Collecting Fieldstones

Collection fieldstones


As you read earlier, I’m reading “Weinberg on Writing: the Fieldstone Method“.

I’ve begun to consciously think about how I collect fieldstones.

Slippery fieldstones

I get most of the material for what I write by reading, by thinking about what I read and by writing about what I think. There are plenty of fieldstones. The problem is collecting them.

I don’t always have something to write ideas down, especially when I’m reading. I have an inhibition against “mutilating books” by cracking their spines, writing in them, folding down corners of interesting pages or putting sticky notes in them. In any case, I don’t have sticky notes on me when I’m reading. This means I must trust my memory to collect interesting fieldstones.

A few days ago, I was re-reading “The Toyota Way” to collect material for my presentation at XP Day France, when I came across this fantastic fieldstone: “Obeya”. This was a perfect fit for what I wanted to convey with the presentation. With this word, I could link two sections of the presentation. I tried to remember the word. And I did… for 5 minutes, or so. And then I forgot the word.

I don’t worry too much when I forget something: if it’s important it will come back. “Obeya” came back when I was getting something to drink from the fridge. This time I could keep the word in memory long enough to write it down on the back of an envelope. Whew! Later that day, I added “Obeya” to the presentation.

Leaving stones behind is not too bad. If the fieldstones are good, they’ll turn up again.

Playing with words

Weinberg describes many ways of playing with the text. There’s one I used to use long ago at school, when I didn’t have any “inspiration” to write an essay.

I opened the dictionary at random points and scanned the pages for “interesting” words. There are many ways a word can be interesting: the sound or the shape of the word, the meaning, an “exotic” origin… I usually collected between 10 and 15 random words like that.

Then I shuffled the words. Weinberg calls this “playing Solitaire” with the words. Slowly, the words would prompt a story. The only thing I had to do was write that story down, using at least 10 of my “chosen” words. Quick and easy.

I particularly enjoyed obscure or unusual words. I pictured the teacher looking up all those words in their dictionary. I thought they might learn something by grading my work. I think they mostly learned that I’m an obnoxious smart aleck…

There are many more “games” like that in the book. I’m going to try a few of them. I particularly like “Dani’s Decimation”, a game where you remove 1/Nth of words from every sentence, 1/Nth sentences from a paragraph. It’s bound to simplify my writing.

Playing with structure

There’s another writing game that I play, that’s not in the book. For the “Things I didn’t Learn” series, I imposed a certain structure on the stories, to see what would happen.

I started with three stories and tried to give them a common structure. You need at least three exemplars before you can generalize (like in framework writing). You need at least three before you can start to talk about “series”.

Once these three stories were composed in my head, using the common structure, I started to think about other stories that I could fit in the format. Working against the limitation of a fixed format, I found more stories that would fit. Each of them had to have a certain structure:

  • I encounter a problem that others have also encountered
  • I solve it using an Extreme Programming or Agile technique
  • But I go back to using the tried and true ways. The problem reappears.
  • Everyone (me included) says “that’s how it’s supposed to be”. Software projects are meant to go badly. If there were a way that projects could succeed, we would have to change our ways of working. There is no such way, so we can’t be blamed if things fail.

An outline’s not for me

Weinberg warns that writing from an outline usually doesn’t work very well for him. It doesn’t work for me either. I prefer the collecting-shuffling-writing-rearranging method.

Sometimes I have to follow an outline. For example, the “Toyota Way” book contains 14 principles, which are part of 4 categories. I’ve kept this structure for my presentation. I use the 14 principles and 4 categories as a “backbone”. For the rest, I’ve collected fieldstones and put them where they made most sense. And then I rearranged them, and rearranged them again. I’m still rearranging and will probably continue to do so until the day before the presentation. But still, the 14 principles are there.

The 4 categories are still there, but I reordered them. The book presents the philosophy first. I prefer to keep it at the end. That way, the presentation ends on a strong note, building up from the Process practices like Flow, Pull, Heijunka… Then we have the People principles, then Problemsolving and finally Philosophy.

P.S. If you’re curious about the meaning of “Obeya” and you haven’t looked it up yet, “Obeya” is the Japanese for “Big Room”. It’s the name given to the practice of putting all people involved in the design of a car in one big room, so as to facilitate communication. This word is useful for two purposes:

  • “Obeya” is a practice that is the same in the Toyota Way and in Agile Development. It reinforces the idea that Agile and the Toyota Way share some practices. In the presentation, I want to show that they also share most of the principles, even if the practices are different.
  • “Obeya” links two sections, the one on “Learning” and the one on “People and Partners”. Letting people work together lets them learn from each other, encourages frequent integrations and speeds up “Nemawashi”, seeking consensus. Engineers from partner companies also work in the “Obeya”, so that their designs are perfectly integrated with the rest of the design. Working in the Obeya, these engineers experience The Toyota Way firsthand. They can become ambassadors and sensei of the Toyota Way in their own companies.

p.p.s. As you may have noticed, these days I like to write stories around obscure Japanese terms 🙂

Tags: agile, Toyota Way,XP Day

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