Saturday, June 17, 2006

The Parable of the Yakisobi (or Fat Woman)

Management is very difficult. At a recent conference of the highly rated French Agile Society - Societé de FRAgile - I attended a session on how an Agile team was being held back by a passive aggressive team member. The only solution was to remove the person from the team, but management had built a huge resistance to her removal. The story was told by sensei Clive Parkinson as a parable. I was so excited, I took extensive notes and can recall it virtually word for word, except for some words which I misheard because people were talking near me (editorial comments are in plaintext, the story in italics):

Once upon a time there was a large woman, large because of all the high carbohydrate food she ate. We called her the Yakisobi, or stupid flat beach?. Her responsibility was to provide the translation for the user interface text in our software, which was ironic since she couldn't speak any foreign languages (not even Japanese?) and her grasp of our own language was very poor too. She claimed to be dyslexic, but this was probably a misspelling; she was diabetic. Her favourite food was honey. According to the other women in the office, when she went for a pee, you had to hold your nose.

Such personal mismanagement can only lead to professional mismanagement and, as her crop top was inappropriate on her flabby belly, so too was her approach to her work. She could not adapt to the Agile approach, preferring instead to use the Salmon method. This is like the waterfall method, but involves swimming upstream for ages, apparently defying sense, until you arrive bedraggled at your destination, finish what you set out to do and then keel over. We tried getting her to do even simple tasks like using a
planing wind? where she could set out the work she needed to do in the next week and report on doing it, but to no avail. This was one seriously shoop idmuth afock oar?

Her days were numbered but, rather than move her to another team, or even get management to spell out how much of a liability she was, we left her on the critical path. For seven years.

It's a hellish tale. Why anyone would leave a problem like this unsolved for more than seven weeks is a mystery and Clive tried to explain some of this in a questions and answer session:

How did she get the job? Poor interview technique on our part and great interview technique on hers.
How did she get diabetes? Not really sure, but type two is common among very fat people and a diet of Mars bars and honey can't be good for you.
How come management didn't sack her? At first they didn't realise how crap she was, then it was too late.
How come management didn't divert her onto lighter duties? She was a classic "barrack room lawyer", capable of playing the rules and playing management off against each other. By the time she left she was on a salary which could have paid two of the juniors on the team.
So she was bright? If she could only have shown the linguistic skills to match her playing the system skills we could have made great use of her. I'd rather have had two juniors, or paid our existing juniors a bit more - they worked hard.
Was she popular? She was certainly well known. She busied herself with everything, except her actual work. Still, if you needed Christmas decorations, fire regulations or help with talking to workmen, she was your man... sorry, woman.

Useful indeed. So if management cannot control a problem when it starts, then it can become so entrenched and accepted that it's almost impossible to do anything about it. It's a bit like diabetes. You get to choose whether to control your weight after you've had your first candied piss, if you choose to continue sucking the bon-bons like the Yakisobi, then your days will be numbered.