Thinking lean is like playing music: meet the lean fiddler
PROFILE – Persevering, letting people inspire you and committing to continuous learning. These are the things you need to do to successfully embrace lean thinking and, it turns out, learn to play the violin.
Profile on: Mirette Kangas, Head of Lean and Agile Development, Yle (Finnish Broadcasting Company)
Words: Roberto Priolo, Managing Editor, Planet Lean
“People at work tell me I always smile,” Mirette Kangas told me last month, during a coffee break at the Lean IT Summit in Paris, which we were both attending. “I suppose it’s true. I am a very positive person, but I haven’t always been like this. In fact, I have changed my behavior at work quite a lot.”
Mirette might be an enthusiastic and humble lean leader today, but her educational background is rather traditional. “I went to business school, where I was taught that if something must change I am the one who’s going to have to make it happen. My journey to lean thinking was very long, and full of obstacles,” she said. Her honesty, which first comes through from her kind eyes framed by thick-framed glasses, is quite disarming, and always makes for a very stimulating conversation.
The signs that there was something not particularly traditional about her were there all along. Even though her first job was – in line with her graduate school education – as a management accounting teacher, Mirette had just completed a Master of Arts with a major in Media Sciences at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemi (on the Arctic Circle). Indeed, arts and accounting is quite the combination.
Before joining the Finnish Broadcasting Company (Yle) in 2007, she spent 10 years working for a number of internet companies, including media company Sanoma and a Nokia subsidiary. (“Nearly every Finn knows someone who has worked at Nokia at one time or another,” Mirette told me with a chuckle.) She was then hired by Yle as Head of Internet and Mobile Project Management. Shortly after she joined, the organization launched Yle Areena, its popular on-demand streaming service. Mirette was part of the team that founded it.
But, as she mentioned to me, it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was at Yle that she was first introduced to the world of agile – lean thinking didn’t appear in the organization until 2012 – and it’s fair to say the transition has caused her a few headaches over time.
It all started with a meeting with two developers, who explained to Mirette how agile works and why it is a fundamentally different approach to web and software development. It didn’t go well: the more the two developers talked, the more Mirette realized she didn’t know much about agile. She told me: “I didn’t understand what they were talking about! At the end of the meeting I was confused, because so much of what I thought I knew about running a project was about to change. I quickly had to admit to myself I had a lot of learn.”
Following the meeting, Mirette started to run small, bounded experiments with agile and understood there was something in it that could truly transform the organization. She began to make plans for agile principles and practices to be spread across Yle. But, inside, she was struggling. She couldn’t yet rely on many people who were as committed as she was to making agile the way of working at Yle and, as if that weren’t enough, she took on the challenge to spread the use of the methodology in areas outside core internet development.
Mirette explained that she is normally very open to learning new things. In fact, she told me that she cherishes learning, but that at the time she was at a loss. She commented: “When you are a leader, after years of running the show, it is hard to admit to yourself that you have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. Suddenly, the world around you is more complex than you ever thought it could be and you need to interiorize a new way of working and leading.” Abandoning her old working habits (which included drawing up long plans) to embrace experimentation as the way to find how to move forward was a particularly difficult leap for her, as was accepting that the old way of working was far too slow for the digital world we are in. She was shocked and afraid by the change she’d have to make, knowing fully well she’d have to motivate people to work with her, as a real network.
Fueled by Mirette’s determination and the ability of a few early adopters, agile started to make inroads into streamlining the work of Yle’s web development. It was used at team level to improve the service Yle Areena provided. The first successes started to appear, and before too long it became clear that the problem hindering the company’s progress was in the old approach to management and decision making.
Eventually, Mirette took some time off and went on a round-the-world trip with her husband, during which she convinced herself that she could do it. “I told myself that, upon my return, I’d dive into agile ‘for real’, and help to transform Yle,” she said. “Even though I had no idea how.”
And she meant it. Coached by her lean- and agile-savvy web developers, she started to read every book she could get her hands on and to learn anything she thought could be useful. She knew there was no recipe, or framework, for them to follow, but was certain that her vision was strong enough to have her commit to the task.
Decision-making, project management and the planning of investments were all very slow, to the point that, around four years ago, Mirette convinced the executives of Yle to adopt a more systemic approach to improvement. This paved the way to the introduction of lean thinking in the organization, which brought with it an increased focus on the customer and the ability to successfully scale up Yle’s agile efforts. More recently, she has been focusing on growing the scope of the transformation and spread the new approach to leadership across the organization.
INSPIRED BY LEAN
“New leadership, network effects and continuous learning have been the biggest aspects of my professional transformation,” Mirette said. “Lean has taught me that being a leader means to build entrepreneurship in everybody. What I love the most about this methodology is that it encourages you to listen to others, to become something of a caretaker of your networks to get the best out of people, by giving them a voice and focusing on learning as an activity that never stops.”
This doesn’t mean she doesn’t find lean hard at times. Earlier in her journey, for example, she used to get very nervous about the lean tools, wondering if she was using them in the right way. Lean can feel prescriptive at times, and Mirette used to be very frustrated with the different schools of thought and approaches, all seemingly suggesting her a different way of doing something. That’s when she decided to take the big-picture view and focus on the principles and values, rather than the tools. “Values are not frustrating,” she told me. “I have learned that if the vision is strong enough, you can achieve anything. Tools are just tools, and what really matters is the mentality behind them. Plus, people forget tools, but not principles: you can have all the fancy visual management in the world, but if you don’t lead by example lean won’t stick.”
Mirette knows fully well how important it is that people embrace lean thinking. She sees the world as an increasingly complex place (I can’t really blame her for that), too complex for one person to handle: that’s why, she told me, we need to trust our people and give them the power to make decisions. “People tend to perform better when they feel energized and motivated to create positive change. And we should never forget to thank those around us, not only the developers but the executives as well,” she added, after pausing for a few seconds to reflect.
When I asked her about her strengths, she told me that she is very hard-working and determined, but the one that really struck me – and that perhaps indicates how big a personal transformation she is undertaking – is the fact that she believes everyone wants to do a good job. I doubt any leader can consider herself to be “lean” without recognizing this as a fundamental truth.
MUSIC MAKES THE PEOPLE COME TOGETHER
During our conversation, Mirette put a lot of emphasis on networking, which is where – she told me – she gets most of her inspiration. At the Paris conference we both attended, hardly a moment went by during breaks without her chatting with someone. She often asked thought-provoking questions at the end of presentations. “I cherish the time I spend with people who are more experienced than me, because their wisdom is something I can learn from,” she commented.
Her love for interacting with and learning from others is not surprising, considering that every week she spends quite a bit of quality time with a rather special group: a 65-strong amateur symphony orchestra, the Helsinginkadun Filharmonikot (check out this link).
Mirette has been playing the violin since she was six years old. At one point, when she was in high school, she even considered music as a potential career opportunity. “But I wasn't working hard enough for it, or maybe I was just not talented enough,” she said, laughing. Today music is her “beloved hobby,” even though, as far as hobbies go, it takes quite a lot of energy, with about eight concerts performed in Helsinki every year.
She went on: “I sometimes struggle to limit the amount of work I do, and only now am I learning to find the right balance… and music is very helpful in that sense. It helps you to escape, which you need sometimes. The feeling of playing with other people and creating music with them is so relaxing and wonderful. After practice or a performance, even if it’s been a hard day at work, everything is good with the world.”
For the past five to six years, as she strived to support the lean transformation at Yle, Mirette has realized there are many similarities between playing music and thinking lean – the main one being that none of it happens fast. “If you are that kind of person who wants to see results immediately, lean is not right for you… and playing the violin isn’t either. To succeed at both, you must stick to your mission, continuously find the inspiration you need to keep going, and practice hard.”