Complexity Is Not What it Used to Be

May 25, 2012 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. George Santayana

The time was 1847.  The place was the Vienna General Hospital. New mothers in the doctors' wards had been dying of puerperal fever with an extremely high mortality rate - three times that in the midwives’ ward.  It was a mystery.  It could not be explained.  But Ignaz Semmelweis had been observing this for years.  Had studied the situation and made some interesting connections.  

The situation was very puzzling.  There were two clinics in the hospital Semmelweis oversaw.  Clinic one was the teaching service for medical students; clinic two was where only midwives worked.  Why was the presence of doctors apparently killing new mothers?  Women were coming to the hospital’s maternity ward for the benefits of the child care they would receive.  But the high mortality rates had them try to avoid coming on a day when they would be admitted to the first clinic.  In fact, many preferred to have their births in the street, then come to the clinic for the benefits.  Surprisingly, the mortality rate for those giving birth in the street was significantly lower than for those giving birth in the doctors’ clinic.  It was a mystery, and nothing could explain it.

Until Semmelweis figured out the connection.  And proved it – lowering the mortality rate from the 10-35% it had been to 1%.  The connection was  doctors working on cadavers (it was a teaching hospital) and then going to do their rounds with patients.  The solution was Semmelweis instituting the practice of hand disinfection with a chlorinated lime solution he created.  The results were dramatic.  But his theory was incomplete. He could not explain why it worked.  The existence of germs had not been postulated yet, let alone detected.

His theories were scorned.  Administrators of hospitals thought the suggested disinfection process would take too much time.  Doctors were not eager to admit that they had caused so many deaths.  It was not until years after Semmelweis’ death that his theories were accepted – after Pasteur could demonstrate the existence of germs. For more on Semmelweis, see Wikipedia.

How does this relate to us?  I would suggest the knowledge of germs to doctors is like the knowledge of flow to software developers.  It is not all there is (other things cause disease than germs) but it is pretty important to know.  Things that often appear complex, unknowable, are, in fact, complicated but unknown.  BTW: I am not suggesting that software development as a whole is complicated, just that not all of it is complex.

I have been doing some form of agile consciously for over 13 years.  I have been doing agile practices at one time or another for over 3 decades  Unfortunately, that “one time or another” was hit or miss.  I did it when I intuited a solution, but that was relatively rare.  I am a big believer  in understanding why what you are doing works – see an old blog of mine – Smart People, XP and Scrum – Is There a Pattern?   

It seems the software industry has hit a crisis in the adoption of Agile.  It is almost to be expected that when you hear about a large organization successfully adopting Scrum for many teams, they will follow that with they can’t quite get it to work well across teams.  Why is this?  Well, it’s a mystery for some.  Not for others.

Since 2005 we (Net Objectives) have been helping clients who have been encountering cross-team challenges in their development methods (IT and products).  Many of the insights we’ve had have come from looking at the theories of flow and how they apply to software development.  This is one reason I am so passionate about the need to understand that Scrum itself, is a manifestation of lean-flow thinking.  By not being consciously aware of this, many Scrum practitioners can't extend it as needed, or abandon it for better methods when needed.

I have seen some development groups (75-150 folks) transform themselves almost overnight it seemed, by attending to flow.  I have also been somewhat mystified by much of the Agile consulting community’s resistance to many of these ideas – having once been thrown off a discussion group for insisting they were a better alternative than (still) popular methods of team collaboration.

If you have had success at the team level but are having troubles extending it, I strongly encourage you to learn more.  Here are some suggestions:


Managing the Design Factory: A Product Developer’s Toolkit. Don Reinertsen. Do not look at the copyright date.  This book is literally 2-3 decades ahead of its time.  Still the best book on Lean for software developers.

The Principles of Product Development Flow: 2nd Generation Lean Product Development. Don Reinertsen. An amazing book but not a place to start.

From Net Objectives

The Net Objectives Lean-Agile at Scale and the Team: The Value Stream Series. The first session has been done already but a recording exists so you can catch up before the next one June18th.

How Delays Cause Waste: A Main Tenet of Lean. Alan Shalloway. 

Scaling Scrum. Net Objectives. A collection of (mostly) webinars.

Learning to Manage What Matters – Not Always Intuitive. Alan Shalloway.  I would now probably say – ‘not always self evident” as I think it is intuitive after one realizes one must attend to flow.

And, of course, shoot me an email or ask a question on our user group Net Objectives’ Business Driven Software Development

Alan Shalloway

CEO, Net Objectives

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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