You looking for high performance? My Top 5.

Over the years I have been impressed with the Tavistock Institute. Their insights, discoveries and careful examination of the differences between lower and higher performance work systems has much value for theorists, practitioners and organisational leaders alike.

This week I have been reflecting on the principles of high performance work systems.  By this term I simply mean bringing together work, teams (people), technology and information dashboards (real-time quality reporting) in such a design or way that this optimizes the ‘fit’ between the work and the customer/users. We want the ‘fit’ to optimise the flow of work; with feedback loops and agile responses to customer feedback. This is the purpose.. the ‘why’ we bring these elements together in this way.

These are 5 principles that hold true:-

  1. Although rule and procedures are critical to success; no more rules should be specified that are absolutely essential. And by essential we can literally ‘lean’ the rules all the way back to determine the actual essential nature of the rule. A fab example is the need for a Change Advisory Board (CAB) in IT. I have found with larger organisations these have demonstrable quality outcomes. Whereas over time as teams ‘learn, grow and adapt’ they get better at meeting the quality criteria for a CAB; and in turn, much of the CAB processes become ‘lighter, smarter and automated’ rather than in the early days ‘heavy, cumbersome and manual’. There is no right nor wrong here; each organisation will be different, and the same organisation will have differences given their own maturity.
  2. Information dashboards should be designed in the first place to provide sufficient information to the point of genuine responsive action and team problem solving. For Kanban teams this would include, for example, cumulative flow and released value; and for Scrum teams this would include Backlog stories released; bug tracking; and velocity.
  3. Each member of a team should be skilled in more than one function so we can maximise agility and adaptability. In IT we call this the ‘T-shaped’ career so as to note both specialist depth, but at the same time, breadth of associated team member work.
  4. Variances (or if you are using lean six-sigma deviations) from the ideal process should be controlled at the point of origin or point of failure. This calls for genuine process control mapping and root cause analysis.
  5. Roles that are interdependent should be within the departmental boundaries. This encourages faster and improved collaboration, communication and clarity of purpose.

What are the outcomes from the evidence from this approach you’ll be asking next? These are key:-

  • Increased agility to respond to customers
  • Lower turnover and absenteeism
  • Increased quality and better quality solutions ‘upstream’
  • Enhanced internal team motivation, resilience and sense of purpose
  • Increased learning in and between team members as across teams too
  • Reduced costs and waste

I do hope this approach brings you the same set of results as my own experiences over the last 17-years!

Take care, Jason

Has silence lost its power for us?

Over the last few weeks I have been curious about the role of silence. Many of my critical friends have expressed genuine curiosity about my retreat; and more especially that it is a silent retreat.


Given the kind questions, I thought I’d try to express some of my interest in this and see where this takes me/us. By way of some background, over the last seven years I have honestly found that Rabbi Sacks regularly speaks into my heart, my life, current questions and concerns, and even many of my personal  interests.

I’ve placed this link in here for you for the full text as it is well worth a read Rabbi Sacks

Rabbi Sacks makes a fascinating point into some of the reasons why God might have selected the desert to reveal the Torah or Law that would later mark-out a Nation we today call Israel.

He shares this:-

“…But there is another, more spiritual reason. The desert is a place of silence. There is nothing visually to distract you, and there is no ambient noise to muffle sound. To be sure, when the Israelites received the Torah, there was thunder and lightning and the sound of a shofar. The earth felt as if it were shaking at its foundations. But in a later age, when the prophet Elijah stood at the same mountain after his confrontation with the prophets of Baal, he encountered God not in the whirlwind or the fire or thunder”

He then adds this “The sages valued silence. They called it ‘a fence to wisdom’. If words are worth a coin, silence is worth two. Shimon ben Gamliel said, “All my days I have grown up among the wise, and I have found nothing better than silence.

The silence that counts, in Judaism, is thus a listening silence (emphasis is mine) – and listening is the supreme religious art. Listening means making space for others to speak and be heard. As I point out in my commentary to the Siddur, there is no English word that remotely equals the Hebrew verb sh-m-a in its wide range of senses: to listen, to hear, to pay attention, to understand, to internalise and to respond in deed”

Incidentally, there is a Japanese word that gets a little closer to the Hebrew than the English. The Japanese word includes both the heart and the ears- signifying the connection of one’s empathy and deeper understanding.

Rabbi Sacks then invites us to ask some quite profound and soul searching questions:-

  • Do we, in marriage, really listen to our spouses?
  • Do we as parents truly listen to our children?
  • Do we, as leaders, hear the unspoken fears of community?
  • Do we really listen to those we seek to lead?
  • Do we internalise the sense of hurt of the people who feel excluded?

But what of others faiths?

If we turn to the Buddha we find the loving story of Kisa Gotami. Her life was struck by a series of tragedies. First, she lost her husband, and then another family member and then her only beloved son got ill and he eventually died. Striken with grief she carried her son’s dead body with her pleading for medicine to help to bring him back from the dead.

Someone then told her to speak to the Buddha, which she did. The Buddha promised to help her. He sent her to get some (very commonly found) mustard seed from the local village. Just as she left to leave, he added:

But Kisa you must find this from a home that has never lost a member of the family, a relative or friend“. Of course, she searched and searched; but each time found that every home had lost someone who they cared for. She eventually returned to the Buddha asking for his blessing on her son’s soul and for him to teach her more. History tells us that she became a genuine disciple of his.

The wise Greek mathematician Pythagoras has this wise sentiment: “Be silent or let your words be worth more than silence”

This is a fab quote from Ben Okri: “Tranquility is the resolution of the tensions and paradoxes of story into something beyond story; into stillness.

He also offers this lovely idea too:

“I think we need more of the wordless in our lives. We need more love, more silence, more deep listening, more deep giving”. 

The founder of Christianity, Jesus, also made space for silence.We can read from Mark 1:35

“Early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up and slipped out to a solitary place to pray” 

So what style, or form, of silence?

So I guess I am talking about a generative or creative silence as Sue Hollingsworth and Ashley Ramsden call it.They describe this as “A creative space full of potential and curiosity, a companionable moment rich in imagination and feeling”

This is more than simply mental stillness. This is a space to quieten the mind and stop the mind’s endless chattering, and remind myself that some of the most insightful and helpful times come when the world just settles into quiet. To listen as Rabbi Sacks has so eloquently described it.

Mother Teresa says “See how nature: trees, flowers, grass- grows in silence; see the starts, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence…we need silence to be able to touch souls”.  

A silent retreat like St Beuno’s is of course one form of a retreat. However,  there are others. One example, is the one that I am attending in a few weeks time with the Centre for Narrative Leadership. Here we are exploring the ‘The Stories We Are’.  I’ve put the link in here for you Narrative Leadership

Stated briefly, we are going to ‘explore the ways in which we create our identity through stories and to consider how, in our various fields of practice, how we can better help individuals and groups come to understand and sometimes to change their stories’.

Together we are going to consider such questions as:

  • How do we create, maintain, and explore our identity through stories ?
  • How do we better let go of the old stories when they no longer serve?
  • How do we find, co-create and share the new stories with each other?
  • How do we bring them into an emerging context that can shape our future?

I’m sure there will be so time both for discussion, inquiry and much much more. I’m sure too that I’ll expereince the power of silence in the ways that I’ve tried to describe.

Take care Jason.



Symbiotic Transformation

My current inquiry concerns systemic leadership and its associated organisational transformation. I’m fascinated by the ways by which ‘whole systems’ thinking, strategic design /planning and systemic relationships can co-create lasting participative transformational change.

To this end I’ve been engaged in some first-person work asking my critical friends: How well am I doing in terms of behaving, talking and relating in a more systemic way? Linked to this was an insightful question from one friend who asked me:

“What is it you are trying to do? What is the outcome you have in mind?”.

I sat for a few minutes in silence letting the question settle. Some initial ideas surfaced and I made a link between a recent Constellation I’d been on where a leader of a charity shared her vision of raising human consciousness to a new point that we live in a more balanced, sustainable and respectful way for all sentient beings. I recall being moved by such a bold but equally essential vision. I shared this with my friend and then I added:

“So I think I am looking to raise our systemic consciousness within our department and perhaps even within the organisation”. The next set of carefully challenging questions from my friend helped me to work through some of the options around the ‘how’.

It then struck me, quite powerfully, that what we/I need is access, or availability, of more systemic language: metaphors, myths, and stories to draw from. We need new stories and to be able to share them. These new stories will help shape our organisational ecology in systemic ways.

This is my current learning-edge. This is where I am ‘at’ right now.

One interesting idea that has caught my imagination is symbiosis. You’ll recall this is two separate living organisms living in harmony together. There is a beautiful example of this in this short video here:-


What I love about this is the way by which the algae has adapted itself to its host. In turn, the host has ‘accepted’ the algae through a symbiotic interaction or relationship. Rather than being seen as an invading parasite, that the host would reject in one way or another, the algae has been accepted. As you can see, the host and the newcomer benefit from the new relationship as two parts of a new, emergent ‘whole’. In fact, it gets even better for the host as they benefit from the converted sunlight from the algea as a new powerful source of energy. It is to coin a phrase from management-speak a ‘win:win’ relationship.

I’ve been wondering to what extent we can draw an analogy from this for new ways of working? For example, when we are looking to follow UK Government policy by becoming more agile? This does speak to me. Ensuring that the ‘host’ organisation seems the new relationship as symbiotic and that it can have demonstrable benefits from a ‘new and powerful source of energy’ seems like a fascinating, life-affirming new story in this space!

Take care, Jason.







Agile Testing: The Test Flight.

There is something really #Agile about the ways by which this successful and very extreme testing resonates with me as a Scrum Master and Certified Scrum Professional.

This film is worth watching as you can see and hear the ways by which Boeing test pilots have subjected the new 747-8 Freighter to extreme testing.

Watch and you can see, hear and experience the ways that the plane has been dragged, dropped, soaked, forced to hover, shudder and flutter. This testing has costs millions of pounds. The testing takes the plane to the most extreme limits of what is to be expected when in the real world, or in software terms, the ‘live environment’.

Interestingly, there are a number of  what in software development we call ‘negative Use Cases’ such as deliberate stalls and flutter tests. The testing from what in Agile we call beta testing. Way before live!


It might be worthwhile where I am ‘coming from’. I work in the civil service and we have this fab team at the GDS that undertake the research and shape policy so that we can be the most effective in delivery. To this end, we are all Agile teams most of us use Scrum, Kanban or Scrumban.

Government Digital Service: UK Policy

Beta Outputs

Notice the similarity with the testing of the plane and the UK Government policy around what constitutes the end of the beta phase:

  • delivered an end-to-end prototype of the service (including SIT, stress and performance testing)
  • a collection of prioritised work to be done (your Product backlog)
  • a user testing plan (UAT)
  • accurate metrics and measurements to monitor your KPIs (given the above for performance, stress and integration)
  • fully tested the assisted digital support for your service
  • a working system that can be used, for real, by end users

Because it is an #Agile design notice that component testing, performance, load, stress and continuous integration run all the way through the software product lifecycle. We would also ensure a full regression test at the end of the cycle.

This is because we want to identify and fix any bug as part of continuous agile improvements and not wait until the end of all the software development has been finished and have a large ‘testing phase’ at the end delaying delivery and be reliant upon a small team rather than having those skills (and availability of automated technologies) in each and every Scrum team.

Once you have this concept, then notice the shift as we Go Live:

Going live

To provide a fully resilient service to all end users the service should now meet all security and performance standards. You have configured your analytics to accurately monitor the key performance indicators identified in the building of your service.

I write this in the hope of looking forward we can get a deeper sense and appreciation of the fantastic ways by which Agile (when understood and implemented properly) ensures the highest quality. It also ensures the most effective use of resources and flexible responses to feedback from customers- this ensuring that time, quality and costs (the ‘holy trinity’) are maximised.

Take care Jason



What we learned from our last successful Show and Tell.

This week we held a successful show and tell. We learned a number of lessons along the way and this weeks blog is our attempt to share our learning.


The first point is an obvious one but worth a gentle reminder and that is making ‘design’ choices to meet the different needs, learning styles and interests of the different stakeholders.

To this end we created 5 personas. These helped us to think through and then ‘design-in’ key insights and learning-points, so that they could make a meaningful connection to the session.

  1. The first was the senior manager ‘Lucy’. She was very busy working across the portfolio and wanted to understand and appreciate the strategic ‘big picture’ and then the ways by which this particular project stage (as expressed in the Show and Tell or Demo) neatly weaved together in the overall project’s narrative. For ‘Lucy’ we created a colourful and metaphoric visual poster. The poster expressed the narrative of an exploration ‘discovery ship’ taking their journey; and whilst doing so stopping-off at various ‘treasure’ islands before reaching ‘The New World’ that signified the project end date in December. Lucy would also want to understand the ways by which the functions and services shape the product. 
  2. The next persona was ‘Keith’. Keith understands his professional world from diagrams and work-flows as well as appreciating the logical parts between the key sequences. Keith is an Agile Architect. To meet his needs we had a ten minute slot from our Architect that provided first-class diagrams and an excellent explanation alongside.
  3. Next, we imagined that Jack ‘saw’ the project from the customer’s functional and experiential perspectives. Examples came to mind from marketing, customer insight, sales and other external or customer facing departments. For ‘Jack’ we had a ten minute slot from our UX team member. She very neatly weaved the functionality with the User Interface screens with the end-to-end clicks. She also provided evidence from her applied research with Users and the ways by which UX insights are shaping and have shaped the iterative product development in exciting, fresh and innovative ways.
  4. ‘Tony’ was interested in the detailed technical side of things. We saw Tony as a .net developer with interests in BDD and UX. We hoped that his needs would be met by a blend or combination of all the ten minute slots; but perhaps more especially by the UX and Architectual slots.
  5. Lastly,  was imagined that ‘Tom’ was an analyst. For his needs we shared the insights from our team leader BA. She also included what we had delivered to date, as well as highlighting the work that was out of the current scope. Her upbeat and engaging report noted what work packages would be picked-up in the portfolio/programme at some future point.  To bring a sense of ‘wholeness’ or Gestalt to the Show and Tell, our final speaker was our Product Owner. He deliberately selected a simple, clear but very poignant and powerful message that clarified the ways by which the project’s capability enabled transformation in two important ways. Firstly, for customer centricity and lastly, for enabling the changes needed for the businesses operating model.

The next lesson is the need to practice and gain feedback. We did this in three ways. Firstly, as a team we filmed ourselves and gave each other candid feedback. Next, we did a second ‘dry-run’ in the same room that we were using for the Show and Tell.  We did this as we wanted to test the IT equipment to ensure that everything was working as we hoped. Of course, if there were any last-minute glitches then these could be resolved in a timely manner. Lastly, after we finished the Show and Tell we also invited participant feedback using ‘post-it’ notes.

It is fair to say that this has been our most successful Show and Tell to date. The team have received life-affirming feedback both formal and informal; which is reassuring as we made a short film by way of dissemination for those stakeholders that could not make the date/time. It is our team’s hope that by sharing what worked for us that this may give rise to questions for you, and perhaps your team, in terms of the ‘design features’ that might work for you and your various stakeholders.

Take care, Jason


Kanban perfect flow- but at what cost?

Over the last few weeks we’ve been improving the flow of the team’s work by adopting Kanban. And to be fair with a significant amount of success, including the experimentation/testing of new ideas, suggestions and ideas from different work areas and/or disciplines. As part of this curiosity, one of the team members emailed me a link to this fascinating case-study from Japan. (This was originally featured in the Wall Street Journal).

The article is entitled:‘Japanese Firm Uses a Single-Worker System to Make Its Products’ with the strap-line stating that ‘With the Help of Digital Tools, Any Roland DG Employee Can Build Any Product’ which is I’ll think you’ll agree quite incredible! 

A bit of contextual information might be useful.

The firm is Roland DG. They are a small company with about $300 million in annual sales and just short of 1,000 employees. Roland DG have quite a broad range of products, and they make everything from billboard printers to machines that shape dental crowns! The key concept is what they refer to as the ‘D-shop’. 

The ‘D-shop’ method means that workers in single-person stalls assemble products from the total end-to-end flow or from start to finish. This is quite something to see in all fairness! Each solitary worker is carefully guided by 3-D graphics and to maximise flow parts are delivered automatically from a rotating rack. The article claims that each and every worker is capable of assembling any variation of the 50 products in their range or portfolio.

The picture (below) captures the sense of a Roland worker making an industrial printer. To this end the employee follows prompts provided on the computer (1), they in turn pull the identified pieces from the rotating parts rack (2) and with using digital screwdrivers (3) that track the precise number of turns and torque so as to ensure the product quality standards.

On a typical day you can find an employee assembling from scratch an industrial printer that ultimately would be more than twice her size and weigh almost 900 pounds. In a different cell, another co-worker was making a prototype milling machine. Then in a third pod or cell another was assembling the dental-crown milling machine. You can easily get the sense of just-in-time production methods fully integrated with the finest Kanban principles for maximising flow including reducing any hand-overs to other workers to zero! Quite incredible. It is reported that workers are rarely confused given the level of training. However,when they are, the design includes a button that when pressed will bring the floor manager running to help within a few seconds.

What do you make of this? For those of us with a professional interest in agile working including Kanban, Lean methods and value streaming etc we would have to concede that the ‘D-shop’ is impressive along a number of criteria. However, when I watch, listen and learn from my own team what is missing, for me, is the social interactions of team-working. I know this seems obvious, but it did strike my interest and chime with my own embodied (and Western) values.

This gives rise to certain questions such as:-

  • What motives us to work or different types of work?
  • What does not?
  • Where are the ‘trade-off’ points?
  • Are workers from Japan different from us in the West?

I’ll pick-up the evidence from the first three points and then lend some speculation to the final point.

In a recent survey 72% of employees ranked “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” to be the most important factor in job satisfaction. #respect

After that the other factors were:-

  • trust between employees and senior management (64%)
  • benefits (63%)
  • compensation/pay (61%)
  • job security (59%).

(See the Society for Human Resource Management).

The most fascinating insight from the survey was that the actual work itself was ranked all the way down the list to number 11. Of course, if the sector in which you work has fairly stable levels of trust, benefits, pay and security; then by definition, the ways by which the work is organised and made satisfying become all the more important or relevant. This would hold all the more in sector where the supply side for key workers is short and current market demand is high. In this latter scenario work design and job satisfaction are key ingredients for talent recruitment strategies.

So what about our Japanese case-study? Evidently, in this labour market workers are attracted by such modern, clean, well paid and varied work. They seem satisfied with the work design and by that I mean by working in isolated cells or pods. There seems little room for individual or team creativity or innovation to me. And these are key characteristics of Agile.

So they seem to have maximised flow but at what cost? It seems to me the costs are the social and psychological costs that interesting and demanding work brings, and especially in high performing teams. Perhaps it is the history of Scrum within software development that means that I have framed it in this way?

Stated simply, it is evident that these Japanese workers have a qualitatively different psychological work contract to that which underscores our current Western notions of Agile working. It seems that there is then, after all, more to Agile working (and values) than (just?) maximising flow and having the optimal value stream?

Are we, in the main,  social beings that enjoy, delight and find satisfaction in working in teams? This seems to chime true to my experience to date. But I recognise that I have always lived and worked in the West. So there are limits to my experience.