Dec 13

Dig up the roots

Our last AgileOpenKitchen was at Mangrove in Rotterdam. A great company that shows how people can work together in projects along side with customers. They design and build great online projects. But even though it was a great meeting and there is a lot to talk about  their own agile approach. It is not something that I want to write about right now. I want to write about a very funny but sad story that is happening in their office space.

When the meeting was over and all the beer was consumed I walked towards the door to go home, one of the employees pointed something out to me that made me laugh and think. The Mangrove office is located in the centre of Rotterdam, the Netherlands and they are, with their office space, situated directly under the flat roof of a tall office building. On that roof there is a beautiful garden. It’s a very nice green place with flowers, vegetables, and fruit and so on in the middle of a crowded high-tech environment. The only trouble is that it is a bit wet in the Netherlands. And slowly some leakage started to emerge within the office of Mangrove. One day, water started dripping from the ceiling of the office. Not very convenient with a lot of computers and stuff around, so they contacted their landlord to fix the problem. And that is where the fun begins. Two workers with green coveralls showed up to fix the leak. But these men where the gardeners of the green place on the roof and not the plumbers. They approached the problem in a very genius, yet strange way. They did not search for the leak on the roof. They simply fixed the problem from the bottom. They searched at where the water was dripping and constructed a water transport system. An elaborate solution to get rid of the water by diverting it through pipes al the way to the outside of the building. A gutter within the office space.


After I had seen this and expressed thoughts with laughs and “what the fucks”. I started thinking about this. What they did wasn’t so different from what many people do everyday. When they encounter a problem they fix the problem as fast as they can. Nothing wrong there. But in most cases the problem stays and is covered up with a short term solution. Even though it might seem the right solve, it is just a short term solve. The water keeps dripping, it is only causing troubles somewhere else. So the problem is solved not the root of the problem. This is exactly why someone like Taiichi Ohno made drastic changes at Toyota. He radically changed things in that factory. He moved entire departments. Shifted management and made changes to the root problems of the company.

The two green guys simply had to dig up the garden and search for the roots of the leakage. Funny that the metaphor here is literally also the real problem. Not a simple task but at least one that in the end brings more success. It may take some time and digging but at least they don’t have to turn up every week to attach more in-office plumbing. Maybe you have seen this film by Terry Gilliam, Brazil. A parody of George Orwels 1984. In this film, humanity is surrounded by pipes. So many pipes that they get stuck and almost strangled by them. Is this what you want. Because in the end, al those short term solutions will get the better of you. They will rear there ugly (pipe) head and come back to haunt you. So don’t fix the problem. Fix the root of the problem. That way you will keep your feet dry.

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  • oscarvanveen

    … you see that black stuff around the tray: The gardeners turned out to be not that good plumbers / problem fixers as well. They didn’t glue the pipes! So the water kept on dripping. And maybe to construct the pipes by making them go UP instead of down didn’t help either! So they tried to fix it by glueing ‘em from the outside with this black stuff. Our question “is it water proof?” was answered: “don’t know, it’s strong stuff.”
    Make a guess… you’re right: Still dripping!

    No we suggested them to hang a second tray underneath. 🙂

    To be continued. Keep ‘m dry folks!

  • Mark Joosten

    Even though I’m not a programmer, I absolutely loved this article! You’re example is a beautiful illustration of how we as humans operate when solving a problem. At University I once followed this course called ‘Organizational Learning’, which was a true eye-opener. Among a few other interesting books, we had to read ‘The fifth discipline’ of Senge for this course. Let me start by saying that if you didn’t read this book, please read it! Because next to books like the “7 Habits of highly effective people” and “How to make friends and influence people”, I believe that this is a book that can change your view on life. This book is full of reflective examples of we think and act.

    In one of these examples Senge tells a Sufi tale which is a nice analogy with the above story. The story is about a merchant who saw that his most beautiful carpet had a large bump in its center. So he stepped on the bump to flatten it out and succeeded. But the bump reappeared in a new spot not far away. He jumped on the bump again, and it disappeared, for a moment, until it emerged once more in a new place. Again and again he jumped, scuffing and mangling the rug in his frustration; unit finally he lifted one corner of the carpet and an angry snake slithered out. Senge elaborates by saying; “solutions that merely shift problems from one part of a system to another often go undetected because, unlike the rug merchant, those who “solved” the first problem are different from those who inherit the new problem.” So people are also more inclined to create an easy fix to an problem and postpone a fundamental solution when the effects of the problem don’t really effect them that much.

    In addition Senge argues that the easy way out (in the case above, the drainage system) usually leads back in. Another nice Sufi story illustrates this point by telling about a man walking and encountered a drunk on his hands and knees under a street lamp. The man offers to help and finds out that the drunk is looking for his house keys. After several minutes, he ask, “Where did you drop them?” The drunk replies that he dropped them outside his front door. “Then why look for them here? “ asks the other man. “Because,” says the drunk, “there is no light by my doorway.” When we are faced with a problem, we tend to stick to what we know best, in other words look for solutions that are most familiar to us. In the above case the gardeners probably where more familiar with building a drainage system then stopping the roof from leaking. However by doing this, the fundamental problem continues to excise and over time might even get worse.

    • Erwin Verweij

      Hey Mark, Great reply. I don’t know the book but i like it already. I will read it when i get the change