makers will also migrate to the mainland and join forces with the device designers. All that will be left on the former island are the cost centers housing traditional artisans, but even these will gradually shrink and eventually disappear. Because in the end, while the talent of the artisans will remain essential, Artist Island will not matter anymore.

Navigating the New Landscape
We have spent a lot of time over the past decade working to make life better on Artist Island (a.k.a. Software Development Land). We promoted Lean principles such as small batches and steady flow and quality at the source. But over the past few years we have watched the waters recede and marveled as the island turned into a peninsula. The best and brightest of the artisans have abandoned the boat system and learned to talk directly with customers, work as partners with other disciplines, and seek out new approaches to solving problems.

We have written three books about Artist Island, but we couldn't write a fourth, because the island has largely disappeared. In its place is a new landscape, one in which integrated product teams are expected to ask the right questions, solve the right problems, and deliver solutions that customers love. So we wrote our fourth book -- The Lean Mindset: Ask the Right Questions -- about thriving in the new landscape, a land without islands, a land that doesn't have quite enough artisans, a land that’s full of endless possibilities.
[1] Thanks to Niklas Modig and Pär Åhlström, for introducing us to these two viewpoints on efficiency. See their excellent book -- This Is Lean: Resolving the Efficiency Paradox.