During my work as a business improvement consultant for the last 15 years, it has often struck me how powerful simple metaphors may be in order to get a sustained change in behavior among the personnel. To prove my point, I will tell you two stories from my professional life.

Suns and black holes
Some years ago, the team I belonged to was called in to help what the company itself referred to a “dysfunctional organization.” Our job was to make an analysis, and propose actions to make the employees act as members of a single team again.
By coincidence, we met another partner – some days before this assignment started – who we can call Chris He made us familiar with a metaphorhe used; he called it “suns and black holes.” (My guess is that the famous hit song “Black Hole Sun” from 1994, by the Seattle band Soundgarden, was a source of inspiration!)

Giving or draining energy
Chris’s message was clear: look for the suns of your employees’ daily working life! Ask them: “Which things, meetings, and people fill you with new energy?” And then follow up with the question: “What are the black holes that drain you of energy and creativity, and just make you want to stay in bed?”
Hence, we proceeded by performing a 30-minute interview with each and everyone of the staff. When we asked them about the suns and black holes of their working life, a coherent picture of the situation quickly emerged and gave us something to start working with.

Eliminating the black holes
The similarity is obvious between suns/ black holes on one hand, and value/ waste in the Lean message on the other. However, our focus was to maximize energy and remove all the drainers. Some of the black holes required five of the classic “why?” questions to make it possible to drill down to the underlying problem. The action plan became very simple: highlight and spread the suns, remove and design work-arounds for the black holes! In order to achieve this, we set up stepwise achievement, changed goals and just got going.
During this period, we often sent a thankful thought to our colleague Chris. With the help of the strong metaphor which he had created, we were able to minimize the effort from both parties, which was needed to initiate the process of change.

Air traffic control
Not very long ago, I was once more engaged in a project in which a metaphor was used as a cognitive and motivational tool. In this case, air traffic control was the metaphor that helped us and the client to understand what we needed to do. Thus we installed virtual traffic control towers, radar screens, pilot training and starting checklists.

Finding the right principles
The problem we tried to solve was a common one. How do you maximize the total output from a pipeline of development resources, considering a lot of ongoing projects are being performed in parallel and resources are moved back and forth between projects, while in addition business management always complains and demands a tighter delivery schedule from all these resources? Our starting point was to find the right lean principles to manage the flow. Our conceptual solution contained the following:

1. A starting checklist. Do all stakeholders understand the objective, scope, resources, dependencies, use of critical resources? Can we manage the project in a short lead time?

2. A decisive team. It is essential that the team owns the take-off decision and that it is able to act promptly on deviations in all ongoing projects. It should contain members from the business, resource owners, tech specialists as well as verification and production specialists.

3. A business-oriented team. This team will be responsible for maintaining the list of projects not yet started. These guys do the business cases for new business projects vs. maintenance projects vs. architectural cleanup vs. system life cycle actions. And they rank all these things by priority in a single list. (This is basically the same job as the Product Owner does in Scrum, but in this case the team plays the role of a Business Owner.)

Motivating metaphor

Rather early in this lean change project some clever person saw the similarity to air traffic control, and thus we started to use this metaphor to present our proposed solution. The reaction from our client was immediate. Apparently, the aviation theme stirred everyone’s imagination! We received questions like: “Who has the authority to shoot the planes down? Should we build another runway?” etc.
Our client has since stuck to the air traffic control metaphor. For example, they use what they call radar screens in the form of simple excel sheets. Just as the radar screen at a busy airport summarizes all the ongoing action, the excel sheets show all ongoing projects and activities. Once a week, all the activity leaders submit a simple report, showing the overall status as green (“on plan”) or yellow (“needs help”) or red (“problems – needs a new scope!”).

Green, yellow or red
The air traffic control teams have weekly meetings and perform a walkthrough of all ongoing activities. No time whatsoever is spent on the green ones. Instead, all actions and decision are made for the yellow and red ones. When ready, the air traffic control teams look at a queue list of not-yetstarted projects and raise the question: “Should we start something new today?” By using the starting checklist a new activity may be started.
It is crucial that all traffic control team members do their homework before the meeting, for example reading all the weekly reports (max 10 minutes per report) and looking into the queue list. With preparation done and using a structured meeting moderator, the weekly meetings seldom exceed one hour. A typical size is to have maximum 20–25 ongoing projects before you ought to split up in a new delivery pipeline and traffic control tower. But of course, size, dependencies, the possibility of frequent deliveries, etc., will set the conditions.

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