What I learned from chopping wood

When I moved to a farm, three years ago, I thought I would be able to take what I had learned from consulting and agile and apply it to farming. I soon found out that I was wrong. The true lessons were not in what I could re-apply in farming but in what I could learn from farming and re-apply in consulting and agile. Keep reading for my first three lessons: what I learned from chopping wood.

This post will be about what I learned by chopping firewood. I have chopped firewood more or less every weekend in the colder months of the year. I have done other things as well and learning from them. I hope to come back with further posts about what I have learned on the farm.

First a few words about chopping firewood. The process starts of course with growing trees, felling them and having them transported from the forest and piled up. The continuing process involves drying, cutting and chopping in any chosen order. I do it in the following order: drying the logs, cutting the logs, drying the cuttings, chopping the cuttings, bringing them inside and finally enjoying the fire. Some people prefer to split the logs first for better drying. Others cut and chop in a single step and then dry the product.

Lesson #1 – Use the right tools for the job

There are three ways to chop wood: using an industry grade machine, a consumer grade machine or an axe. I quickly decided that my choice was between a consumer grade machine or an axe. I did some research online and found that an axe is definitely better than a machine. The next and obvious question is: which axe? While I use a traditional axe, there are more interesting options as seen below.

At work, we have hundreds and hundreds of tools to choose from. Or rather, most of us don’t because someone else made that choice. So let me rephrase that. At work, there are hundreds and hundreds of tools to choose from. The choice is seldom as simple as the choice between an expensive and inefficient wood chopping machine and an inexpensive and efficient axe. Some years ago, I wrote about requirements engineering tools but it will be the same with any area in business, IT or agile software development; there will be hundreds of roughly equal tools.

You will have to make a choice based on something other than just performance or features. Having a look at task completion time isn’t a bad idea. Asking five people to solve five common tasks with a tool and observing them while they try will give you a pretty good idea about where any problems with a tool might lie. And that is still not a major reason for choosing a tool of any complexity. In my opinion, the major reason for choosing a tool – in addition to what I have already listed – is the kind of partnership you will get from the vendor.

Let’s have a second look at that axe:

Lesson #2 – Some things are hard and uncertain but still worthwhile

When I take a block of wood to split it, I never know in advance if I am going to need one or ten or fifty hits to split it. Two items might be the same wood, the same size and look no different on the outside, yet on the inside they are quite different or I just have different luck at hitting them in exactly the right place. Sometimes it is worse. My axe hits some snag or a branch or some other unseen irregularity and the axe head continues at high-speed towards my leg or foot. So far, I have not had any major problems and – as always – using protection helps.

It is the same thing when I actually burn the firewood. I do not know exactly how long each log will burn. That depends on many things including which other logs are in the fireplace at the same time, the type of wood, how dry it is, how windy it is outside and on so many other factors which I have no need and no intention to learn more about. I am not the only one burning firewood in the family and I have do not want to limit how much firewood is used by the rest of the family.

What have I learned from chopping wood? It’s not possible to chop this much wood without learning something, right?

Despite these many uncertainties I do know how long it will take to chop enough firewood to last a week – about 40 minutes. So even with so many unknowns, they still add up to a known. This is not really all that strange, it is nothing other than an application of the laws of statistics. The number of chops needed to split a log would be assumed to follow a geometric distribution with parameter $p$. The number of chops needed for $r$ logs will follow a negative binomial distribution with the expected value $\frac{rp}{1-p}$.

The effort required to chop a stack of wood can be approximated to follow a negative binomial distribution. Sometimes our real effort will be lower than guessed, often it will be higher. The distribution is asymmetric.

Software development effort estimation is much like the effort estimation needed for chopping firewood. Individual estimates might be totally incorrect – or are they? – but that does not mean that the sum of the estimates are that far off from the expected value of the sum of the estimates. One warning though, due to the nature of these distributions, the sum of the medians is not the median of the sum. That is, if you take 50% likelihood estimates and sum those up that sum won’t have a 50% likelihood even being true. I won’t go in to why here, suffice it to say that in agile, using the burn rate will help you compensate for that.

Disclaimer: I have a long time interest in the geometric distribution but I have spent more time on the maximum than on the sum.

Just because something is hard, such as estimates, we should not avoid it. Just because something is often incorrect, such as estimates, we should not refrain from it. With experience comes the learnings that we need to turn the data into actionable insights. In the case of my chopping firewood, I can plan for how much time I need to spend on chopping it each week. In the case of agile software development, it will allow me to make a commitment on what I and my team will be likely to be able to deliver.

Lesson #3 – What should that be?

What should the third lesson be? Maybe the third lesson is that uneven wood cannot rest securely on a perfectly flat chopping stump? Is it that the axe is faster than the eye? Is it that we should relax for the impact? Is it that gnarly people are more robust, just like gnarly wood?

Perhaps the third lesson is that it is always a third lesson? I would love to hear your thoughts on what you learned from chopping wood!

Conclusion — the real lesson from chopping wood

It is often the simple things in life that teach us something about the big things. We just need to slow down and lower our own voice enough so that we can hear the lesson.

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