Black Swan Farming

A History of VFQ: Value, Flow, Quality

Simon Schama’s “A history of Britain” is deliberately titled “A history” rather than “The history” for the simple reason that there are many versions of Britain’s history. In the same vein, this is my personal recollection based on events of which I have first-hand knowledge. There will no doubt be other versions, different strands, if you like. As with all things we produce in a knowledge economy, we are all co-creating, and our overlapping stories intertwine and combine in a rather beautiful mess.

The first time I saw the words “Value”, “Flow” and “Quality” used together was one evening after the UK Lean Conference 2009 in London.

Having endured the Kanban evangelists on the first day, the second and third days took a different direction, starting with Mary Poppendieck, Jeff Patton and John Seddon. But it was Don Reinertsen who really managed to cut through the giant egos and evangelical views. What he said resonated strongly with me personally and, I think, with everyone who was there. The intellectual rigor of his approach was different and refreshing.

After the conference, Paul Dolman Darrall and I were discussing what we had learned at the White Hart Pub in Holborn. In attempting to summarise (and argue of course) we noted down a whole bunch of key words and subject areas, grouping them into areas that we felt were related. The end result was a snapshot of our combined thinking about product development systems, and in the process we discovered three perspectives that provided some structure and scaffolding for our thinking.

Value

The first grouping was initially called “economics”. It included stuff like cost of delay, asymmetric payoffs, feature injection, real options, exploiting variability and others. Since we both have a strong economics background we argued for quite some time about the limitations of economics. I took the view that given scarcity, product development was essentially an economics problem – but that its value did not necessarily have to be quantified in monetary terms. Willingness to pay and willingness to accept compensation were the two key mechanisms for establishing monetary value, but I accepted that this isn’t always simple to work out. Paul (or possibly his devil’s advocate?) took the opposite view. Because we argued about the role of economics, we ended up changing “Economics” to “Value” – a more nebulous term, but a useful overarching “higher order bit”.

Flow

Then there were a whole bunch of things relating to a subject I had originally designated “speed”. This included tools and practices we required to speed up the delivery of value from end-to-end or “concept to cash”; reducing batch sizes, constraining work-in-progress, queue management, and a whole host of other stuff. Paul pointed out that focusing on speed alone could be wrong, especially if it wasn’t maintainable or highly variable in nature. We agreed that smooth, sustainable “flow” was the thing to focus on – so this grouping got renamed to “Flow”.

Quality

The last grouping I gave the title “Feedback”. This contained the various feedback loops described by XP as well as other things like iterations – since improving value by improving quality was a primary reason for iterations. This also looped back to the original value theme when it came to the end-to-end value chain. A key measure of quality is whether something turns out to be valuable. Because some ideas were related to more than just feedback (like simple design), this area had its own iteration, becoming “Quality” (despite my reservation that this is one of the most nebulous terms in the English language).

In fact, all three themes overlapped a lot. It was obvious that quite a few items (like incremental delivery) really belonged to more than one theme. From the photo I took of our scribbles I started to work up a framework of sorts, mostly so we could share with others. To satisfy a number of PRINCE2 fans in the organisation, Paul even produced a version mocked up in the same (rather awful) style as the Prince2 update that was in draft at the time. I did another version (mostly out of disgust) and shared it with a few people, including Ian Gill and others working with us at the time.

The idea for a qualification

At around about the same time, Ian Gill suggested to Paul that perhaps we should build some sort of Lean-Agile qualification. Despite initially writing this off as a rubbish idea, Paul eventually came around and started putting a proposal together based on the three themes we had developed. Things then went into a bit of a lull because Pearson went through a restructure and a whole host of us voted ourselves out of the company.

Emergn and Maersk Line

In early 2010, Paul started working with a management consultancy called Emergn, helping a client, Maersk Line, the container shipping giant, in Denmark. In October 2010, a year after the conference in London, I too found myself working in Copenhagen on a proposal to transform the way Maersk Line innovated.

As part of that proposal we used the Value, Flow and Quality themes, along with the various things under those headings. Within the first four weeks, we ran a workshop with the CIO and all of his direct reports. One activity we did with them was to ask them to “prune” a tree that we had drawn showing various improvement areas. The tree was given three branches: Value, Flow and Quality.

The improvement areas were context specific – they were the things that we felt Maersk Line needed to improve, given where they were at in the context of their culture and history. But we were already seeing problems and opportunities – and talking about them in relation to these three themes. If Maersk Line were to embed and improve on the new ways of working we were introducing, they were going to need training. I remember having some initial discussions about this with Portia Tung, who at the time was Emergn’s Chief Strategy Officer and in charge of Education, but she (sadly) left before we really got started. Eventually – and probably a little late from the client’s perspective – it fell to Paul to develop this idea.

The Emergn X-Team

Paul pitched to the rest of the Emergn Leadership team that developing VFQ as a proper qualification was a worthwhile investment and they enthusiastically agreed. It was a bold vision, and it was by no means a sure thing that we would succeed, but we believed that it was the right thing and that the community itself lacked something.

With the leadership team’s approval, it then became the initial project for an “X-Team” that Paul was tasked to build. There is no doubt that it has been his vision, passion and leadership that has carried this forwards, insisting on a high level of quality and an open editorial approach. Paul built a really fantastic team to develop the VFQ product, with major contributions from the following key individuals, who deserve credit:

I’ve been incredibly privileged to have been a part of this team as well, and it was a lot of fun too. The advantage I’ve had over the rest of the team is that I’ve seen first hand what an impact the material we were developing was having on an organisation. That’s because I’ve been involved in collecting and responding to feedback from users and customers of the product. The end goal was always to change people’s hearts and minds, and I’ve seen how people react, and how their thinking and actions change as a result.

It is to Alex Adamopoulos and Phil Black’s credit that they were prepared to make the significant investment required to turn a shared vision into reality. There are definitely things we would do differently, and there are still many areas to improve and much more to add, but I think we can be proud of what we have achieved together.