Book summary for Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit

This is a summary of Mary & Tom Poppendieck’s book, called Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit.

Even though the book was written in 2003 — back in the days when the agile manifesto had freshly been born — it’s still relevant to today’s context. Today, with our catchphrase of “every company is a technology company”, many of us are paying close attention to improving our ways of creating software. Lean/agile thinking is a hugely influential source of inspiration here. And the Poppendiecks have given us a lean/agile toolkit that stands the test of time pretty well.

Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit aims to change the paradigm from process to people, from planning to learning, from control to delivering value. To that end, we start with outlining a handful of high-level lean principles:

Principles are great, but they’re pretty general, right? It’s hard to know how to apply high-level principles to our everyday work situation. So the book introduces some tools:
tools that will help you to translate each
lean principle
that will work in your organization.

Let’s look at that last sentence again — particularly the part about practices that will work in your organisation. It’s tempting to adopt practices from other companies that look successful. Because practices are easy to follow! But you want something that will work in your particular organisational context. And for that, you need to start by understanding the principles. Principles first, then find ways to translate them into concrete practices.

Time to go through the seven lean principles, and meet the tools that will help you bring each principle to life!

Eliminate waste is the place to start — if you’re going to start anywhere, start here. As the book says, eliminating waste is the most fundamental lean principle. Everything else follows on from this key starting point.

Amplify learning is well integrated into product thinking these days. Although I haven’t seen set-based development in use too often — will definitely be trying it out!

Decide as late as possible is a key principle for me. It has some great tools for allowing good design to emerge over time — avoiding a common pitfall of iterative development where the design suffers as more and more stuff is bolted on.

Counter-intuitive suggestions to deliver as fast as possible include removing controls, allowing slack time instead of keeping everyone busy, and putting financial information in the hands of the team. That last idea in particular is pretty revolutionary!

Empower the team — so easy to say and so hard to do. The tools presented here are among the most ambiguous ones offered by the book, but luckily intent-based leadership is already the norm in a fair few organisations.

Build integrity in is another key supporter of well-considered emergent design (as discussed back in the decide as late as possible section). A crucial principle which unfortunately has a tendency to be ignored.

See the whole will be familiar to many folks who are interested in systems thinking. The contracts tool even advocates looking beyond even the boundaries of your organisation, to include everyone who does the work.

Seven lean principles, each with a number of tools to help you put the principle into action. Before you take action, read these awesome disclaimers, directly quoted from the book:

Eliminate waste does not mean throw away all documentation.

Amplify learning does not mean keep on changing your mind.

Decide as late as possible does not mean procrastinate.

Deliver as fast as possible does not mean rush and do sloppy work.

Empower the team does not mean abandon leadership.

Build integrity in does not mean big, upfront design.

See the whole does not mean ignore the details.

And here’s some handy tips that the Poppendiecks provide on creating change in your environment — whether you are leading teams, leading organisations, or doing the work:

  • Use the lean principles to create practices that are tailored to your exact situation. Don’t be tempted to imitate the practices other companies use, without thinking about the principles yourself (just think of all the companies who have adopted Spotify language and structures, without seeing much benefit!)
  • Don’t wait for senior leadership to get on board — just make life better than it was yesterday in your corner of the world.
  • Find like-minded people who want to understand and apply lean thinking with you.
  • In the face of resistance, address the fear”.

Good luck!

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