Category Archives: analysis

Soapy Water Wisdom

Being hungover (or was I still drunk… I forget, it was college) was the best thing for me during a Physics test. Here’s how one of the questions went:

Given a buncha formulas we’re giving you, mostly in Greek, and some assumptions like you’re living in a world with no friction that is all at sea level, turn this set of Greek letters into this other set of Sanskrit letters. Just kidding. Greek letters. Have fun, pal.

Does YOUR head hurt when you read that? I’ll assume it does ’cause you want to humor me. Thank you. You’re very kind. Now consider my aforementioned added cranial crankiness and you will believe me when I say I looked that question square in the iota and thought:

I’ll give YOU freakin’ frictionless maritime Greek letters.

And thus I did. Slippery sea-faring alphas to Teflon tidal omegas. Got one of the highest grades in the class for that test, too. My secret?

This shit just HAS to make sense.

I didn’t have the brain bandwidth to be creative: I could only methodically use my initial set of formulas and power through incremental changes to turn them into this other thing they wanted. Successfully re-deriving an equation is one of my biggest academic satisfactions. Because I am a dork. Brazenly drinking (shots of) vodka.

Fast-forward a decade and change, my child is 3 months old, and through the practice of doing dishes, I have re-derived the Kanban notion of limiting work-in-progress, and the Lean notion of single piece flow. Because I am a dad. Barely treading (soapy) water.

Much like the early months of college, the early months of Zephyr’s childhood are a sleepless blur. Thank goodness I have Twitterial evidence of this time, because conversationally, I can only recall chaos. At home the first 2 weeks of her life, my job was easy:

Given your wife has turned into a milk factory, both adult parties mostly without sleep, and reducing the house of any physical or emotional friction while keeping it afloat, turn Day 0 into Day 90. Have fun, Papa.

‘Twas a very reactionary time, which meant I was often interrupted, including when washing dishes. Not having a dishwasher meant, per my primitive process, soaking a tubful of things in hot soapy water, abrasively removing residue from the individual items in said hot soapy water, then setting the tub’s worth aside to rinse and set in the drying rack, all in one batch. Batch size = 1.00 tub.

‘Twas a very repetitively reactionary time, which meant the interruptions shed light on the flaws in my dishwashing ways, since per interruption:

  • The tub full of hot soapy water would go cold.
  • The tub plus set-aside washed but not rinsed items would often sit and take up room in the sink.
  • Washed but not rinsed items would sit all soapy.
  • My wife would get pissed at the clutter due to any/all of the above.
  • I would get pissed due to any/all of the above.

Besides the last 2, the above represents in-between states of dishwashing: they’re not in a dirty stacked pile, and they’re not cleaned in the drying rack. They are abandoned, mid-process, and to start the process back up requires some extra work, like adding back hot water, clearing out the sink if we want to do something else with it, or re-soaking the washed but not rinsed items to work off any soap residue that dried on. These in-progress items are considered waste by those who study Lean.

(This deserves a parenthetical paragraph. Did you know there are 3 Japanese words for waste? There’s muda, which is stuff that doesn’t add value, which includes things done before they need to be. There’s mura, which is unevenness like the pooling of work-in-progress, like my dishwashing process above. There’s muri, which is unreasonableness like not having enough time or spirit to do a process. There. You now know Japanese. You’re welcome.)

Any extra work, when you’re under the physical stress of continuous non-continual sleep, sucks. So much like that Physics test, I’d face that sink and think:

This dish-washing shit just HAS to make sense.

So… I tried an experiment. I didn’t fill up the tub completely, but just enough to soak and wash and rinse the, say, utensils. Batch size = 0.25 tub. Interruptions had less of an impact, and I was less wasteful.

To be even MORE responsive to the changing environment, I tried another experiment. I’d still soak a smaller set, then wash and rinse one item at a time. Batch size = 1 fork. Interruptions had the least impact, and empirically, through limiting work-in-progress down to single piece flow, more things made it to the drying rack.

Being over-tired (or was I still dreaming… I forget, it was last year) was the best thing for me when doing dishes.

Moral of the story? Live in a place with a dishwasher. I’m so freakin’ serious. It is time back in your day, and that is your greatest commodity. Don’t settle, unless it’s some Zen activity for you, then that’s your thang, and I’m not going to get in the way of your joy. Otherwise, screw any Agile concept re-derivation mumbo-jumbo above (I mean, thanks for reading!): if you’re reading this (thanks again!), you most likely live in the first-world. Embrace this. Use a dishwasher.

ScrumOfThree

Since becoming a full-time ScrumMaster, I haven’t written much, unless it reflected on a significant event I wanted captured:

And then:

  • I became a father.

And through a year since:

  • I embrace the present moment a little more easily.

Diving into the above a bit, besides when we’re at the playground, or doing swim lessons, or other situations where I feel her life is in my hands, I’d say the most present I’ve ever been was just before and just after my daughter’s birth. A significant reason? My phone was off.

My phone wasn’t dead. My phone wasn’t almost dead. I wasn’t trying to be respectful. I wasn’t trying to hide. There was just absolutely nothing more important in the world (for me) at that extended moment, and the unquestioning clarity of that absoluteness has never… happened before.

I wonder when it will happen again.

My being unfathomably present was the only thing that could have happened (for me) at that extended moment.

I wonder when it will happen again.

Has this ever happened – for you?

Little Thistledown Things

Am sharing a video of Alan Watts, one of my favorites.

Here’s the transcript:

I remember once, I, uh, was looking in the open air and one of those glorious little thistledown things came and I picked it up, like that, and brought it down, and it looked as if it was struggling to get away, just as if you caught an insect by one leg, like a daddy longlegs or something of that kind.

It seemed to be struggling to get away and I thought, “Well it’s not doing that, that’s just the wind blowing.” And then I thought again, “Really? Only the wind blowing? Surely, it is the structure of this thing, which, in cooperation with the existence of wind, enables it to move like an animal, but using the wind’s effort, not its own.” It is (a) more intelligent being than an insect, in a way, because an insect uses effort, like a person who rows a boat uses effort, but the man who puts up a sail is using magic.

He lets nature do it for him, with the intelligence to use a sail. You see? Now, that is the most highly skillful art of all. That is Taoism in perfection.

So, I take that as: structure yourself to work with the Universe to act without effort.

The Taoist notion of ‘Wu Wei’ can be described as “the cultivation of a mental state in which our actions are quite effortlessly in alignment with the flow of life”. So you can read THAT, or choose to think about “those glorious little thistle down things”.

Leave Cats Alone

There’s more than one way to skin a cat.
- someone who walks around in a hand-made, cat-skin coat

Does that phrase give you paws pause? It should. It should get you to imagine a world where skinning cats was a common enough activity such that the variety of methods was contemplated often enough to drive to a conclusion that was shared widely enough to stake its claim in our indeed vulgar vernacular as an axiom. WTF.

Yet, I care about that world.

I want to live in that world.

I want to live in that world… with the small detail of switching out the skinning of cats with the living of life in an Agile manner.

There’s more than one way to live life in an Agile manner.
- someone who walks around in a hipster, vintage, upcycled, locally harvested, hand-made, cat-skin coat

Step into this world with me.

Step into a world where I pined to be a Scrum Master (I practiced with the team of me while documenting the journey on this blog), where upon becoming a full-time Scrum Master, I have written just 8 blog posts. I became a father. I landed my third full-time Agile Practitioner gig, now as a start-up’s sole Agile Coach. And looking back on my own ScrumOfOne, I wonder how Agile I really am.

Those close have heard me complain about how caring for a new life has reduced my capacity to engage in personal development. This is measured by, um, how many things I can cross off a “stuff to evolve Merrill” list, and how often I check in with myself regarding my ability to, um, check things off said list, and knowing that I am working on the highest-value activities.

Step into a world where I’ve been too sleep-deprived and/or on duty to do any of the above personal development. I used to have a detailed backlog, and now I don’t. I used to have regular planning sessions and retrospectives, and now I don’t. I used to walk around feeling in control of my purposeful path on this pale blue dot, and now I don’t. (I used to not complain, and now I do.)

All the markers of DOING Agile have disappeared… replaced by the markers of BEING Agile.

(This epiphany didn’t hit me until getting to this very part of the blog post, so please stick with me.)

Though not along a path set via purposeful planning, I know my hours are spent on the highest-value activities: what is needed now and next for my family.

Though not formal, I’ve learned to use the small gaps in daily activity to reflect and prepare, reducing feedback loops and extracting Kaizen where appropriate.

Though not detailed, I now frequently use Siri & dictation & the iCloud-backed-up Reminders app on my iPhone as just enough process to make me effective. The different lists in the app serve as different ‘product’ backlogs. Weekly to daily ‘Sprint’ backlogs are established via setting a date per reminder, so the highest priority items are visible on my lock screen. My working backlog is in my hand at the single push of a button. With ‘the next’ literally at hand, my focus is freed to embrace ‘the now’.

Those close will now hear me contemplate how caring for a new life has increased my capacity to engage in the present moment.

And, uh, I guess that still counts as personal development after all. Hm. Well then. Just goes to show there is more than one way to skin a cat live life in an Agile manner write about the latest stage of my ScrumOfOne journey skin a cat.

The Marbles Sermon

On June 28th, 2015, I delivered a sermon entitled ‘Marbles’ to Arlington Street Church (Unitarian Universalist, “Gathered in Love and Service for Justice and Peace”, kickin’ it from the new pad by Boston’s Public Gardens since 1861). I believe it was a rainy Sunday, a couple of days after the Supreme Court ruling that same-sex couples could marry nationwide. I share this here because I managed to fit describing an aspect of Agility into a sermon. Also you’ll find some words in all-caps: I’m doin’ this live, so I’ll take all tactics to not mess up, which included printing this out in size 24 font. Take no parishioners prisoners.

My close friends will recognize the first third, a.k.a. ‘the marbles story’.

Marbles
by Merrill B. Lamont III

When I was 6 years old, there was this freckled red-head named Gemma from Australia, and I asked her to marry me. Here’s the setup.

It’s recess. It’s 1988. Ponytails were flying sideways NOT because it’s windy, but because it’s 1988. Kids surrounded an impromptu arena of 12 slabs of concrete, all in a row. On one end was Gemma. On the other was a girl 3 years older. In the middle was a King-sized Dragon Egg. Passed back and forth between the 2 gladiators… was a God-sized Steelie. Historians and economists will agree: these were two of the most VALUABLE MARBLES on the local market, and they were BOTH up for grabs. All you had to do, was roll your marble, kind of like bowling, and knock the marble in the middle OFF of its crack in the concrete. You walk in with 1 marble, and the first to get to 3 hits, walks away with both. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was a high-stakes game!

I’ll cut to the chase: THIS was a high-stakes game… that Gemma won. As she walked towards the middle to rightfully claim both her prizes, the other girl, the older girl, the taller girl, the girl… with a larger stride, got to the middle before Gemma could, grabbed both marbles, and walked away, parting through an onslaught of “boo”s. Ladies and gentlemen, for a 6-year-old, THIS was scandal!

And this… made Gemma cry.

And this… made me turn on auto-pilot. I marched up to Gemma, who at this point was by her lunch box positioned where you would line up to be led back inside, and I gave her a hug. And she hugged back. And it felt right. And because I was still on auto-pilot, I did the next logical thing – I asked her to marry me. She said, “No”. I asked, “Why”? She said… a bunch of things that I couldn’t fully make out because she was still crying in a think Australian accent. So I gave her another hug. And she hugged me back. And it felt right.

That’s when I looked up, and across the heat streaming off of the baking concrete, I saw Meher from Pakistan, Sabah from India, and Sangeetha from Bangladesh. They were looking in our direction, and it no longer felt right. In that moment, I realized that I was acting against a societal norm, because I was in Saudi Arabia, and although I was born there, I am not Saudi, so I was not home. NONE of the kids on that playground were home, and one day, we would ALL go home… some of us, to a land where a guy hugging a girl, could feel right.

This shaping of my world view is what I think about when someone mentions ‘marbles’.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m guessing the word ‘marble’, or, in its plural and I would argue its more common form, ‘marbles’, is NOT a word you would encounter on a daily, nay, a weekly basis – no.

But for me, I have marbles prominently displayed on my desk at work. They sit in this bowl, where, drinking from it, is a zebra – all made from the same piece of wood. Imagine the zebra’s head, submerged in the marbles, all next to a sign that reads, “Do not feed the Zebra. Thank you. signed, the management”. I’m describing this in some detail because NOW I want you to imagine somebody walking up to me to talk about something work-related, and without hesitation, running a hand through the marbles. Imagine the clickity-clack sound. That rustling calm in combination with that tactile sensation is one of the TWO purposes that THING is there. Through our day we live in our HEADS… MUCH more than we live in our BODIES, so I offer this opportunity to bring one back into the present, while activating other areas of the brain as we think through something together. The OTHER purpose, of that THING, is to signify that this is a PLAY SAFE ZONE. WE TAKE BEING SILLY… VERY SERIOUSLY. (Sometimes with an attempt at a British accent.)

Lately, ‘marbles’ to me represent how laughing together is to be encouraged in the workplace, for happy teams get more done. My role in all this is the culmination of self-discovery that I can proudly say has been significantly guided by Tricia, my wife. Growing up a skinny kid… with acne… and a funny name, to a skinny adult… with acne… and a funny name, being comfortable in my own skin, literally, has been a challenge. And now because of heightened self-expression, I can relate to the marble. I see a thing that is colorful, playful, smooth. I see… myself?
Aaaaand I have just compared myself to a glass choking hazard. Surely, I have lost… my… say it with me ON 3… 1, 2, MARBLES!

(That was the audience participation piece. Thanks for playing.)

Jokes aside, ‘marbles’ now represent the type of FATHER I hope to be – Tricia is due mid-July.

When I see children play, I view it as them discovering their world, sometimes by pushing the limits of SOMETHING (…or …someone), answering the question, “What happens if…”. These are essentially experiments, rooted in an innate curiosity. The type of father I want to be is one who fosters that sense of play, for this is a way to LIVE, let alone work. In the tech industry, this is a relatively new paradigm, and gaining traction. Instead of directing lots of time and treasure towards building out a big idea, then putting it out there and hoping it sticks, why not experiment with less time and less treasure, building out a small version of the big idea, and putting THAT out there and see if THAT sticks? This is how you get feedback quickly to see if the rest of your big idea is even worth it. So besides trying new things more often, experimenting like this also means FAILING more often.

THIS is what I want to impart upon my little one. Failing is OK, and it is to be expected, because it means you’re trying – it means you’re experimenting – it means you’re pushing the limits – it means you’re discovering your world – you are playing – you are truly living. What you DO with “failure”, informs your next step towards ALLLLL your big ideas.

So yeah – exemplifying a sense of play as a model for living, and sharing that notion as a father – is what comes to me when I look at a marble now.

Folks, let me come clean: I don’t actually care about marbles. I care about what that word stands for, and specifically, how that has changed through my life so DRASTICALLY. Take my life story, shove it in a box, tilt that box on its edge, then tilt it again, now onto a corner, and NOW slice awkwardly through that to reveal how the meaning of ‘marbles’ has evolved. From shaping a world view, to embracing self-discovery, to raising a kid, THIS is the MEANDERING JOURNEY of a WORD as a SYMBOL.

THIS is PECULIAR, and, folks, it is THIS FASCINATION that I wanted to share with y’all. Whether it is a tale of how you will grow a person you are yet to meet, or how you met yourself, or how you learned to play with others in your local sandbox, I AM ADVOCATING for YOUR random slice of life, and what uniquely colorful little stories will spill out. I am sure they are all… MARBLOUS.