Every once in awhile I review previous posts and find that I’ve touched on a topic, but I haven’t provided much background. I must have done a poor job in my prior reviews because I missed the fact that several of my previous posts talk about the relationship of Principles, Systems and Tools without actually explaining it. Let me start off with a few definitions:

Principle – a statement of value or fact that can be applied to virtually every situation and is usually generic in nature

Tool – a specific application of one or more principles in a way that produces a desired outcome.

System – a complex application of multiple tools that all work together to provide a desired outcome. Changing or removing one of the tools may not cause the system to fail, but it may cause the system to not be as productive or effective.

Two common principles are momentum and the wedge. Momentum is the product of the mass and velocity of an object. The heavier and/or faster an object is the more force will be transferred when it strikes another object. We may often see the application of momentum through a tool like a hammer. There is a certain amount of weight at the end of a stick which, when swung against another object, strikes with the force of it’s momentum.

A wedge is really two inclined planes where the narrower the wedge, the less force will be required to drive it into or between other objects. A simple application of the wedge is the nail. It starts to spread apart two objects with a very narrow point and then widens. Because of friction (another principle), the nail, or wedge, also takes effort to remove. Friction enables the nail to hold two different objects together.

By using two different tools, the hammer and the nail, we can create a system where multiple tools work together to build a structure like a house. In this system the hammer strikes the nail through multiple pieces of wood and the resulting friction between the nail and the surrounding wood provides sufficient force to hold them together. There are many different types of nails as well as many different types of hammers. Using the proper combination of tools in the system will result in the greatest efficiency and/or effectiveness. Imagine using a sledgehammer to place a nail in the wall for a picture hanger. You may well be able to effectively hang the picture, but you may also end up with multiple holes in the wall and the sledge is really heavy as well… not very efficient.

A regular side-effect of altering or avoiding tools prior to understanding is the elephant effect:

Five blind men were brought up to different parts of an elephant and asked to describe it. One, who touched his ears, said the elephant is like a sail. The one who touched the trunk said an elephant is like a hose. The one who touched the foot said an elephant is like a tree trunk. The one who felt the tusk said an elephant is like a hard smooth stick. The one who touched the tail said–like a rope.

The novice carpenter, in a similar situation, may only witness a portion of the work and assume that a hammer striking a piece of metal on wood results in one piece becoming attached to another… completely missing the difference between the nail and the screw.

Unfortunately, the larger the system, the more difficult it is can be to understand its fundamental principles. This is certainly true with Lean and Agile as we can see from the early American adoption of Lean Manufacturing when many companies sent representatives to Toyota in Japan to learn from their production system. These representatives would return with excellent tools which they thought would drastically improve their own company’s productivity. Without a full understanding the the accompanying systems and principles these companies realized varying degrees of success. In fact, it took many organizations decades to approach the levels of productivity that they had initially seen

These companies learned the hard way that it is easier to understand a tool, more difficult to understand a system, and it can take lifetimes to fully understand a principle. The same is true for most organizations that seek to be Agile. They apply some pieces (like user stories) of a whole system (like Scrum) and then wonder why they don’t see the levels of success they anticipated. Others mistake the tool for a principle and attempt to hit everything with the same hammer, assuming the because it worked in one situation is will work in all situations.

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