Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Production Line Mentality (and Silo Syndrome)

At the start of this month I mentioned, in passing, what I called Production Line Mentality. This is the propensity for individuals working in a large organization to concentrate solely on what they have been told to do, ie, their "job specification". This behavior is promulgated by a multi-layered, controlling management structure.

Two people pointed out that what I was describing already had a name - Functional Silo Syndrome or simply Silo Syndrome - a term ascribed to Phil Ensor. Though Production Line Mentality and Silo Syndrome are very similar I don't believe they are exactly the same as I discuss later.

Since the discussion of Production Line Mentality created so much interest I thought I should elucidate and mention a few things that I did not have room for last time. Later on I will talk about how the Agile approach addresses it.

Production Line Deficiencies

Some say the production line is the most important invention of the industrial revolution. However, it has well-documented problems such as being boring, demoralizing, demeaning and, if the truth be known, tends to generate product of low quality. Luckily, in manufacturing the traditional production line has almost vanished in the last few decades due to studies (eg, see next) demonstrating better approaches. Unfortunately, in the software industry elements of the production line remain.

To show the problem, and the solution, I will first mention a study of a manufacturing production line. This occurred at a Swedish washing machine maker in the 1980's. The company switched one production line to a system where different teams assembled the machines from start to finish.

Originally with a production line of about 20 people (six machines per day), they  reorganized into four teams of five people. (Of course, there were costs involved in re-tooling, training etc.) Each worker was given the skills and knowledge to assemble a major component or even the whole machine.

In brief, they found that productivity quickly increased to about 7-8 machines per day (and even more over time). Morale improved and less supervision was needed as individuals were motivated to get the work done and even suggest improvements that boosted their own efficiency. Importantly, the product had a marked improvement in quality. There were many other documented advantages such as less conflict and much greater flexibility when someone was absent.

Production Line Mentality in Software

OK, so the production line has problems, but what has that got to do with software development? Actually, quite a lot.

First, many developers are quite happy to potter along on their own problem with little or no interaction with others. By focusing on a small narrow task they lose sight of the bigger picture. To be productive all team members need to communicate and understand the organization's objectives.

Second, traditional software development methodologies encourage this behavior The Waterfall model divides the development process into a series of phases (much like a production line). The work is divided into specialized areas: business analysts, system analysts, designers, coders, various flavors of testers, technical writers, etc.

Finally, many large IT organizations are placed under a large amount of pressure by senior management. This often leads to a blaming culture and a controlling management style which is probably the largest contributing factor, as I discuss below.

Silo Syndrome

Although the Silo Syndrome has essentially the same causes and effects as the production line mentality it is usually described in terms of the behavior of departments or "groups" within a larger organization rather than individuals. In the interests of self-preservation a group becomes protectionist of their knowledge and uncooperative with other parts of the organization.

The original article on Functional Silo Syndrome by Phil Ensor beautifully explains this (see Functional Silo Syndrome). The following discussion of causes and effects of production line mentality generally also apply to the silo syndrome.

How Does It Happen?

The behavior starts as a response to an autocratic, controlling management style. As a defense mechanism the individual (or group) withdraws from any activity that involves risk. Some also restrict access to information, since knowledge is power. Of course, this is detrimental to the organization as a whole by stifling creativity, knowledge sharing, and collaboration.

There are many reasons for this poor management style. It could simply be due to an individual manager. More often it is due to the culture of the organization -- coming from the top. Autocratic managers are generally attracted to an organization with such a culture (but they can pop-up anywhere).

I can think of a few different scenarios:


A common problem is a technically gifted individual who has been promoted to a position of power and attempts to micromanage all subordinates. Often they believe they know better than anyone working for them how to do the work. They only have people working for them because they don't have enough time to do everything themselves.

Their enormous ego leads them to believe it, but they generally do not know better than those actually doing the work. Even if it were true it is still demoralizing and demeaning to be micromanaged in this way.


A related problem is a manager that is insecure in their own ability. Surprisingly this may occur in concert with the above since the manager may project confidence but are worried that eventually others will see through the fa├žade. By controlling information they can more easily cover up their mistakes or find someone to blame.


One of the most basic instincts is for self-preservation. If a manager gives up control then their role may be seen to be less important or even redundant. By embedding themselves in the work processes they make themselves an essential cog of the machine. Also, as we saw above, an insecure manager tightly controls information to hide their own ineptitude.

This is perhaps the biggest impediment to addressing the problem. In a top-down, authoritarian structure, many layers of management are required to monitor and control everyone. If the people who actually do the work are empowered to make decisions then many of the layers can be reduced or even eliminated. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge amount of resistance to this sort of change.


If a culture of fear emanates from the top then it will permeate the entire organization. There is no advantage, and significant disadvantage and difficulty, in treating your staff well if you are treated badly yourself. In other words a manager cannot empower their subordinates if they are not themselves empowered.


It is rare but some managers simply enjoy wielding power to the point that it is almost sadistic. Luckily, I have only ever encountered one such manager who would deliberately inconvenience or even humiliate those that worked for him.


Finally, there are those managers who don't know any better. Either, they are inexperienced and are following the lead of others or this is the way they have always worked and are not open to any other options.

How Does It Work?

In most organizations, production line mentality results in a large hierarchical management structure. Each manager is given strict control of a group which is split into sub-groups each with their own manager, and so on. This hierarchy can contain many layers until you get down to the people at the bottom, who actually do the work.

Information flows vertically. If you need information from someone in another section this is done through your supervisor. Information is distributed by a manager on a "need to know" basis.

Rewards are doled out by management based on the perceived value of each individual. Inevitably this fosters competition and rivalry, which kills any sort of collaborative spirit. Individuals expend effort making themselves look good (and even try to make their co-workers look bad) to their boss, rather than focusing on the goals of the organization.

When something goes wrong it's easy to point the finger at the person responsible. However, the root cause of the problem is usually that the person who made the mistake was not given enough information or assistance to do their job properly.

Negative reinforcement (ie, punishment for mistakes) is the primary motivator, rather than positive reinforcement. This leads to an aversion to risk where nobody wants to take responsibility for anything beyond their small area of influence.


Many people working in this sort of environment are not even aware of it or just accept it. This is often because they have have never worked for a more enlightened company. Here are some possible clues based on the work environment:
  •  there are more chiefs than Indians - ie more managers than workers
  •  monetary rewards are given based on individual performance reviews
  •  each position has a detailed written job description
  •  you often have to sign legal documents such as non-disclosure agreements
  •  requirements documents must be signed off by several people
  •  developers are not allowed to talk to customer representatives
Here are some clues that your boss is the problem:
  •  you don't really know what your boss does
  •  you can never find your boss or arrange a meeting
  •  you are not given enough information to do your work properly
  •  you have to ask for a (deserved) pay rise
  •  you cannot send emails to the client without clearing it with your boss
  •  your boss threatens to fire you when you express any sort of dissent
  •  you get into trouble for swapping tasks with a co-worker
  •  when you book a meeting with your boss she postpones or is late
  •  if your boss books a meeting with you and you are late she hits the roof
  •  all emails you send must be CC'd to your boss
  •  you cover up a problem rather than tell your boss
  •  you discover there was a meeting (on a subject crucial to your work) to which you were not invited
  •  you are asked to work overtime when there is no reason to do so
  •  your boss keeps reminding you about the poor job market
  •  your boss never admits they made a mistake
  •  your boss keeps reminding you of your own past mistakes
Here are a few general clues about an organization with a poor culture:
  •  you have never met anyone who uses the software that you write
  •  everyone knows about a problem that needs fixing but nobody is willing to tackle it
  •  there is often conflict in the workplace
  •  many problems occur - the same problems happen over and over
  •  people in the organization have stress-related health problems
  •  you are regularly given large design documents about projects you have never heard of
  •  two developers discover that they have both fixed the same bug
If you are a boss, here are some clues that you might be the problem:
  •  you get the feeling that you don't know the full story about what is happening
  •  the people who work for you show no initiative
  •  the people who work for you are incompetent
  •  the people who work for you are risk-averse
  •  you don't know the name of everyone who works for you
  •  there are people that you have not talked to in over a month
  •  you have an "open door" policy but nobody takes advantage of it
  •  the client asks for a simple change to which you give an estimate, but are shocked when the team cannot deliver


By now I hope you are convinced of the detrimental effects of production line mentality (and silo syndrome). To reiterate it makes for an organization with little collaboration and creativity to solve problems. Insular thinking results in inefficiencies such as poor processes, redundant processes and bad decision making.

The effect on morale results in poor employee engagement, absenteeism and sub-optimal productivity. Moreover, because managers build themselves into the system they become a single point of failure which affects flexibility and resilience.


So how do we prevent this from happening? The simplest way is to follow an Agile methodology. For example, in Scrum the team is self-organizing, so resist the urge to "help" them get organized. Another piece of good advice comes from XP (Extreme Programming) to "eliminate fear".

The most important point is for managers to empower their charges. Don't assume they will get it wrong. If they don't do it the way you would do it, it may actually be a better way. If you trust people they will usually honor that trust.

Some simple tips are
  • encourage spontaneous feedback, eg don't react badly to a mistake or oversight.
  • reward the team rather than individual to encourage collaboration
  • eliminate formality & the need to "go through channels"
  • have more than an open door policy - go out and talk to people
  • use instant messaging - but also talk face to face sometimes
  • encourage people to interact as necessary with whoever they need to

Does Scrum Promote Silos?

Scrum is great for counteracting "production line mentality". Allowing the team to self-organize promotes interaction (within the team) which results in better organization, processes and products. It is also good for morale due to team members having a feeling of making a contribution and working together toward a common goal. In particular, the daily standup allows everyone to know what everyone else is doing, with improved coordination and less mistakes.

But does Scrum inhibit collaboration between teams? The simple answer is - it shouldn't but it can.

When different groups do not collaborate this is known as the "silo syndrome" as we saw above. Sometimes Scrum teams have this problem due to a misunderstanding of the roles on the product owner and scrum master. Let's first look at the problems these roles are designed to overcome.

Product Owner

Even in (or especially in) an open, collaborative environment there can be a problem of conflicting and volatile requirements. There are often many people (users and other client representatives, managers, business analysts, etc) with input into how the software is to be modified. One manager might insist on all bugs being fixed as a high priority, another might want to sneak in their favorite feature or improve an existing feature -- you have probably seen this sort of thing yourself. Different people have different ideas and priorities; and these ideas and priorities tend to change often.

In Scrum, having a product owner and sprint backlog avoids this problem by having all requirements come through one person. This ensures that the developers are not pulled in many different directions at once. Further, because the sprint backlog is unchanging they know that things will not suddenly change, at least until the end of the sprint.

However, having a product owner does not in any way preclude the team from talking to people outside the team. In fact this sort of collaboration is encouraged. It simply means that all requirements come through the PO and are prioritized in the backlog.

Scrum Master

The scrum master is in many ways an interface between the team and higher-level management. The main task of the scrum master, outside the team, is to remove roadblocks. This involves them using their influence to obtain resources, help or information. Some scrum masters take it upon themselves to intercept interference from outside the team, such as a senior manager who wants to control the team. Their are always managers who think they can organize the team better than it can organize itself.

In summary, an over-zealous scrum master can turn a scrum team into a "silo".

Finally, a Scrum Team can be unfairly perceived as a silo. A team should be composed of all the persons required to accomplish their tasks from start to finish. This means that they may not require a lot of communication with people outside the team.


Production line mentality (and silo syndrome) begins with a culture where personal interest (or the interests of a group within the organization) is not aligned with the organization's best interests. Fear prevails and individuals are driven by self-protection (or protection of their department) rather than desire to do the best for the organization as a whole.

This culture is characterized by many layers of bureaucracy which is a classic example of the DIRE principle. Employees show no initiative and just wait to be told what to do. Risk-taking is discouraged since mistakes are punished.

The solution to this problem is to empower employees to take control of their own destiny. Encourage collaboration and discourage rivalry by rewarding the team and not individuals. Share the vision of the organization so that everyone is working towards the same end.

Generally, following the ideas behind Agile will encourage collaboration and work against the production line mentality (and silo syndrome).

[Note: I was also going to talk about the closely related problem of vendor mentality, but that will have to wait for next week.]

Monday, 1 December 2014

Agile Roles

Back in May I wrote about how software design is done in Agile. I received some feedback which I promised to respond to in a future post (this one). Sorry for the delay.

Someone asked about the role of designers in Agile. They thought I was implying that specialist designers were not needed. Well, just to be clear, I will say it outright: No dedicated designers! All or most of the team should be involved in the design though typically some will have more input than others.

"No dedicated designers!"
When moving to Scrum people who just do "design" need to stop it. Designers traditionally are either technical (sometimes called architects) or business-oriented (sometimes called analyst/designers). I talk below about how these (and other) roles may change when moving to agile but in brief designers can move in two different directions - either to more development work or to more of a PO type role. Architects often become more hands-on - spending more time coding and reviewing. Analyst/designers can move back to development or if not from a technical background will need to move into a role involving mostly acceptance testing and customer interaction.

Another comment was: "If design, programming (and testing) are to be done together then should they all be done by the same person?"  In essence: YES. But before I get into that I need to talk a little about roles in Agile teams.

Multi-skilled Teams

Everyone agrees that Agile development uses multi-skilled (or cross-functional) teams. The problem is nobody really agrees (or even pretends to know) exactly what that means. Does it mean each of the team members have the skills to do all, or at least many, of the required tasks? Or does it mean that altogether the team has the required skills but each specializes in their own skill-set?

In my experience most Agile "experts" use the latter definition. For example, I was recently involved in the implementation of Scrum in a large company, and one of the things that the Scrum consultants emphasized is that a Scrum team (ie, "pigs" not "chickens") is made up of members with a wide variety of skills. However, I get the strong impression that this is mainly to placate those employees who feel that they may be redundant in the new order of things.

In reality, in an organization suffering from production line mentality (see below) adoption of an Agile methodology will mean that there will be less need for some existing roles. Less BDUF (see my post on Agile Design) means that there is no need for dedicated designers as design is performed continuously by the developers. Also, developers take more responsibility for testing so there is less need for dedicated testers doing black-box testing (like regression tests). This means that developers have more responsibilities (rather than just coding), but this is a good thing as it promotes DIRE (see DIRE) but also makes the work more rewarding and interesting.

If you need less people for other roles, such as designers, does this mean you need more developers? The simple answer is no. In my experience the same developers can actually be more productive, so you may even need less developers too!

Here I should note that I am talking about using Scrum in a pure software development environment.

I know that Scrum has been used successfully in other environments and that is great. However, whatever the environment all team members must have enough shared context to understand what everyone else in the team is doing.
Scrum Team Composition

Ideally all members of a Scrum team should be developers. That is, team members (apart from the Product Owner and perhaps the Scrum Master) should have the ability to write code. To understand why I will first recap on the advantages of Scrum.

Scrum (and Agile in general) has many benefits such as promoting team-work, working towards a common goal, quick response to change, etc. This is achieved by good communication and empowering the team to make their own decisions. The daily standup is particularly important as it allows everyone to know what everyone else is doing.

When everyone in the team can (and does) understand what everyone else is doing this avoids issues like:
  • differences in understanding of what is to be done
  • poor division of work
  • duplicating work - such as two developers fixing the same bug
  • forces pulling in different directions and introducing conflicting changes
  • not realizing when someone needs help
  • not being able to have someone else take over a task due to illness
  • not being able to have the whole team focus on a critical problem
  • inability to find another team member who understands what you are doing well enough to perform a review
Unless the team members are all developers they cannot really understand what everyone else in the team is doing (and how, why, etc). This is essential for Scrum to work (see Why Scrum Fails).

Of course, different individuals will have different levels of experience and different aptitudes. Over time, team members become familiar with each other's abilities. It is easy and natural for team members to take each other's skills into account when allocating tasks during the sprint planning.

Production Line Mentality

The production line was a major invention in the history of industrialization, since even unskilled workers can become very good at a simple repetitive task. However, its drawbacks were quickly discovered. Workers suffer from frustration and alienation. Once a task is mastered boredom sets in and mistakes are made, even for simple things.

Quality and productivity are greatly improved when workers are given a variety of challenging tasks. Performing different jobs as part of a small team working towards the same goal can be a tremendous motivator.
Another problem with production line mentality is that it usually results in post-production testing - ie someone inspecting the product coming off the end of the line. 

This sort of "Black-box testing" is not a good way to add quality particularly for software (see Unit Tests - White Box Testing).

What I call "Production Line Mentality" is where everybody has a specific well-defined job specification. This is common in an organization with a top-down management style where a worker's purpose is to impress their boss rather than work with others. In other words it does not encourage people to work together to accomplish their team's goals.

It is caused by a controlling (rather than empowering) management style where each role is kept simple to be easily understood and hence controlled. However, it results in a large number of specialized positions and a multi-layered management structure to be able supervise everybody in the organization.

This discussion actually ties in nicely with some of my recent posts. First, multi-layered management is a classic example of the Layer Anti-Pattern which is a pattern of bad software design which I have found can be applied in other domains.

Moreover, these layers form an excellent example of the DIRE principle. First, the managers at the top of the hierarchy are typically completely out of touch with the people actually doing the real work in the organization as they are isolated from them by all the layers. Perhaps even worse is that it encourages the workers themselves to concentrate on their own specific task without regard for the goals of the broader organization.

In an Agile development environment the developers are empowered to do whatever they need to do (within their bounds) to finish their tasks by the end of the sprint. For a traditional controlling manager it may be hard to deal with an environment where you can't even understand what everyone is doing let alone control it.

A controlling manager can be a real problem for the Agile approach. On the other hand, having developers who are happy to (or used to) being controlled like this is another major obstacle for the adoption of Agile. Years of manipulation (and even threats) means that many are happy simply to be given work as outlined in their job spec.

Traditional Roles

Let's look at traditional roles and how they change in an Agile world.

Team Leader

Scrum books simply say that the team leader role is no longer necessary. The team self-manages so the need for a manager within the team ceases to exist.

I disagree with this. In fact most of the same books describe a role for the Scrum Master which is almost exactly what I have always thought a team leader should be. (Perhaps they like the different title to emphasize that many team leaders are using a bad style.)

The team leader is now called the Scrum Master. Many team leaders also write code. That's OK too - you can have a part time scrum master who also codes.

However, if you think a team leader/scrum master is there to tell the team members what to do, then forget it. One of the main advantages of Agile is that teams are self-organizing and self-managing (within the bounds set for them by the PO and higher management). Small self-organized teams generally work much more efficiently and harmoniously than "centrally-organized" teams.


There is no longer any room for analysts/designers who spend weeks or months understanding a problem and trying (unsuccessfully, of course) to come up with the perfect, well-documented design. In an Agile world analysis and design is performed "just in time" (see JIT). The developers design, code (and test) all at once. This is not to say that what is designed is left to the whim of the developers - in fact how the design evolves is more closely controlled through the customer representative (product owner).

Traditional designers can move toward a role with industry knowledge, in particular how the software will help the business (or even the customers of the business). Perhaps they will be the actual PO (product owner), though I prefer someone even closer to the customer than that. Probably they will become a "business analyst" assisting the PO. Depending on the software (and despite the Agile preference of JIT design) there may be a need to mock up designs slightly ahead of time to garner feedback from the PO and/or customer.

Alternatively, or also, they may also do a lot of Acceptance Testing (see below). Whatever they do, their main focus (as for any Scrum team member) should be on completing the sprint backlog before the end of the current sprint.


There are just two points I want to mention about software architects using quotes from the excellent book 97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know.
" [the architect] should not sit in an ivory tower dictating the way forward but should be on the ground working with the team "
- from 19. Architects must be hands on by John Davies
"As well as being prone to incidental complexity and inertia, designing large systems upfront means larger projects, which are more likely to fail, more likely to be un-testable, more likely to be fragile, more likely to have unneeded and unused parts, more likely to be expensive, and more likely to have a negative political dimension. ...
"Design the smallest system you can, help deliver it, and let it evolve towards the grand vision. Although this might feel like giving up control, or even shirking your responsibilities, ultimately your stakeholders will thank you for it."
- from 97. Great software is not built, it is grown by Bill de hOra.

In brief: architects work with the team to evolve the design, spending most of their time coding and reviewing.


In an Agile environment programmers now do everything that is required of the team (analyze, design, code, test, etc). They do whatever it takes to complete the sprint tasks by the end of the sprint.

This is in stark contrast with some traditional environments where programmers have just been coders - they take a design from the analyst/designer and code it for "QA" to test. This is demeaning for programmers who are usually capable of a lot more. Even if you care not for the morale of developers giving the programmers free reign to think about the design and even experiment at little will produce a much better design than any analyst/designer (no matter how clever) can invent in their head.

Of course, this does not mean the programmers can do whatever they want. They are closely guided by the product owner who, after all, prioritizes the backlog effectively deciding on the sprint task(s) that are the focus for the team.


If waterfall development is disempowering to programmers it is much worse for testers. As compensation, testers are often given the impressive title of quality assurance experts, despite the fact that quality assurance has little to do with testing.

You may not believe this but using Agile development (especially Unit Tests) there is a greatly reduced need for dedicated testers. How great this reduction is depends to a large extent on how much testing the developers do already. At one extreme I recently worked in an environment where there were twice as many testers as developers! The software contractor had there own tester(s) who worked closely with the coders. Then the customer had several testers, plus an "offshore" test team to perform regression testing, as well as an automated testing team.

There are many different names for the types of testing (and testers) that are used in the software industry. In Agile there is just two general types of testing:

  1. Unit Tests: automated tests written by the developers of the code to test individual (low and high level) modules
  2. Acceptance Tests: performed by the PO, customers, or anyone who wants to try the software

Note that Unit Tests are always automated, but acceptance tests may be automated too. Often the developers will add a simple scripting system to make it easy for the PO and others to create test scripts.

This is useful for testing the current changes. But don't go overboard and add lots of tests for existing functionality as they will most likely fail when changes are made (and even act as a disincentive to change). Leave the regression testing to the Unit Tests.
To understand this better consider the testing that an aircraft manufacturer does. First, individual parts are developed (or purchased). The developers of these parts (for example, spark plugs) will design, build and test them themselves and provide a hopefully reliable product. Some parts may be made from a combination of other lower-level parts, but it is still up to the developer of any part to thoroughly test it. Of course, larger, more complicated, parts may require more elaborate testing - testing of an aircraft engine may require a huge test rig. In the end it is always up to the maker of a part to ensure it performs to the requirements of the plane manufacturer. Testing of parts is the equivalent in software development of Unit Testing.

When the first plane (or a prototype) is finally built it is then up to a test pilot to perform various flights and manoeuvres to ensure that the plane performs as expected. This is the equivalent in software development of Acceptance Testing. This analogy is not perfect though, since Acceptance Testing of software should usually be performed much earlier than test flights.

If a Scrum team requires a dedicated tester at all then perhaps one or two members (at most) could be required for Acceptance Testing on behalf of the PO. They should spend much of their time understanding what the software is to do by discussing it with PO, business analyst, customer and any other stakeholders - something that an analyst/designer traditionally does. They might also attempt to automate much of their work using acceptance test scripts.

Whatever, they do their main focus should be producing working software at the end of the sprint. This means giving the users what they need as opposed to testing for conformance to any written specification.


If you are about to, or have been trying to, move toward an Agile development environment then you should ignore the advice given by many Agile coaches and experts that most roles will not change. There is no longer any need for software designers and less need for testers. Instead the whole team is involved in analysis, design, coding and testing - and this is all done "just in time" (see JIT). (Of course, if they are willing to adapt a role can be found for anyone -- it may be more challenging but will probably involves better use of their abilities.)

Most importantly, managers have less control of the team, which is now self-organizing. The major benefit is simply that a creative team can organize themselves much better than any manager. It also makes for a more rewarding and enjoyable working environment. The developers concentrate on creating good software and overcoming hurdles rather than making themselves look good for their annual performance review or trying to shift the blame when something goes wrong.

It may be hard to overcome the unthinking production line mentality (I do what the boss tells me to do) or vendor mentality (I do what the customer tells me to do). But please try!