Heijunka – Humane work

The Tortoise and the Hare race

Operational Excellence AND Customer Intimacy, but not at once

In the previous blog entry, we saw how one company resolved the conflict between operational excellence and customer intimacy. They found a way to have both. But we didn’t implement both at the same time.

We first went for Operational Excellence. First we standardised, made things reliable, made work repeatable, not only in production but also in IT. The existing product definitions were inconsistent and complex. This made our code complex because we had to treat every product as a special case. Over a period of about one year all the product definitions and the code were refactored to new standardised forms. All of this happened while the system was in production and new features were released every two months. We got very good at refactoring and migrating without disrupting because we did it so often, in small steps.

A similar ‘refactoring’ happened on the production floor. Product line by product line was tackled: work cells clearly labeled, clear flow lines from input to output established, work in process limited… When I first went to see the production floor I nearly got lost between the piles of work in process and it was hard to see what was going on. After the changes, the area looked a lot more spacious and it was clear at a glance what was going on.

Once we had the production and development system under control, we started to think about customisation and getting more intimate with our customers.

Effectiveness AND Alignment, but not at once

This reminded of Alan Kelly’s blog entry about the “Alignment Trap“. In summary: we want our IT organisations to be effective (do things right) and aligned with business objectives (do the right things). Unfortunately, most organisations do neither.

If we want an organisation that does the right things and does them right, what strategy should we follow? Based on a study, Alan conjectures that it’s best to focus on effectiveness first, alignment second. First learn to do things right, then do the right things.

Managed and Agile, but not at once

I encounter a similar situation in many coaching and consulting engagements. Organisations want IT teams that are reliable, predictable and can be trusted to deliver as promised. And they also want them to be agile, deliver faster and respond to change. Lean and Agile can get you there.

What’s the first step? Usually, we need to bring things under control, clear away the clutter, reduce chaos, limit task switching, limit work in process and make things visible. This often involves “anti-agile” or “anti-lean” measures such as batching support, analysis and design work to avoid task switching and installing strict change management and issue prioritising to keep focus. I always get lots of complaints and get accused of “not being agile” from people who are used to the chaos and suddenly find that the team no longer asks “How High?” when they yell “JUMP!” Those who stop jumping find that they get a lot more done and that the results are better. They are less stressed.

Once we have the process under control, we can start improving the flow.We know how to do things, we can start to go a bit faster, in smaller steps; we can disrupt the stability to improve a bit. And then we find a new stability and so on.


Heijunka is one of the often forgotten Toyota Way principles. It means “levelling the load”, working at a steady, regular, sustained and sustainable pace. It means planning the work so that there’s a good balance between flow and the load on people and machines.

Large companies who impose just-in-time deliveries to their suppliers without levelling their orders abuse their suppliers. Teams who randomly request clarifications for stories burn out their Product Owner. Teams who push out releases faster than their customers and users can accept them throw away value.

Heijunka means making and keeping work humane.

Which small step can you take to make your work more humane?

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