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How to embrace empiricism?

Pottery class and almost the end of semester. Ms. Wilson had two groups this year. She decided to do a simple experiment for each of her groups. To get the positive grade students from both groups had to prepare a vase. The vase shouldn’t be an ordinary vase but it should present their personal creativity. This part of the assignment was pretty standard but the way the vase was supposed to be created was different for both groups. The group A was told to create one vase and it will be rated based on the creativity level. The group B was told to create as many creative vases as possible. Ms. Wilson also presented to the class thresholds for particular grades: A – 10 vases B – 7-8 vases C – 4-6, etc. In group B what matters more was the number of vases not the creativity level. What do you think: which group created more creative vases? Yes, EMPIRICISM matters! As in the vases examples the same happens in almost every aspect of our lives. I wanted to say projects and products, but let’s be honest it’s not only limited to this area. OK, but what is empiricism? “To write great blog posts you need to write. Write a lot.”, “To bake amazing cakes you need to bake – a lot”, “To build amazing teams/products – you need to experience a lot of building” …And a lot of fails. I’ve read in the book Rework that from our failures we only learn how not to fail again but not how to win. As I feel that this sentence is highly true, true is also the fact that if we want to learn on how to win we have to try a lot to finally win and to be able to use this knowledge in the future. So why do most startups fail within the first year? They run out of money. But what’s more, they’re lacking experience! Empiricism means working in a fact-based, experience-based, and evidence-based manner. As we can read on the first pages of the Scrum Guide: “Scrum is founded on empirical process control theory, or empiricism.”. As well as Scrum, Kanban is a pragmatic and actionable method that uses empiricism to continuously improve and leverage evolutionary change. To be able to embrace the empiricism you need to master these four factors:

  • Transparency

  • Inspection

  • Adaptation

  • Goal

Everything starts with transparency. “This means presenting the facts as is.”[1] But to be able to face and deal with the full transparency we need to start from building trust on every level. Probably you all are familiar with the 5 dysfunctions of a team by Patrick Lencioni. At the bottom of the pyramid there is trust. Once we trust each other we can show facts and have a clear, open discussion about almost anything. The more we know, the better decisions we can make. In most cases because of the lack of information and visibility teams/organizations fail to improve and to achieve desired behaviours. As this area is the foundation for embracing change we should take proactive steps to continuously build trust and leverage levels of transparency. Starting from easy-to-follow communication through workflow visualization to setting clear and engaging goals. Following the Kanban Method we have a variety of tools and principles that will help to build-in transparency. Let’s take the first example: Visualizing work practice. This principle is strictly connected with increasing the transparency level. There are a number of benefits that come with deep implementation of this principle. For instance [2]:

  • Reduces overbuilding by visualizing and limiting the work-in-progress to the capacity of the individuals that make up the Kanban system

  • Facilitates timely and coherent decision making, collaboration and knowledge sharing

  • Reduces disruptions, and many more…

To start with process transparency I strongly recommend you to get yourself acquainted with the STATIK approach. You can read more about this method here. Having transparency is a key factor but not enough. Another ingredient of empiricism is Inspection and Adaptation. Inspection it’s a part of the process that refers to the Check stage from the PDCA (Deming’s) cycle. To learn more about this improvement cycle please watch our short video available here. It’s a way to step back for a moment and take a holistic view on what’s going on in our process from different perspectives. Outcomes of our recent plans, action items, improvements, etc. Take a magnifying glass and understand the nature of different aspects and how they impact your current situation. Inspection relies on transparency. Without a proper level of visibility of different aspects of work we won’t be able to inspect them. We don’t know what we don’t know until someone will tell us or we will be able to see it and then we can check what’s working and what’s not using inspection. So what is the adaptation? Once we have an understanding about different factors in our system the next thing would be to improve the overall systems’ performance (Act step from PDCA Cycle) by designing next steps and action items. The good practice is to design improvements for shorter and longer periods of time. Keep track of your improvement ideas and regularly reflect on them. But all of those things would be a waste without a clear and shared goal towards which we try to improve. Without the goal your improvements will be improvements instead of the improvements. Plan before acting and understand your goal first.

In the table below you can see some ideas of tools/techniques that support different empiricism aspects. Feel free to share other ideas with us and we will update the below table!

KateWait [1] [2] To learn more about the benefits and different tools for Kanban practices please read Kanban Maturity Model book by David J Anderson & Theodora Bozheva 

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