QCon London 2011 Talk Review „Complexity vs. Lean“ by Jurgen Appelo

I have decided to write some reviews about keynotes and talks I attended to and found excellent and important for our IT-world. These reviews are based on my memories and notices only. They of course represent my personal view on the topics and most probably are not 100% compliant with the intentions of the speakers :).

So let’s start with the first one: “Complexity vs. Lean” provided by Jurgen Appelo.

It was early afternoon on Thursday 10th, 2011 as I decided going back to Elizabeth Windsor Room and continue hearing talks from the “Lean and Kanban: Learning Through Systems Thinking” track. Until now I have missed something new and fresh, something with the kick. Most sessions I had heard before were filled out with the “well-known” information about Agile, Lean, Kanban etc. packed in a new “presentation” paper. However, based on the title “Complexity vs. Lean” I hadn’t expected anything new, though… but I was wrong.

Jurgen’s talk was split in two parts. The first part was aimed to explain what “complexity” and “complexity thinking” is. Jurgen gave an overview about different theories that were and are important for the IT world and actually for the whole human being. He talked shortly about the “General System Theory”, “Cybernetic”, “Dynamic Systems Theory”, “Game Theory”, “Chaos Theory” etc. and even the “Evolution Theory”. As far as I understood, his “Complex Systems Theory” is strongly descriptive-oriented and based on the collection of other theories, in contrast to the lean software development, which is rather prescriptive means describing “what to do”, not “what it is”.

Further on, he discussed what the complexity is (difficult to predict) and the problems with the ambiguous definitions of the “simple”, “complicated”, “complex” and “chaotic” systems. He presented his own system classification matrix with three columns titled “ordered”, “complex”, “chaos” (in case of predictability) and two rows titled “simple”, “complicated” (in case of understandability). Additionally he pointed out the importance of so called “black swans” means unpredictable big events (like 9/11 or the current situation in Japan after the earthquake and tsunami). This part of the talk was really great. To conclude it Jurgen discussed his “Management 3.0 Model named Martie” (a management monster) with six views named “Energize People”, “Empower Teams”, “Align Constraints”, “Develop Competence”, “Grow Structure” and “Improve Everything”. I’ve already ordered his new book “Management 3.0” to learn more. It was fresh and innovative.

During the second part Jurgen took the principles of Lean (seven) and Kanban (five) on the board and tried to negate them using his very good rhetoric skills. Some of them I found very noticeable (don’t eliminate waste just to eliminate it, if the cost of the waste maintenance is low or the problem with multi-workflow visualization in Kanban), some of them were not as obvious (like the interpretation of the “see the whole” principle of lean as “optimize the whole”). Jurgen pointed out that the root-cause analysis might not be suitable if there is no cause. Cool. He discussed also the problem of observing and optimizing the system from its outside (as defined by the systems thinking), what is in his opinion wrong and should be done from the inside of the system. Another great topic was the idea to “support” kaizen (continuous improvement) with kaikaku (radical change) to jump out from the local optimization (thus actually executing tasks based on the negated “see the whole” principle ;).

Yeah, that was great talk that moved some of my agile “points of view” out of the paralyzed zone. My head is now full of new ideas. I just have to implement them; thanks Jurgen.


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