What I Learned About Lean by Teaching at the White House

December 2, 2014 Janice Fraser

featured-WhiteHouse-leanIt’s a Saturday morning in the Eisenhower Executive office building, and two dozen senior managers in the Obama administration have gotten together for a professional development session. What do you think that looks like and sounds like?

When we civilians think about how the federal government works, we often imagine Wilkes Bashford-wearing power players glued to their BlackBerrys or officious bureaucrats slowly wielding their power like a battle axe. But, this has not been my experience.

Instead, they’re sitting in small groups, armed with Sharpie pens and sticky notes, focused and ready to work. With drive, humility, and purpose, the attendees of our Saturday-morning training event are thoughtfully applying the core values of Lean Startup and Agile.

My team comes to teach and facilitate, but we always walk away as better students of Lean. Here are two insights from this trip to the White House.

Insight 1: Preparing for your next thing involves acting on what you learned last time.

This is the fourth time I’ve led a session on Lean Startup philosophy and practice at the White House. Each time, I see clear evidence that my hosts have learned from and revised their product (i.e., this event):

  • Today’s session is hosted in a room that’s closer to everyone’s workspace.
  • The space is pre-set to anticipate the activities we’re going to be doing.
  • They rescheduled us in the sequence of presenters to have greatest impact.
  • They changed how they open and close each session.
  • They added prompts to support follow-through among the participants.

As a result of these revisions, the participants engage more quickly and deeply this time, making the event more potent. It’s agile-style continuous improvement.

In agile software practice, we organize work into iterations, but an iteration isn’t the same as a learning cycle. An iteration can simply be the next chunk of work listed in a backlog. In agile, teams often do retrospectives, during which we reflect on what we’ve done and decide how to improve. But a retro is a process learning cycle, not a product learning cycle. And, moreover, talking about change doesn’t guarantee action.

Improvement doesn’t happen when we ask ourselves, “What do we know now that we didn’t know before?” Rather, improvement happens only when those insights are followed by action; when we change our next steps based on what we’ve learned.

Insight 2: We need to incorporate prompts and failsafes into our routines, to help us practice Lean and Agile behaviors consistently.

It seems like common sense that after a retro, a team would take the prescribed actions. But how often does the Monday standup start with a prompt like “What did we decide on Friday?” In reality, the retro happens on Friday, and by Monday a dozen other things have come up and learnings are often lost.

The White House leadership development program reminded me that we can protect ourselves by consciously developing positive habits. The organizers have developed an impressive pattern of prompts and failsafes to ensure that their participants are acting on their learning and forming habits that predispose continuous improvement:

  1. At the end of each workshop, participants review the new techniques and choose one to bring forward into their work.
  2. Then on the following Monday, they give it a try.
  3. Participants pair up regularly to share wins and challenges of the new technique.
  4. Then they report back at the next month’s meeting how their “Try It On Monday” worked.

The prompt is “Try it on Monday.” (And they use the phrase as a label, “What’s your Try It On Monday this month?”)

The failsafe is having a buddy to talk with about how it’s going and an explicit group discussion for accountability.

Think of a prompt like a hook in a song. It sticks in your head and helps you remember to do the right things. Failsafes are the insurance: If you don’t do it, you’ll be reminded. With prompts and failsafes, the planners help everyone accomplish the highest Lean Startup goal—to consistently practice what we learn.

Agile and Lean (by which I mean Lean Startup/Government/Enterprise) are common sense practices that, once you have experienced them, seem like the only reasonable way to work. But like meditation, yoga, or kung fu, becoming effective requires daily, routinized, thoughtful engagement. Learning doesn’t mean anything unless we act on what we’ve learned. We can build in the prompts and failsafes to help.

In a few months, we’ll be returning to lead another training, and I’m looking forward to bringing home new insights and inspiration to improve my Lean practice.

Find Us at the Lean Startup Conference

If you’d like more Lean Startup lessons, join me next week (December 9-12) at the Lean Startup Conference. Pivotal is a proud sponsor.

About the Author


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