What’s New?

When I was in university ten years ago, it seemed that Total Quality Management was all the rage in business schools. Terms like employee empowerment, quality control, quality circles, lean manufacturing and statistical process control seemed to be on the lips of the wise.

Nowadays, I am seeing the same ideas that were put forward by people ten or twenty years ago called fancy things like “Agile Software Management.” Some of these recent thoughts would seem at home in Feigenbaum’s Total Quality Management from the 1950s. Some of them were good ideas in the past, and are good ideas now, even if they are rehashed under a new name. We see this kind of behavior repeated over time.

Many early large organizations in North America were railroad companies. They were among the first to discover that large companies faced unique problems. Over one hundred and fifty years ago, Daniel McCallum defined a management structure that was widely adopted and that we are familiar with today. The next time you look at an org chart, feel free to silently thank him.

Prior to the great railroad empires of the 19th century, mercantilism was a dominant economic belief. Adam Smith and his colleagues attacked this model and wrote of a free market system. The system was driven by consumer wants and competition. To survive as a viable business in this system, you needed to be productive. This obsession with productivity is still with us today.

In the early 20th century, Frederick Taylor and the Gilbreths made this into an art form. They employed Time and Motion studies; they lectured and wrote on how workers could increase efficiency, and thereby improve productivity. Today, many decry the work of Taylor and the Gilbreths for various reasons, but we still feel the pressure of efficiency. In fact, not unlike the poor bricklayers, assembly-line workers, or coal shovelers, knowledge-based workers find themselves in a culture obsessed with speed of development and zero defects. Today, we give it names like “Lean” or “Evo”.

As organizations grew larger, thinkers like Henri Fayol came up with systems to deal with the administrative side of management. It emerged as a system of planning, organizing, directing, co-ordinating and controlling. Max Weber was an early thinker who felt that organizations should be socially responsible. It’s interesting that almost one hundred years ago Fayol and Weber expounded on beliefs that we hear echoed today.

Somewhere along the way, management thinkers realized that people do the work, and that no matter what kind of machines we have, or automation we employ, an organization is only as good as its people. Fritz Roethlisberger described the all-too-human Hawthorne Effect. His contemporaries felt that human factors contributed to productivity. Abraham Maslow introduced his hierarchy of needs theory, and now we have volumes of work in this area. Today we are well aware of human factors in organizations. Just talk to someone in Human Resources about their typical day.

Management theory began to embrace innovation as a key component. Over the past twenty years (at least) this has been a major theme. When was the last time you attended a management seminar that didn’t extol the virtues of Toyota, Federal Express and Wal-Mart? Often, the ability to harness technology is trotted out as a factor in the success of those companies. (As a side note, Toyota’s quality scores are carefully examined, but their product recalls are not usually discussed in those venues. Toyota makes a great product, but they aren’t perfect. I have jokingly threatened colleagues that if I hear one more software process wonk drag out Toyota as an example, I will scream. It is an empty threat though – I haven’t yet screamed in a meeting.)

In software development circles, we are faced with some interesting new ideas. Let’s examine the Agile software development movement. The Agile Manifesto was thrust on the scene by respected software thinkers over five years ago. I, like many others, was excited by this statement. Here was an acknowledgment of the humanistic endeavor of software development. It not only made sense but it resonated with my beliefs. Something sounded familiar, though. Agile Manufacturing was an idea that was brought forward in 1995 in a book: “Agile Competitors and Virtual Organizations: Strategies for Enriching the Customer” by Steven L. Goldman, Roger N. Nagel and Kenneth Preiss. According to wikipedia, these are four key attributes in the book:

  1. delivering value to the customer;
  2. being ready for change;
  3. valuing human knowledge and skills;
  4. forming virtual partnerships.

Those sound like good ideas. I don’t know if they inspired the Agile software development movement or not, but even if they did, it doesn’t detract from the points of Agile manifesto. It may just tell us that a lot of people have been struggling for a long time with the complexity of organizations trying to work together towards common goals. Maybe they just came to similar conclusions.
Another new idea on the software development front is adapted from lean manufacturing. The Poppendiecks are at the forefront of this push in the software movement. I like a lot of what Mary and Tom say. It is thoughtful, makes a lot of sense, and they have the experience to back up their claims. However, I get concerned about doing a copy/paste from the manufacturing world and applying it to software development. David Benoit sums this up eloquently:

[I]t still amazes me how many people don’t seem to understand that software development has very little in common with real-world-object development. The creation of software is most like the creation of art. To be good it must be inspired. To be of interest it must be unique. To be worth something it must be different.

As time marches on, I find I am faced with an uncomfortable truth: software development, like any other human organizational effort, is a complex endeavor. There aren’t formulas to guide us that will always work in every situation. And, as much as we have progressed into a modern age, we still struggle with the same things organizations have struggled with for centuries, or millennia. We are still re-inventing the same solutions and are still trying to come up with new ones. Sometimes what is “new” is merely the “old” with a different name. Maybe the author of Ecclesiastes was right when they said: “there is nothing new under the sun.”