2 Oct

Lean Cooking for Agile Work Teams

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After a few weeks in our software development environment, a new co-worker told me, “I feel like I am on an episode of Iron Chef.”

He came from a structured, design-up-front environment with prescribed architecture and product line development practices. So, although he was expressing some exasperation with a chaotic Agile development process, I choose to take this as a compliment.

In Iron Chef on the Food Network, incredibly talented chefs get to choose their work teams to staff their kitchen. They get 1 hour to turn a secret ingredient into several dished that are served to a panel of food critics. This is so strikingly Agile is spooky. A high-functioning team executing against late breaking requirements and showing final product at the end of their time-boxed project? Perfect.

There is an initial huddle (iteration planning session) and the team is off and running. Highly skilled team members help each other every step of the way, and no one is above chopping onions. No motion is wasted as the team is so cohesive they can finish each other’s sentences. Few words are needed.

How does an episode of Iron Chef adheres to the principles of Lean?

Reduce Waste

During an Iron Chef episode, the staff does not tend to optimize raw material consumption. Often, no expense is spared when adding ingredients to the dishes. In one famous example a chef used $1000 worth of lobster to season asparagus. That’s right. And if that isn’t Muda, what is?

So how do the chefs reduce Muda? Muda is managed with economy of motion, silos of activity within the team, absolute focus, and infrequent context switching. These professionals waste not a single motion. Watching them work is pure pleasure and anyone who appreciates seeing a craftsman apply their trade will appreciate the close ups. It is like watching Uncle Bob Martin do the bowling kata. Pure butter.

Amplify Learning

Constant taste testing guides the cooks and chef in constantly modifying dishes as they are created. If you watch the kitchen staff, they are constantly tasting and smelling things being prepared. Often, they offer a spoonful of something to another team member. “Taste this,” they say. “What am I missing?” I heard one souse chef ask of the salad guy as she held out a spoon.

This kind of constant measurement and feedback is the heart of amplified learning. Constantly seeking feedback and putting that feedback into the dishes is the soul of this Lean principle.

Respect People

There is no jacking around in the kitchen. The team members know their business and understand the person next to them does as well. There is also a fundamental understanding that the judges know their business as well.

Build Quality In

Teams use nothing but the best and freshest ingredients. Teams use the best tools money can buy. No expense is spared on high quality knives, pots, pans, and appliances. Highly adaptive stir-taste-modify cycles ensure dishes are developed with no known faults.

Defer Commitment

Several options for a particular ingredient may be explored at the same time. For instance, 2 pans of sauce are created in parallel. Both sauces will be developed to perfection until one is needed. At the moment the sauce must be added to the main dish, the better of the two pans is used and the other is discarded.

In one episode, a chef told a staff member to begin cubing tuna steaks. “What are we making?” asked the woman with the knife. “I don’t know,” replied the chef. “Something with cubed tuna. What do you think we should make?” Now that is deferring commitment.

Deliver Fast

1 hour. ’nuff said.

Optimize the Whole

Often the shortcomings of one component in a dish will be offset by the combination of all ingredients together. For instance, if the seasoned rice isn’t perfect the chef doesn’t panic. The strength of the entire dish will carry the day. Presentation, the sauces, the meat, and the garnish are all part of the dish. Will anyone remember dry rice in the presence of the best dessert known to man? Optimizing the rice at the expense of the other parts of the meal would have been folly. A good chef know this.

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