10 Things I’m Doing After Reading The Principles of Product Development Flow

A few weeks ago I showed this slide during a talk I gave to clients of RJMetrics.

Books on Flow and Throughput
Books on Flow and Throughput

The Goal is legendary in my family as a guide for unlocking throughput in manufacturing. Garvey Corp’s entire business model is helping companies exploit constraints and increase profits. It got me off to a great start in manufacturing, but the reality of workflow always seemed a little more complicated than Goldratt’s stories lead you to believe.

Later I devoured Jeffery Liker’s The Toyota Way, which describes the infamous Toyota Production System. It seemed to me that if you carried Goldratt’s constraint theory logically throughout your production system, you’d probably end up with TPS or something like it. As good as it is, the Toyota Way’s strategies always seemed better suited for a different type of manufacturing. One where you were producing roughly the same thing, slightly customized. My manufacturing reality had tremendous customization and variability.

The Principles of Product Development Flow by Don Reinertsen was what I was looking for. Here are ten things I’m incorporating into my workflow. (Manufacturing bits now instead of machines, of course)

1. Smaller projects – We’ve been shrinking our projects at RJMetrics for a while now, but initially I resisted it. “Some projects just take a long time, but are still worthwhile,” I thought. In 2015, however, the equations making projects worthwhile change fast. It’s better to hit a 2 week checkpoint and say “let’s keep going” than go for 6 months and say, “maybe we shouldn’t have done this.” I’ve even been making a conscious effort to make my pull requests smaller (under 50 lines) and more frequent.

2. No more backlogs – Keep TODO issues in a short list, but kill off the long collection of items that linger forever. This is super hard for a GTD’er like me, where you’re supposed to get everything out of your head and into a system. That system breaks when you get multiple people adding items to a backlog that will never get touched. The real backlog is in your brain. If it’s important enough, it will stay there bugging you to be completed and eventually you’ll add it to your short todo list. The key reason why backlogs are bad is this: Your team is smarter today than it was in in the past. Your issue backlog was created by an inferior version of your team.

3. Late assignment of issues – No one gets assigned anything until they can work on it. Have you ever been stuck in a grocery line behind someone who is super slow? You’ve already committed to that line! You’re stuck there because the physical constraints of a grocery store force assignment of a few customers to a register. When matching devs with issues, wait until the last possible second to make the assignment so that it doesn’t get stuck behind another slower than expected issue.

4. Fast feedback is critical – In 2015, everyone says we need to ship an MVP and iterate, but we still don’t always do it. There are many excuses: “The design isn’t ready”, “It’s not valuable without feature X,” etc. Not only is fast feedback worth overriding these concerns, it’s the best plan for fixing them.

5. Start teams smaller, then bring in reserves – “Make early and meaningful contact with the problem.” Planning is good, but plans get shattered once work starts. Things always turn out to be harder than we thought and the best way to find out where we are is to have someone start working on the project. A single developer will have a better picture in one week than a plan ever will. This is one reason why hackathons pay off so well for RJMetrics. Bring in other team members in week 2 and their start will be better focused. Plans should set goals, but be light on implementation details until work beginds

6. Use Little’s Formula – to provide more accurate response times for issues.

7. Make queues visible – Luckily we have a great BI tool to use for this called RJMetrics. Reinertsen recommends Post It Notes to track queues, but the book was written BT (Before Trello).

8. Queue = Todo + In Progress – Don’t just count items that are waiting. The item you’re currently working on is still in queue. The team’s issue queue should be judged on the sum of Todo and In Progress, not just one.

9. Have a framework for when to escalate team communicationPrinciples says to use regular meetings over irregular meetings, in person vs email, etc. I’m hesitant to escalate the communication due to the transacational costs associated with context switching, but when do you decide to stop emailing and start chatting? When do you stop chatting and start speaking? I’m going to start using the following framework for communication and adjust it:
– Email goes to chat after 3 emails
– Chat goes to in person after 10 messages

There’s no 10th item. Don’t feel like you have to fill every meeting/PR/project with content to fit the allotted time.

Ingenious Review

In America there is no shortage of digital inventors, tinkerers, hackers, and dreamers. Companies form around the most ridiculous ideas, test them in the marketplace, often with unpredictable and surprising results. It’s an exciting time for innovators in the information age.

Go back one hundred years and you’ll find a similar state in the automobile industry. Look at this surprisingly long list of defunct automobile manufacturers!

Seven by Illuminati Motor Works, one of the teams competing for the Automotive X Prize
Seven by Illuminati Motor Works, one of the teams competing for the Automotive X Prize

Is there a peculiar combination of cleverness, determination, and blind optimism that compelling Americans to push the boundaries of convention and create great things? Or has America lost its ability to hack on cars forever?

Edison2's Very Light Car
Edison2’s Very Light Car

Jason Fagone’s book Ingenious: A True Story of Invention, Automotive Daring, and the Race to Revive America follows several teams competing to win the Automotive X Prize, a $10 Million cash award to someone who can demonstrate a production ready vehicle capable of traveling 100 miles at 100 MPGe or better. The contestants are not skunkwork projects at GM or R&D teams from Ford. They’re people building cars from scratch in their garage. They’re small racing teams using their expertise to increase MPG instead of MPH. There’s even a team of high school kids from West Philly.

Working in manufacturing for most of my career, I was not surprised to find there are still many car hackers out there. Without spoiling anything, the most frustrating part of Ingenious is how well the teams were able to do and how little anyone seemed to care about what they were doing. Government and industry pays lip service to the prize and the ingeniousness of the teams, but fuel economy growth in vehicles is still flat. I don’t think anyone believes industry will be held to the proposed standard of 54.5 MPGe by 2025.

But industry put at least $1 Million into an app that lets you send only the message, “Yo” to your friends.

I enjoyed Ingenious. It pairs very well with My Life and Work by Henry Ford, which captures the spirit of the early 20th century automobile industry (Note: Ford’s autobiography is a manufacturing masterpiece, but skip the anti-Semitic chapters that start around #12)

Best Things This Year (2013)

Anecdotally, it seems like a lot of people shook up their lives in 2013. I certainly did. Here are the best things that happened to me in 2013.

1. RJMetrics – In March I started working at RJMetrics, an e-commerce data analytics firm in center city Philadelphia. Leaving Garvey Corp was a difficult decision, but being a developer at of the best SaaS data visualization companies in the world has been amazing.


2. The Bulldog Budget – I worked with Philadelphia City Controller candidate Brett Mandel to implement his vision for the city’s open data future. We built a visualization tool using D3 and MySQL that gives both a high level view of the General Fund budget, but still allows you to drill down to individual transactions. A lot of people got excited about it and I think it made an impact in Philadelphia. It also influenced similar projects in Italy and Oakland, California.

Treemap of the Philadelphia General Budget
Treemap of the Philadelphia General Budget

3. Coffeescript – I was skeptical at first whether Coffeescript was a worthwhile abstraction from Javascript. After 9 months of using it at RJMetrics, I’m a fan. Here’s why:

  • Cleaner syntax: No parenthesis, braces, or semi colons. The time I save writing console.log instead of console.log(); has been worth the switch.
  • Improved workflow: Continuously running the Coffeescript to Javascript compiler alerts me of stupid mistakes (ie. ones that won’t even compile) faster than finding them after I’ve loaded the browser.
  • Existential operator: I can’t count the number of bugs I’ve fixed with one character are due to Coffeescript’s great ? operator, which checks to see if it’s null or undefined before proceeding. For example, if in javascript you previously did this:

    if (player != null) {

    In Coffeescript you just write:


  • Comprehensions: The Coffescript.org docs say you almost never have to write a multiline for loop and they can be replaced by comprehensions. For example:

    for (player in players) {
    if (player.health < 0) { player.kill(); } }

    In Coffeescript you can write:

    player.kill() for player in players when player.health < 0
  • I'm looking forward to getting better at Coffeescript in 2014.

4. AngularJS - I don't want to develop another interactive UI without AngularJS.

5. Bought this swingset from craigslist - With the help of my friend Mike and my father in law, we disassembled, packed it up and a U Haul, and reassembled it in my back yard. I'm amazed it went back together so well.


6. Read 13 Books - My morning commute afforded me more reading time. Here's what I did with it.

  • Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe
  • Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
  • Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut
  • The Trial by Franz Kafka
  • A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nassar
  • Boys from Brazil by Ira Levin
  • Game of Thones (books 1-3) by George RR Martin
  • Life of Pi by Yann Martel
  • Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

7. Public Speaking - I got way out of my comfort zone this year and did some public speaking at Ignite Philly and Technically Philly's Civic Hacking Demo Night.

8. Built the Gonginator

9. Spark Program - Some coworkers and I participated in an apprenticeship program for Philadelphia school kids where we spent 2 hours a week with 8th graders interested in programming and computers. Together we built a game!

That's as much as I could remember from 2013. Check out my lists from 2012 and 2011.

Review: Book a Week with Jen

I’m a painfully slow reader.

I can only think of a few books I’ve read in under a week and some of my favorite books took me over a year to finish (I’m looking at you Cryptonomicon). I met Jen Miller through twitter in 2007. Back then she was working on a project reviewing 52 books in a year on her blog. The genres were all over the place from Julie and Julia to books on how to get into a threesome.

Why did she do it? Her grandfather died, her income had gone down, and she’d been dumped for the 3rd time in 12 months. Sometimes a project, ANY project, to focus your time can help get your mind off things.

I was aware she was doing the project, but I don’t think I read a single review. When she told me she was releasing the entire run of blog posts as an ebook I thought the work vs payoff ratio made it a worthwhile project for her (the writing was already complete), but was skeptical about how good it would be. I’m a big proponent of self publishing and selling digital goods as you know if you read my blog. Sometime last year she released Book a Week with Jen as an Amazon ebook for $2.99 and I downloaded it to my phone.

In retrospect it seems so dumb that I thought this would simply be 52 book reviews in a row. The book reviews are, of course, a vehicle for working out issues with love, career, and not fitting into the role others want for her. Each review is like an episode of a TV show where 90% is about the plot that week, but there’s this little sliver of time devoted to the overall story arc. You can’t skip any of the book reviews that sound boring because you’ll miss some important piece of the story. It’s great and it helped illustrate to me what separates writers from people who just write (like me). Part of it is a willingness to share their thoughts and problems. Jen and I have this increasingly common type of friendship where you have a bunch of asynchronous online messages back and forth and a few real life hangouts throughout the year. Book a Week with Jen gave me a clearer picture of who she is and who she was when we first met. Some chapters made me want to give her a hug. After others I felt happy knowing where she is now.

There’s a bunch of reasons to read Book a Week with Jen by Jen Miller, but the easiest is that it’s good.

I read the ebook when she released it months ago, so I’m a painfully slow reviewer as well.

Everything Bad is Good For You

Parents can sometimes be appalled at the hypnotic effect that television has on toddlers; they see their otherwise active and vibrant children gazing silently, mouth agape at the screen, and they assume the worst: that television is turning their child into a zombie. The same feeling arises a few years later when they see their grade-schoolers navigating a video game world, oblivious to the reality that surrounds them. But these expressions are not signs of mental atrophy. They’re signs of focus.

2005’s Everything Good is Bad for You by Steve Johnson is a challenge to the idea that pop culture is ruining our brains. Mainstream television shows are quantifiably more complex and mentally demanding than the shows of previous decades, and video games test and develop our problem solving skills better than ever before. Definitely worth reading.

Am I Achieving My 2010 Goals?

Ouch. I just looked up my goals for 2010 and I am NOT doing well. Here’s my progress so far.

1. Read 12 Books – Easily completed this already. A few I listened to using Audible.com and I read the Purple Cow on my iPhone with the Kindle app.

So far I’ve read
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Ed Tufte
Priceless by William Poundstone
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Nurture Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Daemon by Daniel Suarez
The Purple Cow by Seth Godin
Rework by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Start with No by Jim Camp
Born to Run by Chris McDougall
The Road by Corman McCarthy
The Long Tail by Chris Anderson
The Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki

I’m still working on Under the Dome by Stephen King and Envisioning Information by Ed Tufte. Under the Dome is so big I can’t bring it with me when traveling. I’m about halfway through Ghost War, but I don’t know if I’ll finish it. It’s great, but it will take me forever.

2. Run a sub 23 minute 5K – There is no way this is happening this year. I ran one last month and my time was 25:14. I think I can get down to 24:30 in a month and I’m ok with that.

3. Write 5 Songs – Total failure. I really thought I’d be able to do this, but song writing has escaped me this year. I haven’t written a single new song. In fact, I’ve probably only written 2 in the last three years. Sad. I’ve been getting the bug to start playing more, though.

5. Finish my House – Well, I sold it so does that count? It sold in two days, which was awesome.

6. 6 batches of beer – Fail. I have a batch brewing now, but it’s my only 2010 batch.

So I’ve completed 2/6, but really failed at 4. Better luck next year!,

Tufte Course Review and Notes

Yesterday I attended Ed Tufte’s one day course on Presenting Data and Information. His book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, completely changed the way I think about data. If you love his book, I highly recommend his course. He doesn’t cover a lot of new ground, but he puts emphasis on a few things I didn’t pick up on before.

Books by Ed Tufte
His 4 books came with the cost of the course

Key points:

  1. Show causality
  2. Don’t pre-specify the medium of the presentation. Use whatever it takes to show causality.
  3. Annotate linking lines.
  4. Be inspired by maps.
  5. Web design is too influenced by internal hierarchies and ends up being a turf war. Make the interface flat and filled with content.
  6. Your presentations should strive to be as data dense as the sports page.
  7. No zebra stripes in tables.
  8. Most interesting data is multivariate. Supergraphics like Minard’s Napoleon’s March show 6 or more variables.
  9. Progress in most fields is measured by information resolution and throughput. Why are our power point slides limited to 4 or 5 bullets?
  10. Put important analysis and comparison in a common eyespan (no flipping or scrolling)
  11. Be wary of focus groups. Good design is not a democracy.
  12. Start every software project with the interface.
  13. Make the data the interface.
  14. Instead of trickling in data during a presentation, dump a ton of data in their lap, have them read it, and have them cross examine you.

I got to talk to ET himself for a few minutes before the course started about his work on the stimulus bill. I mentioned some work I’ve been doing on making sparklines in HTML 5 and he said to make sure I paid attention to the length and width proportions. I got to meet a lot of interesting people and even convinced PMMI to send Jorge and Paula. So glad I went!

A Prayer for Owen Meany


After a few restarts I finally finished John Irving’s, A Prayer for Owen Meany.? It took me an embarrassingly long time to get through the 600+ page novel about fate and faith, but it’s a blindingly original and thought provoking book.? I don’t know why I put the book down so often, but maybe it’s because the ideas took that long to sink in.? John Irving created a world that is both real and fascinating, centering around Johnny Wheelright and his best friend, Owen Meany.? Owen’s known in town for his tiny size, weird voice, and his harsh opinions.? The end is beautiful, sad, and inspiring.

I highly recommend it.

Getting Things Done

I heard about David Allen’s Getting Things Done a long time ago and I procrastinated in getting it.? It sounded like a system I could use, since my day usually consists of handling (and keeping track of!) a thousand tiny tasks.? I got the book for Christmas and according to my wife it’s the best $10.00 she ever spent.? From time to time I might comment on how my system is working, so here is the gist of it:

You can’t trust your brain, so everything you need to do must be kept in a system outside your brain.
Some of these things you need to do may take more than one step.? These are projects.
Put every project in a list and from there, generate? a list of next actions for each project.? A next action is something that can be done right now or in a given context (an @hardware store list or an @phone list).
Mercilessly complete the next actions.

The revelation of how powerful this is for me came when I? realized my previous to-do lists failed because I’d have projects mixed up with next actions and single tasks.? “Make dinner reservation” would be right next to “Redesign website.”? Instead, making dinner reservations should be next to something like, “choose font for redesign.”

I still get stuck on some actions and in those cases I usually break it out to as tiny a task as possible.? Ridiculously so.

Software helps, so I’ve been using ta-da list.? Originally I used iGoogle, but their to-do lists looked bad on my phone.