Agile and lean production mindset

As discussed in our introduction for Agile Production, we first need to understand the mindset that guides this evolution. There are quite a few articles and books on the subject of the agile or lean mindset. Much of it could be characterized as having its foundation in the growth mindset, opening possibility for continuous improvement of talent over that of innate fixed skill. New practitioners must be careful to avoid the false growth mindset trap. As we improve, we must strive for a humble attitude to continue learning, even while at the height of expertise.

Acknowledging the difficulty to truly move toward agility, Johanna Rothman wrote Create Your Successful Agile Project to help guide organizations to the mindset and principles that help them improve. She summarizes this mindset as about team collaboration, and more frequent deliverables. For those managing a team, its about servant leadership and empowering team members. Teaching each other how to improve the people, the processes, the product with the goal of consistent deliverables. We learn continuously.

We learn about making small stories for small, incremental features that comprise feature sets. We learn how to visualize what is going on with the team. We learn to practice measuring and retrospection, to continuously learn how to improve.  We learn how to minimize multi-tasking. We consider flow-efficiency over resource-efficiency. Ultimately, we take on collaboration with conviction enough to reward teams rather than individuals.

So how does this apply to not only the tools, but production itself? Some production teams think collaboratively by nature, and others do not, and this depends on how they are managed. Often this is not on purpose, but just attributed to the style of the producers, directors, supervisors and other leaders in the projects. For example, I recall presenting new technology management practices at a big animation studio; although well received, I was told they would not be implemented because of the producers’ management predilections for the next couple of movies.

In technology-heavy filmmaking, with the large numbers of artists and technologists involved, we often hear stories of directors with different styles. We appreciate hearing about the collaborative directors, or the one’s who share their vision freely, or inspire everyone on the team.

By understanding how to effectively change mindset, we can improve the culture of a company while embracing everyone’s unique style. Everyone has specialist tendencies by the time they make it into a major VFX or CG feature animated project. So we need to encourage generalist and team thinking, even while having deep-dive specialists. Everybody contributes to everything in their team.

But most managers think this is wasteful. We have pipelines designed to make the talented specialists most efficient. In agile collaboration, it is not as important that an individual is efficient at their specialized job, as it is that the team is efficient at finishing the next deliverable value to the project. Collaborative thinking produces faster results when considering the whole deliverable. Johanna Rothman discusses considering flow efficiency vs resource efficiency and it reminded me of software developers who were considered super fast, but left such a mess that everyone else had to clean up after them.

In fact, a while ago Microsoft invented a management approach to elevate these kinds of developers and create a class system. You had stars, and then, the cleanup and testing entourage enabling these stars to work without consideration of others. In my opinion, it was invented to legitimize the human chaos and collateral damage of this approach. It rationalized the hurt it put on many people in favor of what it thought were to the company’s benefit.

Productions commonly end up like this too. We sign up for the same misanthropic behavior, working with the same managers and prima donna artists and technologists. Its not fun or fulfilling, and not good for the industry. We have to keep a career going. But who wants to work with those people?

It’s time to change the culture. See the next page on production Culture to continue.