Shu Ha Ri: a Chef Metaphor for Agile Learning

Shu ha ri Chef metaphor

The Shu Ha Ri Agile metaphor

Nobody tells a Shu Ha Ri story better than Alistair Cockburn, and listening to his Sushi-slicing version whilst in France last year, inspired me to write (derive) a French Chef version of Shu Ha Ri. It reminds us that development is a craft that demands many skills and senses.

The chef metaphor version of Shu Ha Ri goes like this:

  1. Commis chef: follows the rules to learn the basics of hygiene, food preparation, cleaning and sharpening knives and working as part of a high performance team. (Shu)
  2. Chef de partie: has the experience to run a section and produce dishes that can be presented to the customer. Has learnt what happens when you break the rule and is thus able to oversee one or more Commis chefs. (Ha)
  3. Sous chef: is a master of his/her craft. The Sous Chef creates dishes, designs menus and runs the kitchen on behalf of the Head or Executive chef. (Ri)

There is no Agile equivalent to the role of Head chef. The nearest might be a “lead developer” – someone that drives and upholds the architecture of the products under development.

Agile teams need a Chef

Many teams struggle with the transition from plan-driven methods (such as waterfall) to Agile. They typically receive a few days of Scrum training and if they are lucky, get a few hours support from a coach. At this stage none of them have actually experienced the Agile software development life-cycle. Many believe it impossible at their place of work. A typical response in Agile training courses is

“it sounds good in theory, but it wouldn’t work here”

Few of them have the knowledge of how a whole team builds software together, as one. Their chief point of reference is the specific task they have been doing until now: writing test scripts; writing specifications; waiting to be told the next job they should do; cutting code; fixing bugs; and chasing stakeholders when they cannot make progress without some specific item of information.
The chef metaphor works well here too (Ben Maynard told me this one, saying he got it from David Snowden of Cynefin framework fame). The team has the recipe for Scrum but they are not yet Chefs. They need to work with experienced agilists who are able to show them what to do and help them pick-up the pieces when they attempt something that does not work as expected.

A restaurant would not allow a team of Commis Chefs alone to prepare their gourmand menu. If they did, they would be risking their reputation. So it must be with Agile development.

As in the preparation of fine food, the really valuable skills are with the chef. The recipe merely lists the quantities of the ingredients. It takes a chef to know how to proportion those ingredients to suit the restaurant’s presentation, how to season the dish to suit their clientele and what to adjust to compensate for the difference between today’s deliveries and last week’s. A chef knows how to make money from yesterday’s ingredients, creating a delicious and profitable dish of the highest quality and taste.

Chefs provide agility, recipes are on Google. Shu Ha Ri is a journey.

The Shu Ha Ri Restaurant

The relationship between the kitchen and the restaurant is a bit like a development team and the business. The restaurant needs a kitchen to prepare the food, and the kitchen exists only to support the restaurant. The restaurant led by senior management is the business, and the kitchen is where software is created.

The diners are the customers of course, but that relationship is managed by the front of house staff –maitre d’hotel, sommelier, waiters, etc.

It is the responsibility of the front of house team to manage the flow of orders. If there is a big party in the restaurant and the kitchen is struggling to keep-up with the orders, people are warned there will be a long wait for their food. Many people decide it is worth the wait. They know and trust the restaurant and are reluctant to take their business anywhere else. The front of house equivalent in this metaphor are, perhaps, the sales and marketing functions.

Everyone is on their own personal Shu Ha Ri journey, and the managers of an effective agile organisation will ensure staff are making progress.

That’s enough talk for now, it’s lunchtime.
Bon appétit!

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