The five minute CIO: Claudio Perrone

22 Mar 2013

Claudio Perrone, Lean and Agile consultant, speaker and entrepreneur

Italian-born and Dublin-based, Claudio Perrone is a Lean and Agile consultant, speaker and entrepreneur. He explains how CIOs and IT teams’ more systematic approach to problem solving can create value and change the culture.

How much of your work is aimed at senior IT leaders?

Generally, CIOs are my clients. When you start the transition [to a Lean culture], directors are ultimately responsible for part of the project. If Agile coaches only work at the team level, the risk is that it doesn’t resonate. With larger transitions, you want to start on both sides – the top and the bottom.

You were a software developer and architect before becoming a consultant. What made you start to think there has to be a better way to running projects or releasing products?

There’s a typical series of problems that a lot of companies using Waterfall [methodology] had. The problem is, Waterfall works in a domain where you know where you’re going and can plan in advance for that. An example is NASA, because you know where the moon is going to be, even in 600 years.

But, every business has to be able to change direction for when the CEO says there’s a new strategy. It’s like you are white-water rafting – it’s not about going from A to B, but adapting to the changing conditions.

What led you to Agile and Lean methodologies? 

It was an encounter with one of the Agile pioneers in 2001, because at that time I was a proud architect but it turned out I always delivered what the customer asked for but not necessarily what they needed. Because all the planning used to happen upfront, the customer as well wouldn’t know what they needed, and they would ask for everything they can at the beginning because after that phase, everything gets to be locked down.

Very often I found myself in situations where we were late and there were lots of bugs … we didn’t have enough of a feedback loop along the way to verify what we were doing was qualitatively good.

And then of course while you’re building this, then you would have new opportunities that would be put in between, so even the plan you had would be a problem because the entire system was designed where changes and opportunities were the exceptions rather than the rule, so they were not welcome.

So a lot of projects ended up being late with poor quality. There’s a great quote from Samuel Redwine which is: “Software and cathedrals are much the same – first you build them and then you pray.”

So how does the Agile approach differ?

With Agile development, what happens is you release incrementally. It is a system that is built to show progress over time, it’s got a lot of feedback loops with stakeholders and the other thing is the empirical aspect. Every two weeks we would also have a retrospective to see how we did in the previous two weeks – what are the good and not so good things and what can we do to improve? 

Post-mortems are good to save the next project, but not to save the one you’re working on at the moment.

It sounds like it involves a big cultural change in teams or even organisations: what would you say to CIOs or heads of IT to persuade them that this approach is worth trying?

You figure out how the company operates, and typically I say, ‘how do you make money?’, or ‘how do you create value’? And then I look at the process that helps them to create value to the customer. Essentially, what you have with Lean in particular is a set of tools and a mindset: that we could reduce the time to bring a new service or product, for example. That’s one approach.

The other approach is to say, ‘how much time do you spend micromanaging people and would you rather focus on more strategic things?’ It’s not necessarily that the goal is to create self-organising teams. We can’t predict how each and every one responds to change but I can tell you if you impose it they’re going to resist it, so you have to sell it.

One way I found particularly effective is to introduce this A3 Toyota-style way of thinking. I observed how a team worked, I collected information, asking some of the questions that are in my A3 Thinker app, and then I wrote down the current situation. And then I said ‘this is my understanding of what’s happening’. You define the problem and the gap between the current situation and the goal. 

So it’s a more scientific approach to solving problems rather than just muddling through?

This Lean approach to problem solving is one I find particularly interesting because you continuously validate your understanding of the problem with the people who are involved in solving the problem.

You literally sit together, you write down your understanding and you share it. And you change as the person talks and your little report changes as that goes along.

I worked with one team which in two weeks became three times faster in a very bespoke way. We had a report written in A3 paper in pencil, with agreement from everyone. It was on the wall in the work space they had.

This team got faster and the manager took notice. They said – how about we do peer problem solving? … The manager became very effective in that organisation – we’re talking about a bureaucratic company and now suddenly you had a manager who solved problems the Lean way.

If Lean is about creating value through the development of people, A3 Thinking is actually Lean thinking. When we copy the tools [from Toyota], we are copying yesterday’s train of thought. The guys in the team are solving problems and when they reach the target, that’s the new standard. And in Japan, the standard is the baseline for improvement.

So it’s about empowering people rather than have them waiting for orders – a case of teaching a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime? 

If a team can’t reach a particular target, it’s probably due to the processes they have. In the movie Monsters Inc., the monsters go through these doors into a parallel world to go to children’s rooms to scare them because the fear powers the energy for the monsters’ city. It’s nice because it’s a system based on fear which in companies actually happens.

What happens at the end of the movie is such a great Lean lesson: the sidekick Mike goes through door, and he fills the quota because he discovers that making children laugh rather than cry made the monsters 10 times more effective. With that observation, they change the system.

That, to me, is how Lean actually thinks: it’s that people are never wrong – it’s that the processes are wrong.

You developed A3 Thinker, a problem-solving app that uses the Toyota approach – what was the idea behind this?

I actually didn’t start with the app at all. I’ve been doing consulting since 2009, I’ve been in the industry for 20 years … I was using this methodology and I was actually making sustainable change. I always joke about seagull consultants. The big question was, ‘how can we make everybody responsible for change?’ I said: I need to spread the word.

I did some early workshops explaining A3 thinking. Then I said, I want to write a book on A3 thinking – that was my initial goal. But didn’t want to write a book that nobody reads, so I started building a set of opinions and I put literally three or four of these strong problems that my potential readers and users could have, as chapter headings … to make sure they had problems that are worth solving.

A signal came out, you could have a book and read it, [or] you could go to a training course, but that’s just a once-off event … So I thought, maybe I could build physical brainstorming cards to prompt people to ask the right questions. Literally, with glue and paper I created less than 10 cards. I put them to the hands of a few of my target customers, and the first guy said, ‘I would buy it’, and others did, too. That’s the type of feedback you want to hear!

It’s a scientific approach which is what Lean is all about: I was iterating and doing experiments. So later I thought, why not build an iPhone application? I had started with validating a problem, and running little experiments – and I think this is key to success, whether in large organisations or small. Don’t dream of success: create the conditions to inevitably converge to it. I had this idea of building 100 cards. Now there are 65 [in the app] and there are more in the process of being developed.

We’re all different but we are powerfully influenced by the environment around us. So it’s our responsibility as leaders, managers, change agents, to create the conditions to allow people to grow, let their teams grow, and their companies grow and in doing so they make humanity better.

The A3 Thinker app can be downloaded online or at the iTunes store for US$2.99. To find out more about Lean and Agile approaches for teams and start-ups, you can check out two of Claudio Perrone’s presentations on SlideShare, here and here.

Gordon Smith was a contributor to Silicon Republic