From Factory to Labs – is that the better metaphor?

As you probably know this blog was partly inspired by my frustration with managers and leadership who compared IT delivery with factories. This year at Agile Australia I was very positively surprised that the topic of the factory metaphor came up in a few talks. I am really glad we finally talk about the problems that stem from management using manufacturing thinking for IT delivery. Given I have spoken about this before I don’t want revisit the reasons here and rather spend a bit of time on an alternative model that was put forward at the conference by Dom Price from Atlassian – it’s not a factory it’s a lab.

Look at this slide from the talk for a summary of why the Labs model is more appropriate.

2017-06-23 14.20.51

There is a lot I like about the Labs metaphor that could inspire better management – the inherent uncertainty around IT delivery, the data driven nature supported by the scientific method, building in failure as a normal occurrence for which we try to minimise the impact instead of assuming we could prevent it. That being said, I feel the Labs model might be taking it perhaps a step too far as there is a level of predictability that is required by management and by business stakeholders. A delivery roadmap highlighting features to be delivered is often underpinning the business case. I might be too far away from scientific labs and the right examples might exist, but it is my impression that those roadmaps are less common in labs than we would want in IT. My experience with labs has been that timelines are full of unknowns, more than we would accept in IT delivery.

At this point there are three mental models that I am aware of, the factory, the design studio and the lab. I believe the first one is the dangerous one to use as inspiration for management principles, for the last two I am hopeful that combined it might make for the right inspiration for management going forward. I have to think a bit more about this on the back of Agile Australia. Stay tuned as I will be coming back to this topic.

2 thoughts on “From Factory to Labs – is that the better metaphor?

  1. Mark McLaughlin

    I think analogies and metaphors all lead to problems. Personally I try to avoid both and just talk about problems and solutions. People always look for the holes/mismatches etc rather than focusing on the positives of the analogy or metaphor. Looking at the two case you have referenced here in the article for example I’m going to do exactly that…

    The original Factory example that was used to relate factories to software was about process improvement – the Toyota car production line case. I would argue the only two that are relevant on the list provided are process driven and command and control. The others are not relevant to that case. Factories are not inherently static, fear based, etc. That is an artefact of the process and culture. Any factory manager is always looking for ways to be more efficient.

    On the Lab example… I agree there are problems here too. I’d argue that is a bit too slated to a vision of what a lab *could* be like.

    I know some scientists that work in labs. “Embrace Failure” is one that they rarely afford. Often they wouldn’t get funding unless they could make an assumption (hypothesis) and have well defined business case up front on how they intend to test that assumption and what the potential benefit is of being able to prove or disprove it. If anything it is far more like a traditional waterfall project.

    Yes there are labs that can just blue sky ideas but I’d assert they are in the minority. The skunkworks type labs might be closer to what Dom was trying to say but to me that is really too far removed from a model for software development overall. I think your Design Studio is closer to the mark if you really must have an analogy but I wonder even if that veers too far away from process for at least some software teams and projects.


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