Last week, 10 of us from Rally product development, sales and coaching attended the Lean Software and Systems Consortium’s 2010 conference in Atlanta.  For me, the learning highlights of the conference were in the Systems Engineering track  led by James Sutton. To kick-off his talk on Lean Systems Engineering, James used a number of compelling stories around different systems and what guide them.  As part of his introduction to systems, he played this hilarious Dave Snowden video about how you plan or act based on one of 3 systems in which you might find yourself -- Chaotic, Ordered and Complex.


David Snowden -- Cognitive-Edge -- Ways to Plan a Party

James, a Systems Engineer, Principal with Lockheed Martin, is an invested member of the Lean SSC board as well as a technical advisory member.  He is the deepest expert that I have ever met in the field of systems engineering. And he has a wonderful gift for bringing multiple resources to bear in helping people understand and care about systems. For a Civil Engineer and Computer Science major like myself his talk and track were the definition of a prop-spinning geek nirvana.

Systems are guided by the pressures that form them

The point of view that James imparted on us was to understand that there are fundamental systems in which we operate. They are not value-based; one is not better than the other. They just help us set context and inform us about the world around us. Why should we care about this? How you approach your product and project development depends on which system  you find yourself in. And, as it turns out, the system you find yourself in is largely guided by one of four compelling pressures. That is, you will recognize the system in which you operate based on what is driving you to act.

There are four fundamental pressures that guide us: abundance, scarcity, desperation, or conformity. And each leads to a different system context. To illustrate this, James led us through the story of four different nations following the second World War.  Each nation, responding to different drivers, led to advances in different types of systems management approaches in use today.

  • United States -- Abundance -- Systems Engineering

  • Japan -- Scarcity -- Lean

  • England -- Desperation -- Chaos Theory

  • USSR -- Creativity and Conformity -- Patterns of Inventiveness

The Four Systems

Given this sense of what guides particular systems, James explained that we live in a world of four fundamental systems: Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaos.

The four fundamental systems


Once you recognize what system you are in, you discover what principles and practices will best serve you in that system. But systems tend to not be static. So, James presented what agent or pressure might cause you to move to a different system and therefore what tools and practices would guide your thinking and actions for transition.

For instance,  if you are in a Simple system and are moving into a Complicated system, Lean Manufacturing and Analytical Systems Engineering are your best tools and guides. If, however, you are in a Complex system verging on Chaos, you’ll work best relying on the perspective originated by Dave Snowden: Cynefin, the Welsh word for “the place where you hold multiple things.” Cynefin serves Complex systems well as it emphasizes emergent behaviors and, what Snowden refers to as “sense-making.”

The history and vision from this talk became almost a grand unifying theory for me. It all made great sense. If you are a  systems engineering fan, do not miss the recorded version of this talk when it becomes available.

Thanks Lean SSC

While 6 speakers and several attendees from Europe were prevented from attending the conference due to the Icelandic volcanic ash cloud, the Lean SSC rolled with the punches and pulled off an excellent event. The folks able to attend and the over 40 sessions offered created an electric buzz both in the air and on Twitter. Given the caliber of sessions, hallway discussions, and Open Space,  I am sure there will be many posts that emanate from attendees. And no doubt new ideas will be growing that were nurtured by the conference. Kudo’s to the Lean SSC board for creating a space for this excitement and emergence.

About the Authors:

Ryan Martens is an organic gardener,  founding board member of the Entrepreneurs Foundation of Colorado, and CTO at Rally Software Development.
Jean Tabaka is a wine enthusiast, author and Agile Fellow at Rally Software Development.
Tag for LeanSSC automated collection of blog posts -- #lssc10
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