Thursday, 30 July 2009

A practical example of lean principles

My hobby is sport climbing and myself and a friend spend a couple of hours a week down at our local climbing gym climbing sport routes. Now we are both reasonably fit men, well into the age that professional sportsmen are described as 'veteran' but nevertheless not in bad shape. We are also competent climbers, by no means excellent but we can generally climb a 6B grade if we push ourselves. While at the centre I often watch the better climbers to appreciate their technique and try to pick up some tips. It is not uncommon that these expert climbers that I find myself most in awe of are children and teenagers. They seem to effortlessly scale routes that my partner and myself wouldn't even consider attempting. Now I have the advantage of strength, I hope that I have more of the wisdom that comes with age, and I have certainly been climbing for longer, so how is it that these youngsters can make it look so easy? The answer is that they are leaner, both in their physique and their approach, which helps them to achieve their goal more efficiently than I can. It is possible to identify a number of factors for success in the sport that translate well into lessons for software development and testing:

Only apply effort that helps you to achieve your goal

My temptation when climbing, as with most men, is to 'brute force' with your arms. In this way I often apply excess energy which is lost on the wall, when a touch more finesse to apply the effort in a more focussed manner would achieve the same result using less energy. If we can identify the activities and actions that contribute specifically to achieving our goal and perform only these actions then we will achieve success more quickly and with resources to spare.

Only carry the weight that is needed to help you achieve your goal

Although not fat, I am bulky when compared to a 12 year old, and this excess weight can be a cause of drag. Similarly if we have bulky processes, excessive documentation to maintain and too much manual testing then this can limit our progress and use up valuable energy.

Do not fear committing yourself with just what you need to progress

One of the real skills in climbing is knowing how much of a purchase on the wall you need in order to perform a move. The mediocre climber such as myself will not trust in his ability to make a move with limited hand/foothold and so will waste energy finding unnecessary reassurance, when the better climber will move when they have just enough purchase to progress. Similarly a the development/test team can learn that it is possible to commit to work and progress without technical specifications, design documents and the like and just start with a one-line story and a plan to discuss it, then this will free us up to embrace agile/lean processes without the false reassurance that those documents provided.

I'm off down the climbing centre again on Thursday, and will hope to practise what I preach. As with all things, it is easy to talk about the best way of doing something, however whether I can apply these principles when I'm halfway up a wall and my legs have just started shaking like Elvis' is another matter ....

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