October 20, 2020

Proving Agile Software Development Lean Techniques Work

Using software development methodology, like LEAN tools, allows to improve agile software development with scrum and get a safe and scalable agile framework.

Let’s Build Some Paper Airplanes!

Executive Summary

As an Agile Coach, there are many times when Teams simply don’t grasp the concept of how Lean Processes or Techniques work. Mainly because everyone is so used to working as fast as they can at their job and less concerned about the next person in the process, and how quickly they can work. So, a very Fun, Cool, and “Eye Opening” exercise to teach Teams about Lean Techniques and Processes is, “The Paper Airplane” exercise.

It only takes about an hour and is very easy to do with Teams of up to 20 or so, and doesn’t require a lot of time or effort to prepare. BUT - it really does drive home the point why Lead Processes have been adopted by the overwhelming majority of Industries around the world.

What you Need for this Fun Exercise

Team Size
  • Facilitator - YOU (1)
  • Participants - between 12 and 20.

We will split the Participants into 2 teams (randomly) later.

  • A large room that has a flexible configuration space
  • You need room for 5 Folding Tables (ones used at Conferences)
  • And at least 2.5 meters or 12 feet or so for Test Flying the Planes.
  • One roll of Masking Tape - any color, as long as it can easily be seen.  Not transparent tape.
  • One ream of Copy or Printing Paper (500 sheets) - regular 8” by 11” paper.
  • Two Sharpie Markers:
  • One Red
  • One Blue
  • But you can alternatively use Black markers
  • A device with a Timer for 7 and 3 minutes
Preparation Work
  • Supply Depot
  • Place 1 folding table on a far wall.
  • Place the ream of Paper on this table
  • Work Stations for Team Alpha
  • Place 2 folding tables end-to-end, making one long work station
  • Depending upon the number of participants use Masking Tape to divide the Tables into 4 to 6 parts
  • Work Stations for Team Bravo
  • Place 2 folding tables end-to-end, making one long work station
  • Depending upon the number of participants use Masking Tape to divide the Tables into 4 to 6 parts
  • And then use the Masking Tape to create a square in each section, about 1’ feet by 1’ feet in size.
  • Quality Assurance - Test Flight Area
  • Take the Masking Tape and draw out a line on the floor or carpet that represents the “Starting Line”
  • Now create a 2nd Line using the Masking Tape that represents the Finish Line.  The Finish Line should be at least 2 meters / 10 feet away from the Starting Line.


Today we are going to have a Fun exercise to clearly demonstrate and show the differences between Lean (Pull) Processes and how they work, as opposed to a more Traditional / Push Model. Now, first we need to break up into two Separate Teams. Starting with the first person, “You are on Team Alpha”.  Next person, “Team Bravo”.  Etc.

This is important, because often friends will stand next to each other, and you need to break them up and put them on different teams.

Now, please gather into your Teams.

Pick Your Leader

Now you have a few minutes to pick who your Team Leader is going to be. Someone who is good at organization and processes. But to make this FUN - if you are actually a “Boss” and already manage people you can’t get this job. You are a worker today.

Over the next 30 minutes, both Teams will be measured on how many Paper Airplanes that they can successfully fly 2 meters (roughly 10 feet).  Every plane that is flown that distance counts as a Quality Product or Point delivered to a Customer.  Any plane that crashes before then does not count.

Both Teams will start producing planes for a 7 minute production run, with a 3 minute break.  And then both teams will start again.

If you are the Team Leader, make sure you use the Clock Wisely.  As we will start the 2nd and 3rd round on time, whether you are ready or not.

Now here are the specific Rules for each Team.  And if the Rules are broken, the Team breaking their specific Rules will be penalized a “Point” of Production.

Special Roles

There are 3 other Special Roles on both Teams

  1. Procurement Manager - the person who gets the paper
  2. Final Workstation (Fit and Finish) - you get to draw your Team’s Symbol on the top of both wings.
  3. Flight Quality Officer - the person who Test Flies every Paper Airplane, getting it over the finish line.

Rules for Special Roles

  • Anyone performing the duties of a Procurement Manager can only pick up a single sheet of paper at one time, and give it to the first Worker. If more than one sheet is picked up, they must discard on the floor the excess.
  • Final Workstation (Fit and Finish):
  1. If your Team’s symbol is missing from one Wing, it does not count
  2. If it was totally drawn incorrectly, it does not count.  Example, a “circle” is not a “checkmark” or a “triangle”.
  • Anyone performing the duties of the Flight Quality Officer - must launch the plane without stepping on or over the “Starting Line”.  If they step On or Over, it does not count.  How they throw the Paper Airplane is totally up to them.  But they cannot use anything but their hands and arms - no rubber bands, etc.

Other Workstations

Normally this will be broken up into 4 to 5 Workstations

  1. Station One:  Fold the Paper in Half
  2. Station Two:  Fold the Paper a 2nd or 3rd time to make the nose of the Plan
  3. Station Three:  Fold the Paper to make the wings
  4. Station Four:  using the Sharpie Pen creates a marking on both Wings identifying which Team this plane belongs to.  It is important to use the same symbol on every Plane.

If you have 5 people on both teams you can break out these Steps or add additional ones.

Rules for Team Alpha (Traditional / Push)

Your Rules are the Easiest:

  • Team Leader - you are in COMMAND
  1. Only You can appoint the 2 Special Roles
  2. Nothing can be changed without your Permission
  3. You need to decide who fills every Role - no one else can decide this
  4. You may only switch Personnel from one Role (or Station) to another, IF AND ONLY IF you tell both individuals.
  5. You are the only one who can ask Questions of the Activity Facilitator
  6. You cannot assist any of your Team Members on any Task.  You can direct them.
  7. You are the only person to pick the Symbol for your Plan.  Naturally, the Activity Facilitator can override your choice, if you pick something unprofessional.
  8. On Breaks, you are the only one who can Ask Questions to your Team Members
  9. But you get to make all of the Decisions
  • Everyone Else / Team Members
  1. You can only do the Job that you have been assigned
  2. You must work as quickly as possible
  3. You CANNOT give Feedback to any other Workers
  4. You can ONLY change Roles, if your Manager directs you to
  5. You can ONLY bring up new ideas, if your Manager asks you for your opinion or ideas
  6. What you can do is RAISE YOUR HAND and WAIT for the Manager to come by and ask what you need.

Are there any questions?

Rules for Team Bravo

Your Rules are the most Complex:

  • Anyone on the Team can ask for Clarification of the Rules from the Activity Facilitator, and do so at any time, just raise your hand.
  • The Team as a whole gets to pick what Symbol on their planes they want to use.  But it MUST be the same for each plane.
  • Team Leader - you are a Facilitator, a “First among equals”:
  1. For assigning the 2 Special Roles, you need to Ask the Team who wants to do this, or who would be the best at each role.
  2. You can Override a Team Members or group decision
  3. You can Direct a Team Member to do something different
  4. You can also decide to Help a Team Member or a specific Station.
  5. But your Team Members have a lot of Power to decide things on their own
  • Everyone Else / Team Members:
  1. You can talk to anyone on your Team at any time
  2. You can ask them if they need help
  3. You can decide on your own to move to another Station to help out, and yes, that means if two or three people are working at one station that is OK.
  4. You can speak up during Breaks and throw out your own ideas on how to improve things
  5. You can give advice to other Team Members on how to work faster or with better quality.  For example, if a particular fold of the wings on the plane is not working, you can tell the rest of the team.
  1. Each Worker has a Kanban Square drawn at their Station
  3. You WILL RECEIVE A PENALTY if you overflow the Next Worker’s Kanban Square. This controls the flow in the Process

Side Bar:  Some Teams will figure this out on their own, but don’t make any suggestions…  If there is a bottleneck, and there will be, Team Bravo - members can move to other stations at any time to clear the Bottleneck. They don’t need permission, they can just do it. And if they are really smart, that means at the very start of the Production Run, they won’t have one Procurement Manager, but 4 or 5.  As the others would be waiting for the Line to start.

The same is true if the QA Flight Officer gets overwhelmed.  There is nothing to prevent 4 people trying to fly more Planes over the finish line. You win or fail as an entire Team.

Ready, Set, GO!

1st Production Run
  1. Start the Clock - both Teams have 7 minutes
  2. After 7 minutes STOP
  3. Have the Teams group together for their Planning Meeting
2nd Production Run
  1. Start the Clock - both Teams have 7 minutes
  2. After 7 minutes STOP
  3. Have the Teams group together for their Planning Meeting
3rd Production Run
  1. Start the Clock - both Teams have 7 minutes
  2. After 7 minutes STOP
  3. Now have both Teams count only the planes that fully made it across the Finish Line.  Any planes in the NO FLY ZONE - do not count
  4. Deduct any “Points” for Rules Violations on either Team.
  5. Any Plane that does not have the Correct Symbol that was agreed to at the beginning DOES NOT COUNT - as it did not PASS QA.

Lessons Learned

Every time that I have personally run this exercise, Team Bravo (Lean Process) won the exercise by a lot. On average around 30% +/- 5% in terms of the number of Planes they produced and which made it over the finish line. For some teams, it does take time for them to adjust - especially for Team Bravo (Lean). But typically by their 3rd Production Run, they are smoking it and cranking out the planes.

Now it is time to ask the questions, and see who learned which lessons.

  • Why did one team do better than the other?
  1. Each team had the same number of team members
  2. Each team had the same exact equipment to work with
  3. The members on each Team were picked at random
  4. Was it the Team members or the Process
  • Have each Team describe what Worked and What Didn’t
  • What other Lessons did everyone Learn?


Building Paper Airplanes is a very Fun, Innovative, and Easy way to teach people about the differences between Push and Pull manufacturing process techniques.  It doesn’t take a lot of time, set up work, or equipment to make it work.  And it really drives home the difference in how both teams work.

We hope that you have enjoyed this blog article and use this exercise in the future.

Thank you.

David Annis

Case Study from Arkusnexus
David Annis
David is a VP and Agile Coach within ArkusNexus, having served in multiple CIO, VP of Software Development roles. He assists our Sales, Marketing, and Operations Teams on critical initiatives.
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