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The High Velocity Edge: Part 5

Apr 2021

Welcome to part five of a series on Steven Spear’s 2009 book The High Velocity Edge. Today, I’ll continue discussing the first capability: design and operate systems to reveal problems when they occur.

The underlying philosophy comes from two people: Taiichi Ohno and Sakichi Toyoda.

Taiichi Ohno designed systems based on pull based work called “kanban”. Kanban ensured work was only done in response to customer requests, thus always serving the end customer and minimizing waste.

Taiichi Ohno eliminated waste by focusing on global outcomes. Sakichi Toyoda eliminating waste by preventing defects.

Sakichi Toyoda started the family enterprise that would eventually become Toyota. Sakichi’s work on an automated textile loom is relevant to our story. Here’s Toyota’s take on the company lore:

Women in his village, including his own mother and grandmother, wove fabric for clothing on hand-powered looms. Toyoda observed that they faced a heartbreaking scenario. If one of the hundreds of threads on the loom snapped, it created a defect in the material. Most of the time the weaver wouldn’t notice and continue weaving. The result was fabric better suited for rags than clothing.

Toyoda committed himself to solving this problem. He invented a loom that would automatically stop at the moment a strand broke. This gave the weaver a chance to fix the problem before continuing their work. He built a machine that assured that all work is the work intended and doesn’t produce scrap. He dubbed this concept “Jidoka”.

Jidoka is inseparable from the legendary Toyota Production system. Sakichi’s idea was that work should be designed to identify problems when and where they occur.

We call this “fail fast” in software. Identifying problems is prerequisite to solving them. Toyota applied this idea at scale which created high speed kaizen (or continuous improvement).

I can explain jidoka through my own experience.

I just committed a change to application configuration related to environment variables. I deployed the code to production. After the some time, the deployment failed because of a missing environment variable. This wasn’t the first time this happened to me. I had just chocked it up to business as usual. Mistakes happen right?

Not this time. I thought: “wait. I can do something about this.” My code has latent assumptions about its runtime environment. How is this different than my tests? My tests make explicit assumptions by asserting on preconditions. If the preconditions fail, then the outcome is a guaranteed failure. So the tests don’t run in that case.

How is this any different? Why should a potentially long running deploy even start if the preconditions aren’t met? It shouldn’t.

I, just like Sakichi, was tired of seeing waste created from detectable defects.

So I set about writing predeploy checks for the target environment. They verified things like: are all environment variables set? Does the application start in a dry run mode? Can the application connect to all configured database? Are API keys for external services valid? These checks protected future changes from deploying into known bad conditions. Preflight checks were born. My thinking has never been the same.

I’m constantly finding ways to apply jidoka to my daily work. That practice demonstrated the value of assert statements outside tests.

I didn’t use assert much in my code until recently. Now I use it liberally. I’m always surprised by the problems they find.

I used to think that asserts only checked expected conditions. Asserts should never fail, right? Wrong. They eventually will because knowledge is imperfect. Reality will find ways expose the imperfection. Then you’ll be thankful for the assert. That failing assertion is telling you something is not understood. Go understand it.

I challenge you to apply jidoka in your daily work. I guarantee it will transform you thinking.

Now we have some philosophy in hand. I’ll go in the specifics of the first capability in the next episode.