Thursday, March 22, 2007

Book Review: The Elegant Solution

I have just finished reading the The Elegant Solution by Matthew E. May.  I think I’m going to have to give up reading serious books to do with software development, business and change until my own book is finished.  Progress has been far quicker than I expected and the end is now in sight.  Problem is when I read a book that comes anywhere close to my subject things get confusing.

So to The Elegant Solution, subtitled “Toyota’s Formula for Mastering Innovation.”  The author mainly considers product innovation although the same things are true about process and practise innovation.  In effect he is talking about what Michael Kennedy calls  “Lean Product Development” or “Knowledge based product development” (Product Development for the Lean Enterprise).  Its about the application of Toyota’s lean thinking to the development of products.

Although May tries to be practical the book is still quite conceptual.  There are big bold ideas like “Learn to see” and “Master the tension.”  While these are backed up with stories (mainly from Toyota but a few other places too) most of the practicalities are left to the reader.  Its a good book for creating aspirations.

I also found that the book overlapped with my own thinking and the draft of my book.  I found myself thinking at one point “He’s said it!  I have nothing original to say!”  Actually I came to realise there is a difference – it is worth me continuing – and that his work just further validates my own thinking.  In particular May’s emphasis on learning is spot on.

I’ll recommend this book, its worth reading but I’m not completely happy with it.  I found it annoying in many places.  For a start is is very American – ironic when it is mainly about a Japanese company.  There are some points were I don’t actually understand what he is saying because he refers to figures from American history, or sporting metaphor's.  Neither do I have car-culture so some of that escaped me too.  As the book went on this annoyed me more and more, this is not a book for the international market.

While the book is short on references it is short in total.  Had the author included more references, expanded on his thinking and skipped the American turn of phrase it probably would have been a lot longer – and I would have complained about that too!

At the start of the book May sets out to define The Elegant Solution (TES).  He gives some examples but I’m not convinced, they can be a little subjective.  In fact I found myself thinking of Christopher Alexander and Quality Without the Name (QWAN – see The Timeless Way of Building) – more recently called Wholeness.

QWAN is the underpinning of Alexander’s Pattern theory.  The more I read May’s work the more similarities I saw between the two.   QWAN and TES are described in similar terms and are, to my mind at least, similarly subjective – although Alexander would claim QWAN is objective and I suspect May would claim the same for TES.

The similarities don’t stop there.  Alexander created Patterns to help create QWAN.  Patterns describe a problem, a set of forces and a solution.  May gives a set of practices describe a problem, a cause and a solution.

I think May is very close to Alexander and Patterns.  I don’t know if he has read any Alexander or has made the connection himself.  I suspect not but his references section is sadly lacking – he has one but its not a complete list of references or influential work which is a shame.

As a book The Elegant Solution also reminds me of Tom Peter's book Re-imagine! Both try to enthuse people to take a grip on the world themselves and step beyond the normal bounds.  However there is one big difference.  May’s book is all about incremental change and improvement.  But Peter’s rejects incremental change, he wants radical change. He sees small improvements (the type typically brought about by Lean) as preventing radical change.  Why change a little when you can change a lot?

This is a big divide.  Personally I come down on the incremental change side of the argument.  But – and this is a big but – incremental change has to be combined with a constant desire to do better and a systems view of the world so you are not sub-optimising.  This is an argument I’ve been making for a while, I probably picked it up from Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, and its the same argument May makes.

Finally, I’m getting a little fed up of reading about Toyota.  I know, this is partly my own fault but I want to know were the other example's of Lean are?  I know a few, like Dell and Heathrow Terminal 5 but surely there are more still?  And when will thinking advance beyond Toyota and Lean?  What is next?

Perhaps what makes Toyota different is not so much Lean, or learning, or knowledge but simply a willingness to deal with problems and to grasp opportunities.  Maybe the secret is just that they do things.