Should Lean Conferences Add a “Code of Conduct” for Speakers and Attendees?


I've really enjoyed learning from Eric Ries and the “Lean Startup” community since late 2009. I had the opportunity to attend and speak at Lean Startup Week last week.

I get to attend many conferences throughout the year. Most of them are framed as “Lean” but sometimes I get to speak at an “Agile” event or something outside of usual Lean Manufacturing or Lean Healthcare circles.

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It's good to see different approaches at other types of events, such as:

  • the trend toward a greater number of shorter talks at Lean Startup Week – not everything needs to be an hour long (my talk was just 15 minutes, which is typical for that event)
  • the use of “Open Space” or “Lean Coffee” formats for more interaction instead of uni-directional lectures

It's easy for some conferences to fall into “the way we've always done it” mode (it's human nature, right?). It's been great to see the spread of more participatory “open space” formats into some Lean events (including this year's Lean Coaching Summit and the Society for Health Systems Conference). My suggestions about “more speakers, shorter talks” hasn't gotten the same traction, but I still think it's a good idea.

But, rather than labeling others as being “resistant to change,” maybe I should continue the dialogue about “what problem are we trying to solve?” on this and other questions. Which brings me to another question…

Codes of Conduct for Tech Events

One element that seems to be the norm these days at tech conferences is a formalized “Code of Conduct” that applies to staff, presenters, and attendees. This code is communicated to attendees during registration and, for example, I received numerous reminders about it for Lean Startup Week. A reminder was also made at the start of the main days on Thursday.

This site suggests some standard language for such codes.

Before sharing the benchmarking about solutions or countermeasures, we should probably also have a discussion about “what problem is being solved?” Is there a problem? Is there a need for pro-active countermeasures and prevention?

The tech-driven VC community has had many sexual harassment and sexual assault cases (some of which most likely occurred at conferences).

Agile and Lean Startup events draw heavily from the tech community. Tech conferences have been criticized for a lot of sexist behavior. For example, having “booth babes” is now no longer the accepted practice, being banned at tech conferences in recent years. One person I talked to recently said that “booth babes” and even more egregious sexist or sexualized behavior was the norm at some manufacturing conferences going into the 1980s, but was curtailed as times changed.

Not that men are the only harassers, but it's fair to say that men typically outnumber women at tech conferences, just as it seems men outnumber women at most Lean events… I don't have data to back that up, but it seems true based on my attendance and observations.

Do people still act badly in 2017? Of course. My wife and I were at an event for her company in Washington D.C. and the convention center had some sort of tech event going on as well.

I was shocked to see this ad banner with a tasteless sexual pun / double entendre displayed in huge letters:

I guess that's why many codes of conduct say:

“Sexual language and imagery is not appropriate for any conference venue.”

Agile Day Chicago

When I spoke at Agile Day Chicago recently, they had a “code of conduct” posted on their main page. It included clear information for what attendees should do to “pull the andon cord” (my language) or speak up about a problem or a concern. That's good Lean thinking… encouraging “respect for people” and creating a safe environment for people to speak up about problems.

Lean Startup Week

Here is a link to the full text of the Lean Startup Week code.

As I'm politely reminded in the speaker email I received:

CODE OF CONDUCT: Please make sure you're familiar with our code of conduct before arriving at the event. We like to ensure everyone has a positive experience at Lean Startup Week.

The code starts by saying:

“Freedom of thought and the open exchange of ideas are key to lean startups and central to Lean Startup conferences and events.”

I think the same need for an open exchange of ideas holds true for Lean events, like the Lean Transformation Summit, the AME annual conference, Lean Frontiers events, the Shingo Prize Conference, etc.

“That kind of exchange can happen only in an environment that recognizes the value of each person and fosters mutual respect. That's why we're dedicated to providing badges with your names and a harassment-free conference experience.”

Being “dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience” doesn't mean 100% error proofing against bad behavior. But, it seems to follow good Lean thinking that reporting small problems helps prevent bigger problems from occurring.

The code continues:

“Put another way: if we create an atmosphere in which anyone can say anything, we have not fostered an open exchange of ideas, because conference participants who don't like or can't tolerate offensive comments and hateful behavior won't participate. To help ensure that conversations at Lean Startup conferences are focused on entrepreneurship and that the atmosphere encourages participation from as wide a range of attendees as possible, we do not tolerate harassment based on race, gender, religion, age, color, national origin, physical appearance, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity.

When we say “harassment,” we're talking about unwelcome or hostile behavior, including speech that intimidates, creates discomfort, or interferes with a person's participation in the conference (speaker presentations fall under this category and should not use images or examples that would violate the code of conduct); unwelcome physical contact; unwelcome sexual attention; deliberate intimidation; and stalking. Sponsors should not use sexualized images or activities, and sponsor representatives (including volunteers) should not use sexualized clothing/uniforms/costumes.”

They encourage people to speak up about problems and this seems like an important point: their staff “have been trained to respond to violations of this code of conduct.”

Lean Startup Week also promises to take action, including expelling somebody from the conference without a refund.

So What About Lean Events?

Again, forgive me if I'm jumping to a solution here, but I think this is an important thing to discuss.

Do Lean events have similar problems of harassment and sexist activities (or other discriminatory behavior)? Not that I've seen but that doesn't mean we shouldn't explore this countermeasure, even if it's proactive and preventive. I'm a white guy, so I'm unlikely to be directly victimized by discriminatory, hateful, or uncomfortable behavior. I haven't heard of problems or incidents, but that doesn't mean they don't happen.

It seems that “Codes of Conduct” are also intended to prevent problems. Proactively asking “what could go wrong?” and coming up with proactive countermeasures is a good example of Lean thinking (building on the ideas of respect, FMEA, and other practices).

We don't need to wait for some sort of ugly incident or scandal in the Lean community to take some steps forward (or steps I suggest are a step forward).

Do you think the major Lean conferences should adopt this countermeasure, as a reactive or proactive measure? Do you think a Code of Conduct is not necessary or has any downside?

Have you ever personally experienced or witnessed conduct that would violate such a code? Remember, you can post comments anonymously and I will protect your confidentiality.

I've reached out to some of the major Lean events I've attended for input and feedback and their responses and views are below.

AME – U.S. and Australia

I could not find a Code of Conduct online for the annual AME conference that's held in the U.S. The Australian AME Conference has one posted (they are an official AME affiliate).

Guy Bulmer, the AME national president in Australia gave me this statement to share:

“We introduced a ‘Code of Conduct' in 2015 as a result of feedback that we received after our annual conference from both the attendees and our staff. The feedback was that we should in the future make clear our expectations with respect to attendee behaviour at our conferences. As part of our current event management process, we ask both attendees and support staff to give us their feedback after each conference so that we can continue to improve the standard of our conference offering year on year.

However, since the code of conduct issue was raised we have had no further feedback from the attendees on this topic, either positive or negative.

That said, we have seen a positive change in behaviour at our annual conference since the code of conduct was introduced, and on that basis we would highly recommend and encourage others to develop their own code of conduct.”

George Saiz, the President of AME (here in the U.S.) replied to my email inquiry and said:

“AME does have a Code of Conduct in place for our volunteers and we are examining implementing an event-based [code]. It is important to have this in place to protect the learning environment we are working to create.”

Catalysis – Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit

Rachel Regan, the Director of Events and Payment Initiatives shared this statement that I'm sharing with her permission:

“We have a code of conduct for Catalysis employees and our event management process that is rooted in our Catalysis guiding principles. For our Summit attendees we do not have an explicit code of conduct, nor do we think we need one. However, with our processes we promote the conduct we want and expect, such as open sharing, collaborative learning, connecting, and respectful dialogue.  We work very hard on improving these processes year over year and proactively cutting potential bad behavior off at the pass.”

Lean Frontiers

Jim Huntzinger, the founder and president of Lean Frontiers sent a statement after we discussed this question:

“Lean Frontiers simply expects professional behavior from everyone, which includes respectful dialog, interaction, and such. If everyone merely expected and showed professionalism there would be no issues the vast majority of the time, which Lean Frontiers has maintained over the years.”

Lean Enterprise Institute

Josh Rapoza, the Customer Strategy Officer for LEI, provided a statement after our email exchange:

“We have been discussing having a “Code of Conduct” for the Summit. We have one for our team at the event, and are thinking one for our customers would be helpful, in that it can help inform them of atmosphere / environment we are trying to create at the event.”

Shingo Prize Conference

A leader at the Shingo Institute, replied to my question by pointing me to their Utah State University code of conduct, which covers their personnel. They are going to extend this to include their speakers. As Ken Snyder, executive director of the Shingo Institute, said:

“We have language in our speaker agreements to ensure that conference speakers maintain certain decorum. We decided to add a clause to that agreement. The purpose is to make it clear that if there is anything in the presentation that we deem to be inappropriate, then we can terminate the presentation.

As for our official code of conduct, we elected to keep it simple and positive – and based on principles. Our official code of conduct is ‘We respect every individual.'”

I asked a follow up question about conduct expectations for attendees and did not get a direct response. My guess is that attendees are expected to abide by the “respect every individual” principle.

My Final Thoughts & Summary

To summarize the responses:

  • AME Australia – has a code and recommends others do the same
  • AME U.S. – considering adoption of a code
  • Catalysis – no explicit code is needed
  • Lean Frontiers – expectation is treating others with respect
  • Lean Enterprise Institute – having discussions about this
  • Shingo Institute – “respect every individual” is the code

Though my conversations with these conference organizers and some other friends… and thinking this through, I see many sides to the issue.

For one, I have not heard complaints about bad behavior at Lean events. But, that doesn't mean it doesn't happen but goes unreported.

Secondly, I can see how people would question the need for a “code” that might be a countermeasure to a problem that isn't there (or isn't known). I understand concerns that a code could be overly broad.

Third, I understand that a code doesn't full prevent people from behaving badly. That said, I think it's fine to have a proactive code that clarifies expectations that an event doesn't want certain types of bad behavior (even if you'd like to think it shouldn't need to be stated).

Finally, I think the most important factor in these various codes is the way organizations ENCOURAGE people to speak up, TRAIN their staff members on how to best respond or investigate, and SPECIFY how people should contact event organizers if there is any disrespectful or bad behavior taking place.

What do you think? Feel free to post a comment and share your thoughts. I guess the “code of conduct” for blog comments, as always, is to keep things respectful.

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Mark Graban
Mark Graban is an internationally-recognized consultant, author, and professional speaker, and podcaster with experience in healthcare, manufacturing, and startups. Mark's new book is The Mistakes That Make Us: Cultivating a Culture of Learning and Innovation. He is also the author of Measures of Success: React Less, Lead Better, Improve More, the Shingo Award-winning books Lean Hospitals and Healthcare Kaizen, and the anthology Practicing Lean. Mark is also a Senior Advisor to the technology company KaiNexus.


  1. Comment from LinkedIn:

    Paul Critchley – Lean, 6 Sigma, ISO Consultant
    A topic I hadn’t considered, but probably should have. I don’t see a lot of “bad behavior” at conferences, either, but there is some. In one simulation workshop where we were assembling paper faces and feet onto sponge balls (to learn about Work content balance), the facilitator made an off-color remark about some of the balls being blue. I cringed, but noticed that no one else seemed to. There was some nervous laughter, and we moved on. I don’t know if anyone else said anything to the event coordinators, but I did. They said they’d “look into it”.

  2. It should not be necessary to teach professionals how to behave appropriately in conferences, even more so for LEAN conferences when one of the tenets is “Respect for People”. I do not know that I agree with “legislating” conduct through a printed list of how to behave. I think my feeling is one of sadness that it is needed.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      Even though we all preach (or should preach) “respect for people,” we’re all human and it’s hard for anybody to be perfectly respectful at all times. That said, I’d suspect the number of people behaving this inappropriately (sexually harassing others, using racist language, etc.) is going to be low in any professional conference setting.

      That said, I don’t know if a Code is “needed.” That’s a judgment call. Is it needed in a reactive sense? I’m not sure.

      I still think there is value in having a Code as a proactive measure. It won’t prevent all bad behavior, but I think the main benefit comes from encouraging people to SPEAK UP and showing them how to speak up if there is questionable behavior.

  3. Having never seen a case where crude language enhanced communications on technical topics, I don’t use it myself but tolerate it in others. You use words your mother told you not to for the emotional release it provides, not to share know-how or insights. Letting out a swear word feels good when you hit your own thumb with a hammer but it doesn’t do anybody else any good.

    Conferences are just professional social occasions, and the same norms of courtesy apply as to any other. I just don’t see the need to spell out a code of conduct specifically for conferences.

    • I don’t think the issue is cursing. At least two speakers said “shit” or “bullshit” on stage in their talks. They weren’t hauled off stage and I doubt they got a talking to. That said, that’s not language I’d want to use in a professional setting.

      The issue is more about language or behavior that’s discriminatory based on “gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, disability, age, appearance, religion, or other group status” as spelled out in most codes.

  4. I am not in the Lean community, but I helped write the code of conduct for a new scientific society I’m involved in. Scientific conferences don’t have the reputation that tech conferences do (no “booth babes” or ads with tacky puns), but we thought it was important to have anyway. Unfortunately no significant human activity is immune to harassment and discrimination, and those things certainly do happen in science. Creating and conspicuously posting a code of conduct might prevent some issues. But it also means that if something does happen we are more likely to find out about it (because people know how to report incidents and hopefully have some confidence that they will be taken seriously), and because we have already thought about our procedures we will be better prepared to address problems.

    Scientists, as a community, are pretty sensitive to potential infringements on free expression. We were able to craft something that we believe will be effective in its goal without trampling on that. It helped that we borrowed language from the American Library Association, another community with a strong commitment to free expression, as well as other sources.

    Here is the link to our code of conduct if people are curious:

    • Thanks for sharing that, Sanjay. I think the language of that code makes it clear that it’s OK to disagree and debate… being made to feel uncomfortable in that way is acceptable and good for moving science forward.

  5. I don’t recall witnessing this kind of behavior over the past 7-8 years of lean conferences, but sadly I don’t know if that’s because it didn’t ever happen, or quite possibly it did, but it didn’t register enough to be memorable, either because I’m not the typical target (white guy), or it “didn’t seem that bad”, or I absent-mindedly accepted is as “the usual” or . I’m just being honest about that. Having had a prior career in technology, I’m familiar with some of the manifestations of this behavior and glad to hear a code of conduct has now become commonplace there.

    If these incidents don’t happen in lean conferences, then posting a code of conduct in a strict sense will just be clutter and “waste”, even in a proactive sense. But if it happens even once, then I think those who say it’s just expected professional behavior and they don’t need a code, are missing an opportunity for quality at the source and defect prevention. A brief true story that seems relevant…

    Reading this today reminded me of a recent, parallel experience working with a group of nurses who were discussing a minor but frustrating and risky operational issue on their unit — spills on the floor of the unit’s room used for storing and preparing patients’ food supplies. Occasionally a nurse or other staff will enter the room and find a spill on the floor not cleaned up by the person who caused it. I know, it’s hard to believe. They identified this issue during a huddle, and I of course encouraged them to ask why — why they think the spills aren’t cleaned up. They responded that this analysis wasn’t really needed, nor any countermeasures, because cleaning up spills is just expected professional behavior and staff should feel responsible and accountable for it. My opinion is, if these un-cleaned spills suddenly stopped as a result of reminding everyone of their professional responsibility, then probably they don’t need it added to their code of conduct, but I’d be very surprised if it stopped completely without a countermeasure. So back to the question posed by Mark, my feeling is even though it may be rare in lean conferences, this kind of behavior is still common enough in our society that there is some risk and it should be made explicit – so I’m for a code of conduct.

  6. Hi Mark,
    Thanks for the refreshingly rational look at the Code of Conduct topic. In the Agile world, the Code of Conduct has become a frenzied mania without proper analysis.

    I have a variety of complaints with the way Codes of Conduct are done, though not with the concept itself. A major issue is that they tend to be very open to interpretation. They use terms like “unwelcome attention” and “sexualized clothing” — according to whom? If I wear a short skirt in a booth, am I going to get kicked out of the conference? Would the Code of Conduct police impose the same rules on someone who is overweight? Your banner example is the sort of thing they are meant to protect against, but it is difficult to find the right terms to address the problem.

    The second issue I have with Codes of Conduct is that they need to be actionable. Most conference organizers struggle to find a spare stapler, so how are they going to be crack detectives when there is a complaint? As most are written, they give a false sense of safety and that is MORE dangerous. See this post by Agile Alliance where they identified this very issue: Also, they put a legal liability on the organizers.

    At one of the events I organize we had a sponsor who made a joke on a flyer about everyone getting drunk. That seemed weirdly inappropriate at our event which is aimed at upper management and we intervened. That would not have been covered by most Codes of Conduct I’ve seen. Many tech events have trouble with drunken and hungover attendees but somehow that isn’t called out. Isn’t that inappropriate to a professional environment too?

    Weirdly, some Codes ban harassment regarding technology choices. I would love to know who started that.

    I still think the Lean Startup Code of Conduct is the best I have seen I dug up their great history of the topic too:

    • Thanks for your comment, Janice, and for sharing the other links and retrospective.

      How does a code of conduct put “legal liability on the organizers?”

      To the point about organizations or events not knowing how to respond properly, that’s why I think it’s important to view this all as a system. Copying one part (a code) without the complete, effective system isn’t likely to work as well, it seems.


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