[Not the Yorkshire meaning!]

Dick over on DDOE has recently done a post on investment analysis. His basic premise being that ‘lean’ companies may make better preforming investments.

In his excellent book ‘Slack’, Tom DeMarco almost goes the opposite way.

TDMs view is that these lean companies that have stripped the middle management layer back to the bone have made a huge blunder. His view is that this much maligned middle tier is where all the creativity happens, where great new ways of working are invented, where new products or services are imagined. Having a little slack in the business gives people the space to create.

Its a compelling argument, and the book is well worth the couple of hours it takes to read.

I certainly think it holds true in SW dev (for me at least!) – when I’m under massive pressure I just do what I know works, when I have a bit of time I try and find a better way.

Do you think the middle management layer in orgs is/was important? or just a bunch of fat cats with mid level company cars (and cheap suits)?

And do you think that less pressure or more pressure results in the best quality work?

Have you read Slack? what did you think?



7 Responses to “Slack”

  1. Harlan Grove Says:

    No pressure gives rise to little work, so there needs to be some. Too much pressure increases the chances of making very expensive mistakes. So the answer, as with most things, lies somewhere in the middle, and the exact optimal point will vary by organization and circumstances.

    As I see it, if the majority of employees actually make things (e.g., manufacturers, but could also apply to fast food chains), lean management makes sense as long as production line employees can make decisions on the spot (e.g., something appears to be going wrong with sprockets coming down one conveyor belt, the senior guy attaching the gizmos to them can stop things to find out what’s happening with the sprockets). In businesses that manufacture ‘information’ and other forms of hot air and bovine digestive byproducts as well as an occasional monetary return, layers and layers of middle management seem inescapable.

  2. Dick Kusleika Says:

    If you ask the lean proponents, they will tell you that Slack is using the media’s portrayal of lean rather than a proper definition of lean. They always say that when someone attacks lean. If you listen to them enough, and I do, you may think that since “lean” never says anything wrong, maybe it doesn’t say anything at all. I’m not sure yet. But I digress.

    What I really want to comment on is culture. Apple has a culture of great design. Walmart has a culture of low prices. Toyota has the TPS culture. 37Signals has the less-is-more culture. Joel Spolsky has the treat-code-monkeys-like-kings culture. My hypothesis is that it doesn’t matter what your culture is. Just have a very specific culture and make everything you do branch from, or fit into, that culture. The obvious exception is the lose-money culture. That one never lasts.

  3. Nick Hebb Says:

    +1 Dick on the definition of Lean, which has been mis-characterized by some lazy and incompetent journalists.

    P.S.: I’m glad you’re not blogging about the ribbon again. If you don’t knock that off, some uni prof will name a special OCD after you. ;-)

  4. Simon Says:

    Harlan – good point on needing some pressure.
    Dick – great comment on culture, I think I agree with your hypothesis.

    And I think where things go wrong is where someone copies the culture from another org, but does not do it fully.

    I’ve worked places where they think they are doing some culture thing and they are so not doing it, because fundamentally its still the same place as before – no matter how many vomit inducing ‘motivational’ posters they put on the wall.

    Nick I feel duty bound to get the odd dig in now and again. Even though I know most people have just given up and accepted it. Thats a shame because it gives MS a carte blanche for future versions, and I don’t think thats the real message that people actually want to send.

  5. Ross Says:

    I was going to post on dicks blog, but ran out of time. As some of you will know, I work for Unipart Expert Practices, which is a consultancy here in the uk.
    I think it would be fair to say that Unipart is a leading light in Lean here in the UK, so I think I am well placed to talk about this subject.

    As I right this I am hiding in a corner in a conference room is Welsh Wales. My team is currently on a away week, where we have training session in Lean amongst other things.

    >>If you ask the lean proponents, they will tell you that Slack is using the media’s portrayal of lean rather than a proper definition of lean.

    Yeah, 100%, in fact Lean experts will say that the rigidity gives the process flexibility.
    If people want to know more about lean tool, I would sugest getting a copy of “the new lean toolbox” it a great jumping off point.

    >> What I really want to comment on is culture.
    I could not agree with this more. It is all about culture, you have to engage your work force, the way you do it, IMHO, makes little difference, 50% is common sense, 20% is luck, and the rest is what you can add. TPS, TQM, Lean, Lean/six sigma, Unipart way, etc, ect, ect, it’s not really the tools, it’s the effect they have on motivating people.

  6. sam Says:

    There are just 3 levels in an organisation….

    Engineer – works – People doing a DOP (Daily Operating Plan)

    Manger- gets work done – People doing a AOP (annual OP)

    Director- visualises work – People doing a LRP (Long Range Plan – 5 +Years)

    Lean is when you have the right mix of the 3….Say 100:5:1

    I once saw this on a visiting card Sr.Deputy General Manager —and I wondered what value “Sr. Deputy General” added to “Manager”


  7. Biggus Dickus Says:

    I have not read the book but nevertheless have some opinions on this issue. That is probably because I have consulted at every concievable type of dysfunctional corporation there is ;-).

    In a nutshell I believe the whole thing pivots on the managers from the top down having a downward-facing perspective rather than an upward-facing one – in other words they are MANAGERS rather than spending all their time focusing on pleasing their superiors.

    I have found that in a “fat” org structure the greater the tendency for Middle-managers to become totally focused on their position in the org-chart and in their career-path. In that environment you get a major tendency towards cliques of managers who band together for mutual benefit – not caring one whit about the corporation, its shareholders or its employees. Tragically this happens when the top managers are more focused on “kissing up and kicking down” (as the saying goes).

    In the end though, I believe that “lean”, while on paper it sounds efficient, cannot satisfy the needs of the corporation to plan and to be flexible. There is a need for the middle-tier and for the capacity to move sideways in a way that can lead to innovation based on the real needs of the business rather than the goals of the managers’ careers.

    Again – it all depends on the involvement of the senior managers in encouraging all involved to focus on the business needs rather than the politics of the org-chart.

    I have seen this organization before, but nearly always some aggressive new force muscles in and upsets the apple-cart, establishing the standard “command and control” environment and replacing everyone with the ususal loyalists and sycophants. It’s hard to cover your exposed flank from the aggressive self-promoters when you are busy running the business. It inevitaby fails unfortunately.

    Sometimes I wonder how we got out of the caves ;-).


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