ALI2019 Keynote Interview – Mary Poppendieck

With Agile-Lean Ireland 2019 only a few short months away, we had a chat with one of our keynote speakers, Mary Poppendieck, to find out her thoughts on topics ranging from eliminating proxies, Lean, scaling Agile, and more…


ALI: When did you first start applying Lean to your software development work? Where did you get the inspiration from?

Mary: I think its important to set the record straight – most early software engineering was done in a manner we now call ‘Lean.’ When I was learning how to program, I was assisting a physicist do research into high energy particle tracing. The first computer I worked on was a minicomputer that he scrounged up from a company that had gone bankrupt. With a buggy Fortran compiler and a lot of assembly language, we controlled a film scanner that digitized bubble chamber film and identified frames with unique events for further study. My next job was designing automated vehicle controls in an advanced engineering department of General Motors. From there I moved to an engineering department in 3M where we developed control systems for the big machines that make tape.

In a very real sense, I believe that lean ideas are simply good engineering practices, and since I began writing code in good engineering departments, I have always used lean ideas when developing software.

ALI: From the organizations you’ve worked with, what have been some of the most common challenges associated with Lean transformations?

Mary: Far and away the most common problem occurs when companies head into a transformation for the sake of the transformation, instead of clearly and crisply identifying the business outcomes that ar expected as a result of the transformation. You don’t do agile to do agile. You don’t do lean to do lean. You don’t do digital to do digital. You do these things to create a more engaging work environment, earn enough money to support that environment, and build products or services that truly delight customers.

So an organization that sets out on a transformation should be looking at these questions:

  1. Is the transformation unlocking the potential of everyone who works here? How do we know?
  2. Are we creating products and services that customers love and will pay for? How do we know?
  3. Are we creating the reputation and revenue necessary to sustain our business over the long run?

ALI: There’s lots of talk now around scaled Agile frameworks such as SAFe, Nexus, LESS, etc. with mixed results. How do you approach the challenge of scaling this way of working?

Mary: Every large agile framework that I know of is an excuse to avoid the difficult and challenging work of sorting out the organization’s system architecture so that small agile teams can work independently.

You do not create smart, innovative teams by adding more process, you create them by breaking dependencies. What we have learned from the Internet and from the Cloud is very simple – really serious scale can only happen when small teams can independently leverage local intelligence and creativity. Companies that think that scaled agile processes will help them scale will discover that these processes are not the right path to truly serious scale.

ALI: One of the common complaints from developers on Agile teams have is they don’t feel connected to customers, and there sometimes a feeling of working on outputs, raother than customer outcomes. How might this be changed? 

Mary: This is the essential problem of organizations that consider agile a process rather than a way to empower teams to do their best work. The best way to fix the problem is to create a direct line of sight from a team to its consumers. When the Apple iPhone was being developed, small engineering teams worked in short cycles that were aimed at a demo of a new feature. Even though the demo group was limited due to security, it was representative of future consumers. Each team was completely focused on making the next demo more pleasing and comfortable for their audience than the last one. These quick feedback loops over two and a half years led directly to a device that pretty much everyone loved.

ALI: At our ALI meetup last year, you spoke about resisting proxies, and one of those proxies is the Product Owner. What alternative approaches have you seen work for Lean or Agile teams, as opposed to having a Product Owner?

Mary: Why do software engineers need someone to come up with ideas for them? Ken Kocienda was a software engineer who ‘signed up’ to be responsible for developing the iPhone’s keypad. In the book Creative Selection, he describes how he developed the design, algorithms, and heuristics that created a seamless experience when typing on the iPhone keyboard, even though it was too small for most people’s fingers. Similarly, at SpaceX, every component has a ‘responsible engineer’ who figures out how to make that component do its proper job as part of the launch system. John Muratore, SpaceX Launch Director, says “SpaceX operates on a philosophy of Responsibility – no engineering process in existence can replace this for getting things done right, efficiently.”

ALI: What is the most common thing you’ve seen in 2018 which is slowing down organizations’ “concept to cash” loop?

Mary: Friction. For example, the dependencies generated by the big back end of a banking system is a huge source of friction for product teams. The first thing organizations need to do is to learn how to recognize friction and stop thinking of it as necessary. When Amazon moved to microservices (from 2001 to 2006) the company had to abandon the idea that transactions are managed by a central database – which was an extremely novel idea at the time.

Over time, Amazon learned how to recognize friction and eliminate it. Today, Amazon Web Services launches an average of one new enterprise-level service per month, and about two new features per day, and has done so for over a decade. If you look closely at these services, each one is owned by a small team led by someone who has signed up to be responsible for delivering and supporting a service that serves a distinct customer need at a cost that is both extremely attractive and provides enough revenue to sustain the service over time.

ALI: What are you most looking forward to about coming to Agile-Lean Ireland 2019 in Dublin? 

Mary: We love to attend conferences where bright, creative people exchange ideas about the latest trends in software engineering. We will be there for the whole conference and hope to talk to as many people as possible about what is going on in their world.

ALI: What can our attendees expect to hear from your talk at ALI2019?

Mary: The talk will be about friction – eight huge sources of friction in software engineering. We hope attendees will begin to recognize these sources of friction – as well as others – in their world. There will also be examples of how several companies have worked to eliminate friction, providing attendees with ideas on how to tackle friction when they go back to their workplaces.


Mary will be one of our keynotes speakers at Agile-Lean Ireland 2019 at Croke Park, Dublin, on April 25-26th 2019. Don’t miss you chance to see her by getting your tickets now, and also to get a ticket for her Friction Lab workshop on April 23rd.