The story behind Guerrilla Training

I recently announced a new agile and lean training concept that I am calling Guerrilla Training. Here’s why I’ve called it that, and a bit more on the thinking behind it.

Unconventional, yet highly effective

Guerrilla (noun)

a member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces…

referring to actions or activities performed in an impromptu way, often without authorization…

Guerrrila coffee

When I started thinking about setting up a series of training days that do things differently, my naming options were either Café Training, or Guerrilla Training. In the end, I went for Guerrilla, because the venues don’t necessarily have to be cafés, the definition of guerrilla, and also because I liked the gorilla/guerrilla pun.

To me being agile and lean is about being adaptable; trying different ways to do things better. My thinking is that agile and lean training should be different and better too.

The idea is to be effective, professional and focused, giving a platform for some of the best agile and lean practitioners in Melbourne to share their knowledge authentically.

Similar to Guerrilla Diplomacy, a guerrilla training aesthetic “places maximum value on innovation and on creating and sustaining an atmosphere of confidence, trust and respect.”

Start as you mean to go on

We’ve gotten off to a pretty good start, with Neil Killick and Craig Brown running the first Guerrilla Training session on Lean and Agile Project Management using Scrumjust yesterday. A Net Promoter Score of 57 is a great start, as is a comment like:

after yesterday, I now have a renewed sense of purpose for my particular Agile mission.

There’s more coming, so if you want to know more, go and read the Guerrilla Style Training page, and…

sign up for updates

Why the gorilla?

Gorilla GuerrillaOne of my favourite ever projects was in a team being intrapreneurial (the act of behaving like an entrepreneur while working within a large organization) within a rather large FT100 listed company. We had a lot of autonomy and purpose; far more than I had experienced before, and it was great.

At the beginning we bootstrapped like crazy, designing a logo ourselves, using MS Paint. Later when it became time to think more about branding our product, we discovered that we had a pretty close connection to Jon Hicks, a pretty prominent visual designer. He had worked at our company before furthering his career as a freelancer. Jon’s wife still worked there, so we casually asked whether he was busy at the moment. To my surprise and delight, he was willing and able to do some work for us.

Jon’s written a book about icon design, re-designed the Skype emoticons, designed the Mailchimp and Shopify logos, and is well known for working on the Firefox logo. Getting “the Firefox guy” to do a logo for one of my products remains a highlight of my career 🙂

He also did the gorilla logo for Clear Left’s “guerrilla user testing” app, Silverback, that you can see above. That’s why I did a little drawing of a gorilla and the cup of coffee.

What we can learn from the lean car plant, NUMMI

“In remembrance of NUMMI” by Hugo90 on flickr 1

The car in the photo above is a a Chevy Nova that was produced in Fremont, California, at a factory that was known as the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., or NUMMI. If you think it looks a bit like a Toyota Corolla, you would be right, for reasons that will become clear.

The story of NUMMI is a fascinating one, and I first came across it when the NPR radio series, This American Life, broadcast an episode about it. You can listen to the whole one hour episode in the embedded player, below. You can also go to the This American Life website to listen to the episode in 2 halves, or read the transcript. I come back to listen to it every few months, because it can tell us a lot about the nature of change, quality, empowerment, motivation, and culture in organisations.

Culture change

NUMMI was formed in 1984, from the ashes of a plant that GM had closed in 1982. General Motors reopened the plant, employing many of the same workers who had staffed, according to the United Auto Workers union, the former worst performing plant in the US. Employees of the defunct factory regularly drank on the job, had very high rates of absenteeism, and performed deliberate acts of ‘anti-QA’ sabotage, such as putting empty bottles inside car doors to annoy customers.

GM and Toyota had formed NUMMI as a joint venture to satisfy imperatives for both companies; GM needed to learn how to manufacture small cars cost effectively, with high quality standards, and Toyota to learn about producing cars in the US in the face of changing import laws.

Some of the American workers were sent to Japan to learn the Toyota Production System, and the results were remarkable. In a massive turnaround, NUMMI almost immediately began producing vehicles to quality standards that rivalled the Toyota factories in Japan that they had learnt from. The emphasis on quality inherent in the TPS, meant that employees became empowered to do things such as stopping the production line when they saw a problem, rather than allowing defects to build up and have to be fixed at a later stage.

“I believed that the system was bad, not the people” – Bruce Lee, union representative

Initially, the reemployed workers hated the idea of change, until they started going to Japan to view Toyota’s system at work. They were amazed at how empowered workers were in the Toyota Production System, and that people were expected to continuously improve, as a team.

“They had such a powerful and emotional experience, of learning a new way of working, a way that people could actually work together collaboratively, as a team” – John Shook, Toyota trainer.

The changed way of working and management, handed the NUMMI workers the opportunity to build in quality and to be engaged in problem solving and making improvements.

As Shook noted in a piece for MIT Sloan Management Review:

What changed the culture at NUMMI wasn’t an abstract notion of “employee involvement” or “a learning organization” or even “culture” at all. What changed the culture was giving employees the means by which they could successfully do their jobs.

‘No Problem’ is Problem!

The ability to highlight problems and fix the cause without placing blame on individuals, is a key learning. If fingers are pointed, people will have a tendency to pass the problem “down the (production) line” to make sure that there aren’t personal repercussions; asking “why” and not “who”. The American culture was, when asked how things were going, to respond “No Problem!”. However, the Toyota view was that saying “No problem”, was a problem itself. There are always “problems”, that if solved can spark improvement.

As Shook said when concluding his article:

The famous tools of the Toyota Production System are all designed around making it easy to see problems, easy to solve problems, and easy to learn from mistakes. Making it easy to learn from mistakes means changing our attitude toward them. That is the lean cultural shift.

What happens at NUMMI, stays at NUMMI

When GM tried to take the successes experienced at NUMMI to its other factories in the USA, it was generally a failure; at least for the first 10-15 years! Initially, GM sent 16 managers to California to start NUMMI, the ‘Commandos’, with the idea that they could go back to other parts of the company. However, there was no ‘master plan’ beyond that to extend this to other parts of such a large and complex organisation.

People at other plants didn’t have the same motivation to take on different ideas as the NUMMI workers had. “It’s a lot easier to get people to change if they have lost their jobs and then you offer them back”

To make real change, GM managers had to leave the US, and overhaul operations in Germany and Brazil, in the mid-90s. It took a decade and a half, a generational transformation, until there was a critical mass of people sufficient to change the whole of GM. To the point that by the early 2000’s, GM had what they called the “Global Manufacturing System”.

Continue reading…

Why I started the LAST Mini-conference

UPDATE – LAST Conference 2013 is scheduled for Friday 2 August 2013.


 LAST Day Melbourne is a one day, low cost, grassroots mini-conference for Lean, Agile, and Systems Thinking practitioners. The day will be structured to allow participation and interaction via workshops and activities, rather than death by projector.

Regular readers will remember my writeup about Agile Tour Sydney. That article had a call to action, regarding doing something along the same lines, here in Melbourne.

When I got back, I was able to enthuse Craig Brown, a fellow co-organiser in the Melbourne Meetup scene and we’ve been working on the idea for the last couple of months.

Originally, we wanted to do something really rapidly, holding the event in March, or even February. The Agile Tour is held between October and December, and I just couldn’t wait that long for Melbourne to have its turn.

Reality stepped in though, as we realised that we probably needed a little time to clear the New Year season and get our ducks in a row. Plan B was some time about now, perhaps just before or after Easter. We needed to have some space between our day and Agile Australia, which is in Melbourne at the end of May.

Eventually, we’ve settled on 27th July. Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn are our hosts, and we had to work in with the availability of the venue. We’re also aligning ourselves with the Developer, Developer, Developer day, and also Barcamp Melbourne; both of which will be held directly after our event, and we believe have a similar philosophy.
Craig argued the case that we should be quite broad with our outlook. So after some old fashioned brainstorming,  Systems Thinking, as well as Lean and Agile, were included in the name of the day. I had originally earmarked lastevent.com or lastday.com but the domain name registries had other ideas, so LAST Conference it is. I’m billing it as a “mini-conference” though, as I don’t want it to be a typical, big bang conference. We really want to borrow heavily from the “for practitioners, by practitioners” ethos of Agile Tour, and also the spirit of things such as Bar Camp, and Trampoline Day.

The emphasis on “Thinking” is no accident either. There is sometimes a tendency to have a focus on “best practice”, “techniques”, “tool kits”, and “cook books”; focusing on the How and less about Why we’re doing them.

We’re keeping the day affordable. The “normal” fee for registration is $50 but we’ve got discounts for those who book in early. We want to cover expenses and to encourage a commitment that a no cost event lacks.

I’m really excited about how this event can help the Melbourne agile and lean community.

To find out more: