Death Rests Within

We create monsters and then we can’t control them. -Joel Coen

Remixed Photo Credit: croweb 

 Complexity minded people spend a lot of time talking/thinking about detecting weak signals, but sometimes big scary company killing problems are obvious to some, but unseen by others. The signal isn’t weak, but it isn’t traversing the social network well enough to get addressed.

Individuals in the Kanban community have taken to referring to problems like these as “Intangibles.”

Weak signal problems require attuning our senses to the present to “feel” subtle changes in what is happening. Intangible problems are caused by a disconnect between those who understand that addressing what is most painful today, may leave us exposed to what may be VERY painful in the future.

“Intangible class items may be important and valuable, but there is no tangible cost of delay associated with them in the near future….
-David Anderson Kanban

Intangibles have a power law curve for future costs 

“Company Killers” as I like to call them are a special subset of Intangibles. They are large, monolithic, complex problems that hang around the company. These problems are elephantine, apparently docile if unprovoked, but prone to rampages once awakened. Company Killers are too frightening to approach and are shunted off never to be spoken of again.

Defusing Company Killers

Remixed Photo Credit: donsolo 

Defusing Company Killers is a two step process.

First, expose the Killers to management by “drawing them a picture”, so the Killers can be seen clearly.

Second, illustrate the amount of WIP vs Slack, so management can understand how their focus on the near term is effecting their risks in the long term.

In this post I would like to explain an exercise I have successfully used in engineering departments for “drawing management a picture”, in order to flush out Company Killers. This exercise has been particularly helpful for me when “launching” Kanban (or other WIP Limiting frameworks) efforts as it illustrates risk, WIP and their relationship.

Exposing the problems visually to management can help them “see” risk and then actively manage the reduction in risk, without invoking the Ostrich Algorithm.

The Exercise


Like any good visualization exercise you are going to need: 

  • Sharpies 
  • 3 Colors of Stickie (Yellow, Pink and Green work well) 
  • A White Board 
  • Team members 
  • Managers 

Step 1. Get It All Out

Begin getting the Team Members together. You will need the managers later, but not now. Place one yellow sticky and one blue sticky on the white board to create a legend, label them “Work in Progress” and “Work Someone Expects Me to Do.”

Distribute the yellow and blue stickies to each of the participants.

The instructions for the participants:

“We are going to build a picture so that we can show managers how their expectations are effecting our work.
On the yellow stickies, write any work that you are currently working on, or have started but not finished. On the blue stickies, please write any work that you are aware of and that you believe someone expects you to do. Please spend 5-10 minutes writing down EVERYTHING you can think of for each of these to colors.”

Step 2. See the WIP

When the team member are done at the board, draw an X & Y axis, using the full height and width of the white board. Label the X axis “Complexity” and the Y axis “SIZE”. Put a red dot or an X mark in the top right hand corner. Write “Fix a Typo” at the origin of the graph. 

The instructions for the participants:

“We are going to do an Affinity Diagram that clusters relatively similar items together across this space. Please cluster the items by size and complexity. We aren’t looking for an exact location for each sticky, just place each in relative size and complexity to it’s neighbors.  

Down here at the origin of the graph is where you put the simplest task possible, like fixing a typo. Hopefully, none of you have anything that small on your plate. 
Up here in the top right [point to red dot or X] is something as huge and complex as creating a replacement space craft for the decommissioned Space Shuttle.
Please go to the board one at a time and briefly explain each task as you place them on the graph.”

Anonymized Result

In my experience, when giving extreme examples like “fixing a typo” and “replacing the Space Shuttle”, it has not been necessary to explain Simple Complicated and Complex. The extreme examples –something way too small and something far too large –give the team “space”. By making the extremes outside of the team’s normal expectations they are less likely to place their stickies on those ends of the graph. They are more likely to use a wider area between the axis.

Step 3. Find the Killers

Place one pink sticky on the white board to finalize the legend, label it “Company Killer”

Distribute pink stickies to each of the participants.

The instructions for the participants:

“We need to find the projects or ideas that are going to kill the company. Spend five minutes thinking of projects or tasks that, if not completed in the next 6-12 months, would kill the company.”

After 5 mins.

“If there are any tasks already on the board that you know of that would kill the company, please write those on a pink sticky, as well. Then put the new stickies on the board relative to the other tasks we’ve identified. If you have a pink sticky for a task already on the board, please remove the old one and replace it with the pink one.”

Anonymized Result

Step 4. Explain Yourself

Step 4.1 Help the Team See

The Churn Zone

The Churn Zone

Nobody likes fixing typos over and over –this is “the churn zone”. Work here is busy work. It’s small, simple work. Large amounts of work items here indicate a high likelihood of multitasking. The team could be fragmenting the work too much if they identify too many items that fit here. Questions to ask: Who is assigning this work? What tasks are highly repetitive? Can we automate any of them?

The Strange Nature of Company Killers

The Kill Zone

The tasks in the “Kill Zone” area –large, complex Company Killers, have an odd nature. Team members can identify them, but the risk is that they APPEAR well understood and encapsulated. One of the ways that Company Killers hide is in Cognitive Ease. They are large and unfragmented and everyone agrees on them even if they ignore them. The problem is, that when they are actually examined, Company Killers tend to take a “quantum leap” into the Unmodelled area skipping right over Ordered and Complex and hurtling into the chaotic. As the team unpacks the problem, they realize that they don’t really understand it as well as they thought they did.

Company Killers’ Quantum Leap

Company Killers need to be decomposed carefully and early. Identifying test projects, agile “spikes”, and safe-fail experiments are critical to helping the teams and management truly understand the scope of these issues.

Step 4.2 Show Management

It is critical to have all the managers who are responsible for assigning work to the team members come in and examine the visual aid the team has created. Ideally, a team member (or two) can explain the image, how it was made and the implications. Show the balance between The Churn Zone and The Kill Zone. Make sure that managers leave with an understanding of:

  • WIP 
  • Intangible Class Items (and how to manage them) 
  • The relationship between WIP, Slack and Intangibles 

Finally, this is the time to explain to management how a Kanban system can help limit WIP and focus teams on balancing near term and long term efforts.

I’ll need to unpack those ideas in relation to this exercise in another post…

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