essays on agility, waste, the documentation conundrum, impermanence and more.
this post originally appeared on LinkedIn, September 9, 2016.
Underdocumentation is a consistent problem in the management of communities, organisations, systems and processes. This is mainly because today is the age of knowledge-driven organisations. Unless they are ready to end up as game, players need comprehensive knowledge about data, relevant background knowledge necessary to understand and interpret data, and relentless data analysis skills.
In a recent issue of TIME Magazine, early-in-life lessons of mortality are being identified as one of six major prerequisites for high performers in adulthood (The Secret of Super Siblings). This news made me stare ominously into the distance for a while, trying hard to grasp what the intimate connection between early familiarity with death and above-average adult performance, both as an individual and as a member of organisations and communities, might entail.
Have I under-performed as a professional? And if so, might my childhood tendency of clinging to life explain my later misfortunes? - Surely, when I started off my journey in life, way back in the post-war ebullience of the previous century, I believed in it all so much, and I passionately enjoyed living in this world so thoroughly, that I was truly and honestly convinced that life would never end.
The best part of knowledge about data is provided by the documentation of data. When documentation is inadequate, players need to seek outside information about data. And since channels of outside information are often found to be either non-existent or artificially firewalled, organisations get stuck and retrace to more, but often worse documentation. Snakes biting their own tails.
It isn't that I was never being warned of course. Rather - life itself, like the jumble of events surfing its waves, kept sending me fleeting messages hinting at a vague notion of mortality - but somehow the actual deed of passing away, of travelling to the other side, was an event that always seemed to happen far away or to someone else.
Nevertheless, the signs kept coming. Today I cannot remember whether it snowed for twelve days when I was six or whether it snowed for six days when I was twelve (as, famously, once said Dylan Thomas), but I will never forget my first dead pigeon (half eaten by a fox), my first deceased pet (a guinea pig, duly sent off to a taxidermist by my parents, but never collected on account of the latter having passed on himself before he had had the chance to even start with the unsavoury job), or my first dead grand-uncle (a yellow wax-like figure lying fully dressed but motionless on his back on a crispy clean bedsheet in a terrifying cold room).
And of course there was the tabby cat who never returned home, and the eerie emptiness of Ronny's seat in my first grade classroom on the first morning after autumn break, when the farmyard pond behind his house had been covered with an inviting but much too thin layer of ice.
It all made a deep impression on my soul, but it never meant that all this would ever happen to me too.
It took a while for me to let it all sink in.
MASH. My uncle Henry. JFK. Vietnam and body bags. The Munich Olympics. Strange Fruit, as sung by Billie Holiday. The Bangladesh famine of 1974, made famous by Pandit Ravi Shankar and George Harrison (I still cherish the box with the records).
Shivkumar Batalvi. Nick Drake.
Schubert's Erlkönig. Mahler's Kindertotenlieder, and the New York Philharmonic's perturbingly epic 1922 recording of his third symphony.
O Mensch, gib Acht! Was spricht die tiefe Mitternacht? Ich schlief, ich schlief, aus tiefem Traum bin ich erwacht: Die Welt ist tief, und tiefer als der Tag gedacht. Tief ist ihr Weh. Lust: tiefer noch als Herzeleid. Weh spricht: Vergeh! Doch all' Lust will Ewigkeit, will tiefe, tiefe Ewigkeit!
Agility, once appropriated and sitting comfortably within the texture of the organisation, has turned out to be rather an effective antidote to cure its systems and processes from the (under-/over-) documentation snake bite.
In an Agile environment, in lieu of documentation, the fundamental issue is communication.
Agile documentalists write documentation if and only if writing documentation is the best way to achieve a relevant goal. This is rarely the case: there often proves to be a number of better ways to achieve those goals than writing static documentation. Among the better ways are: having straightforward solutions that do not need explaining, meeting up, scrumming, togetherness, sharing, listening, sometimes talking.
Agile players take an evolutionary approach to documentation development, seeking and then acting on feedback on a regular basis. They understand the total cost of ownership (TCO) for a document, and they realize that making this investment is a choice. Obviously, the benefit of having documentation must be greater than the cost of creating and maintaining it. Well-written documentation, even if it supports organizational memory effectively, is a poor way to communicate during a project.
In Agile country, citizens travel as lightly as they possibly can - continuously aware that whatever needs explaining should rather be made more simple and straightforward - and that documentation, if any, should be just barely good enough. In fact, documentation is almost always out of sync with reality, and should therefore not be taken all too seriously.
Do we really need the thneed?
Do we actually need the documentation, or do we merely want it?
The epitome of the condition humaine is humankind's need to overestimate the role it plays in the history of the universe.
With the same relentless force, humans are constantly preoccupied with perpetuating (the image of) their Self. When children, we live in the illusion that we are immortal, and as on the way to adolescence we gradually loose this innocent illusion, we seem to be programmed to grow an (often malignant) Ego in our minds instead, an alter persona, who exists at yonder side and is there to stay, and of which we are merely a temporary manifestation.
Like thneeds, religion often is the answer here. A-fine-something-that-all-people needs.
But being eternal in a spiritual sense falls well short of soothing our eternity-seeking minds and fulfilling our very existential drift to exist and keep existing. Hence, we need perpetuation on all levels available.
Here is where first the preservative and then the funerary industries come in. We stare blindly at youth in all its illusory guises, yet we keep saving accounts to fund future events that will, or should, be effectuated by those we leave behind, and are solely aimed at perpetuating our existence as much as possible – while at the same time eternalizing their memories of us, keeping alive their pain of separation, and forfeiting their chance to get on with their lives.
In preparation of passing on, instead of living the moment and sharing our time and knowledge and insights with those around us, we do everything we can to prepare ourselves for being missed by our loved ones as much and heartbreakingly as is within our reach to prepare for.
Like uniqueness, irreplaceability brings unforgettable poetry in its trail.
Here is the Tamil poet Subramanya Bharathiya:
தேனை மறந்திருக்கும் வண்டும் - ஒளிச் சிறப்பை மறந்துவிட்ட பூவும் - வானை மறந்திருக்கும் பயிறும் - இந்த வையம் முழுதுமில்லை தோழி
Cannot be found in the whole wide world: Bees that have forgotten all about honey, Flowers unaware of the splendour of light, Crops oblivious to the blue expanse of the sky.
... ஆசைமுகம் மறந்து போச்சே – இதை யாரிடம் சொல்வேனடி தோழி? - நேசம் மறக்கவில்லை நெஞ்சம் – எனில் நினைவு முகம் மறக்கலாமோ? - கண்ணன் முகம் மறந்துபோனால் – இந்த கண்களிருந்து பயனுண்டோ? - வண்ணப் படமுமில்லை கண்டாய் – இனி வாழும் வழியென்னடி தோழி?
... and yet, I have forgotten your lovely face, whom shall I share my grief with? My heart still abounds with your love, but your face, alas, is gone forever. If I forget the face of Krishna, then what is the use of my eyes? Mother: I no longer possess your photograph, now what is left in life?
Like uniqueness, irreplaceability is a deep dark well.
Like uniqueness, irreplaceability is an unlimited source of suffering.
As Bob Dylan knew and sang so well in 1961, feelings of irreparable loss and existential Schmerz turn us humans into men of constant sorrow, who have seen trouble all of our days.
Like uniqueness, irreplaceability haunts the soul of the living and saddens the memory of the dead.
Clearly, all efforts to perpetuate one’s unique place in space-time are doomed to fail.
Incontrovertibly, all efforts at irreplaceability and perpetuation are waste.
Better is to tread into the logic of Indian tradition with its four stages of life (chaturashrama). Having gathered knowledge and skills in brahmacharya - the first stage, and having contributed to the world in grihastha - the second, prepare to be replaceable in vanaprastha - the third, and from there, liberated from all existential desire, move on into the void of sannyasa - the fourth.
In a Lean and Agile world, organisations and communities aim at creating and delivering the most possible value for the customer, consumer, or citizen, at the lowest possible cost and within the shortest possible lead time.
Faultlessly identified by Taiichi Ohno in the early days of TPS (Toyota Production System), the greatest obstacle to this noble three-fold goal is the three-headed Demon Goddess Ehm3. In all her Kali-like destructive power, Ehm3 is the embodiment of the condition humaine: In the guise of Muda she creates waste, as Mura she generates inconsistency, and as Muri she is the propagator of unreasonableness. But worse than her three faces is the fact that she unfolds her viral nuisance in systemic ways: Unevenness and uncertainties (Mura) bring about unwanted stress (Muri), which leads to defects and waste (Muda).
In all this, muda, or waste, is key. Muda is any activity or process that does not add value. As such it is a physical waste of time, resources and money.
Traditionally, Ohno has described waste as of seven kinds: (1) The waste of transport is in the movement of produce between operations and locations, think of what gets lost in traffic jams such as the one on the Antwerpen Ring in Belgium or the even bigger one at Hero Honda Chowk in Delhi, to name just two from personal experience. (2) The waste of inventory is in everything which is kept without producing value, think of documentation on long-past realities and other flotsam from life’s inherent and axiomatic unexpectedness. (3) The waste of motion is in distances embedded in design, like having to reach for the shift key for every dot you type, if you happen to be stranded with an azerty keyboard. (4) The waste of waiting is all too obvious. Surely, and just like me, you are always in the wrong queue? (5) The waste of overproduction is in the production of uselessness, like in all the efforts one undertakes to remain irreplaceable. (6) The waste of over-processing consists of doing too much, where doing little or nothing would have been just as well. (7) The waste of defects is in having spent valuable resources in something that simply does not do the job, period.
Agile debutantes often raise the objection that Ohno’s seven wastes are murky waters, in which the one flows liberally into the other. This may be so. For easy reference, therefore, keep in mind that waste is:
Anything that you do which does not add value.
Anything that you do within what you do, and which does not add value to the value-adding process of what you do.
Anything which could have added value and that was in your power to do but you left undone.
Anything that you refrain from doing although it has value adding power and doing it is well within the range of your possible options.
With a mind set on the avoidance of waste, the Agile documentalist (re)considers what to document and what not to document. That is the question.
Agile is an agile world par excellence. In Agilistan, people are free to move on and explore. The productive unit of work is not a man or a woman, but a team. With Agilians, there is no room for Ego.
Continuous communication allows for continuous learning and continuous learning grants a continuous learning space ( 場所, basho or topos) in which knowledge about data is continuously shared.
When Agilians reach a WIP limit, when they have reached the edge of their work-in-progress capacity, they refer to pairing: experts with inherently different skills and competences combine and sit and work together and share and learn from one another, internalizing the total sum of their knowledge into some tacit inner stream of consciousness and hence into the generic memory of the organic whole of the organisation or the community.
In an Agile world, irreplaceability is just not an option.
Now that I am steadily but irreversibly rowing onto the stream of my own vanaprastha, and while, from my position on the boat, oars in hand, I am still facing where I come from, I have reached the point where I can see why those of us who are blessed with pre-adulthood lessons in mortality might have gained an early advantage.
The coming to terms with one’s own replaceability is an arduous process, draining away vast amounts of both spiritual and physical energy. Demon Goddess Ehm3 is very stubborn – and always hungry for offerings and prasad.
But then comes the promised land. Knowing how to cope with being an infinitesimal player in the great game of space-time, all this energy is freed for the real work of life. Being contented - teamwork, contribution and added value follow effortlessly. Wastes are evaded, avoided or non-existent. Sharing and agility have become a way of life.
A very long time ago, in India, there lived a man called Shakyamuni, Master of the Shakyas. Having spent a lifetime looking for ways to overcome suffering, he finally set about teaching a three-fold doctrine of the emptiness (shunyata), impermanence (anitya), and ultimate non-existence of the Ego (an-atman). Whoever manages complete absorption of this three-fold fallacy, he suggested, would be well on the way towards achieving nirvana.
Unfortunately he never bothered about documenting the intricate details of his thought process.