Andon Cords in Development Teams: Our Experience of Driving Continuous Learning through a Culture of Experimentation


In this session, you’ll learn about one team’s struggle to improve collaboration and how they sought to shorten cycle time by carefully crafting an experiment with an Andon Cord. The Andon Cord is a Toyota innovation designed to empower front-line employees to recognize issues, initiate a stoppage of work, and work together as a team to quickly identify a path forward. The emergency cable strung above assembly lines became a symbol of the Toyota Way, and has widely been copied throughout the auto industry and beyond.

You’ll be introduced to metrics that show a surprising correlation between collaboration through Andon Cord pulls and Cycle Time!

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Outline/Structure of the Talk

Context & Culture of Experimentation

We’re working on a program at USCIS, a federal agency. Within our product, we have 3 scrum teams, each ranging from 6-10 team members. Some of our golden metrics include:

  • Frequently deploying to production, 10+ times daily
  • Code commit to production in 20-30 minutes
  • Average time to acknowledge an incident ~1 minute

Our project has a phenomenal culture of experimentation. Our team has always believed that when we create an experiment with a well-formed hypothesis, and it has a good chance of failure and a good chance of success, we’ll be able to generate more information to learn from. Our conversations are constantly around asking questions like “what did we do well, what didn’t we do so well, and what did we learn?”

Andon Cord Experiment

Our team created a hypothesis that by having a visual indicator when someone needed help or had an issue, then (1) the team would quickly identify solutions to issues, instead of feeling stuck for extended periods of time and (2) we’d strengthen feedback loops when someone felt stuck or needed. The success of this experiment was to be measured by (1) evaluating an increase in flow by seeing a decrease in Cycle Time, (2) discussing during a future retrospective if they felt collaboration had increased, and (3) addressing issues as they arise, instead of waiting until the “right time”.

The Results

On July 25, 2018, our In Development cycle time was at its peak (11 days in progress). At this same time, we hadn’t pulled the Andon Cord in over 3 weeks. On average, it was taking our team longer to complete a story In Development than it was to complete a 10-day sprint. We saw noticeable improvements to the experiment after the team did some inspection and adaption – specifically, the team created more psychological safety around pulling the cord by (1) changing the verbiage of when to pull the cord to be “whenever someone needs the opinion of the team” and (2) adding a dancing tube man when the cord is pulled to add excitement. Six weeks later on September 6, we were averaging 1.267 Andon Cord pulls per day and our In Development cycle time had decreased to 2 – an 82% decrease.

Looking back at a year’s worth of data, our In Development cycle time was greater than 5 days…

  • 4% of the days when we averaged more than or equal to .5 pulls per day
  • 37.2% of the days when we averaged less than .5 pulls per day
  • 78% of the days when we averaged less than .1 pulls per day

Psychological Safety

Surprise! We all thought developers and engineers wanted uninterrupted time to work. The Andon Cord is all about unplanned interruptions. But psychological safety can be fostered for this by (1) protecting and ensuring that the team – not management – has ownership of the when and why for an Andon Cord pull and (2) that pulling the Andon Cord is fun (our team has fun red lights, a dancing tube man, and developers are rewarded with a Joe Buck, a fake dollar named after one of our devs, each time they pull the cord).

In addition to our team using the Andon Cord, the other two scrum teams within our product have now adopted it as a practice, and there’s also an Andon Cord across all three teams – used when there’s an “all hands on deck” issue to address.

Bring it Home: Implementing an Andon Cord

1. Coach your teams on the importance of experimentation. Use a resource like the Celebration Grid as an example to illustrate how the most learning happens when there’s an equal chance of failure and success.
2. Teach your teams about the Andon Cord – talk to them about how Toyota uses it. Let them know how other development teams use it and how it’s influenced their work and collaboration.
3. Ask, don’t tell your teams what they want to do next with this new information.
4. Provide freedom for your teams to create an experiment that resonates with them. Show patience, but continue to evaluate what worked, what didn’t, and what should be improved or continue.
5. Have fun. This is not an experiment that shames someone who didn’t know the answer to something, nor is it a finger-pointing exercise to figure out who broke what. Rather, it’s a fun way to showcase how the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Learning Outcome

Relating to the DevOps 3 Ways

1. Flow: Learn how you can improve flow by decreasing cycle time by increasing collaboration – and how you can visualize this correlation to your teams.
2. Feedback: Learn what an Andon Cord is and how you can use it to strengthen and amplify feedback loops within your teams.
3. Continuous Learning and Collaboration: Learn how a culture of experimentation can enhance psychological safety within your teams, ultimately contributing towards continuous improvement.

Target Audience

Anyone interested in shortening feedback loops on their teams and/or working groups!

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