Pointing and Calling

A small leadership lesson.

Tokyo train systems are legendary for running on time. How do they do it? A key element is pointing and calling – when taking an action, the operator points and calls it out so that everyone knows what is happening.

It may seem like drawing attention to simple things that are already obvious, but that’s exactly the point – simple things can cause really big problems when they fail. In a world where everyone cannot see everything, pointing and calling can provide a shared set of eyes.

The idea is to get in the habit of making sure that the obvious is actually obvious … by starting with simple things. It takes 1 second, it doesn’t hurt anyone, but it can world of difference.

And it’s an important lesson for us in software.

We often have to make decisions that range from very simple to very complicated. And since our work is cognitive, it’s easy for the “obvious” to get lost. What you think is obvious to others easily turns out to be not at all.

It pays to remember that it’s worth over-communicating in cognitive work such as software delivery. Similar to the “I intend to … “ practice from Turn The Ship Around, we need to be sure we are being clear about what we are doing, drawing attention to our actions so we can get feedback from others. This is a key element of being responsible with our autonomy.

Software teams already practice versions of pointing and calling. For example, we use ceremonies to draw attention to what we are doing, and in those ceremonies we use various practices to make our work visible. This is how we have learned to cope in a world where we can’t see anything (because it’s all in our heads).

And it can be as simple as saying “I’m moving this card to done” as you are transitioning a card in standup, then a second of silence to give someone the opportunity to jump in, “Well, actually ..”

Sometimes this practice is not easy to do, though:

  • Sometimes we point and call, but don’t actually execute. When this happens, people will have unmet expectations.
  • Sometimes we execute, but forget to point and call. Now we have lost the opportunity to get help, to make sure that we actually made the right decision.

We should approach such situations blamelessly. We are allowed to get these things wrong as we collectively learn a new skill. It is better to have tried and failed than not to have tried at all. Most of our decisions (or indecisions) can be reversed. Unlike in the train system:

Published by JohnRauser

Eng Leader @ Cisco

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