Agile at LEGO


I am interested in agile software development methods, LEAN management styles and the impact on a company’s organization. All these attributes are usually associated with software development companies – not hardware companies or toy companies.

I got a “must-read” recommendation for the book “brick by brick” by David Robertson. "Brick by Brick" by David RobertsonThe book proved to be a real “must-read”. Especially the portion where David Robertson describes the turnaround of the company. The methods applied to an almost bancrupt company reminded me to techniques nowadays well-known in software development teams. I mailed David Robertson and asked for permission to cite a portion of his book (page 170, Brick by Brick, David Robertson):

Before the rise of Bionicle, the LEGO Group’s product teams were soloed from one another and toys were for the most part developed sequentially: designers mocked up the models and then threw their creations over a metaphorical wall to the engineers, who prepared the prototypes for manufacture and then kicked them over to the marketers, and so on down the line. Rarely would one team venture onto another team’s turf to offer a suggestion or ask for feedback. If all went well, the team’s product would hit the market in two or three years.

The Bionicle team’s six-month deadlines forced a different way of working, one that was less sequential than parallel, and highly collaborative. Once the outline for the next chapter of the Bionicle saga was roughed out, the different functional groups would work side by side in real time, swapping ideas, critiquing models, and always pushing to simultaneously nail the deadline and build a better Bionicle.

“We had a massive project team,” recalled Farshtey. “It wasn’t just the creative people; it was also people from Advance and from marketing, sales, events, PR – all different parts of the company, all helping to steer the franchise.”

Because the marketing group worked directly with designers, Bionicle’s advertising campaign felt connected to the product. Promotional posters for Bionicle’s first-year run had to look and feel of movie posters, precisely because the toy featured the powerful visuals and narrative sweep of an epic film. “We wanted more communication in the product and more product in the communication,” said Faber. “That meant the marketing group needed to be involved at the very start of product development, so the story flowed out through the product. We wanted the product almost to tell the story by itself.”

“We had a kind of triangle, where the marketing, the story, and the product had to move ahead together,” he continued. “None of those could be the spearhead. Each needed to support and inspire the other.”

That single page really got to a point. I’m relentlessly telling that the core of the agile movement is about focus and collaboration (see Agile Defined). Usually, I refer to these values in software development environments, organizations and teams. But LEGO – a brick & mortar company – used the same principles in 2001 to turnaround their company. That was really mind-boggling news to me.

After doing some research on this topic, I found a SMB here in Germany working with agile principles: HEMA Bandsägetechnik. This (german) article talks about their experience.


Reaching goals – lots of micro steps actually make the goal!

During Facebook’s developer conference f8 in 2014 Edwin Smith with the High-Performance Server Infrastructure team shared some insights on the HHVM – the PHP runtime project built around performance (27:37 onwards). In his talk he also described how the team almost failed reaching a very ambitious goal – but finally managed it … with 1% micro steps. They actually overachieved.

What happened? In October 2012 the team was in a position where they had spent nearly 2 years of development time to create a virtual machine / just-in-time compiler to boost Facebook’s execution performance. Already in April 2012 they realized that the newly created project was 3 times slower than the current execution environment – and plan to go live was end 2012. In October 2012 the team realized that following the working model as they did so far will not allow them to make their goal.

So, the need to improve the execution performance by factor 3+ (ambitious goal) meets a hard deadline to go live (time box).

At the time, the team stopped working like they did before and changed to a drastically different model.

New work model to achieve performance goals

They changed from a project working model towards a kanban-like working model. Now, they started focusing on micro-steps. Each of these steps shouldn’t take longer than a day or two. If the success was measurable and positive, great. If not, the team simply documented the effort and moved on (Furiously iterate).

The backlog of ideas for HHVM performance improvements

Prior to starting the work on the final period from October to December the team started with a brainstorming session filling up their backlog. Each of these micro 1% performance improvment steps were documented. The backlog organized like: left–>right impact – with least impact right, top–>bottom effort with least effort in top. Ideally, all steps were located top left (low effort but high impact). Those, however, were already covered.

Tasks done during HHVM performance tuning period

The team documented the finished tasks with positive and no / negative impact on the board as well. A great learning experience.

Validation of the impact was done utilizing a fine grained measuring tool allowing the team to identify even smallest performance improvements.Facebook HHVM result

The result of the effort is amazing. The team managed – focusing on these micro-steps – to get to their goal – and even further.

The team did change to this working model since. They have periods of hard and focused work. They pick a goal and divide the path towards this goal into micro steps. They work for a small amount of time on one of these steps and decide on metrics (validation) to pivot (learning: wrong direction) or to persevere (learning: right direction). When the goal is reached the team does further fine-tuning on the achievements – or goes on vacation. Afterwards, they continue with another iteration.