Agile/Lean As I Wish It Would Be

Agile and Lean have a single purpose: to continually challenge the status quo. If you’re not doing that, you’re probably an impediment to it.

22 December 2011
Agile with a Purpose, agile, Lean Management
agile, kanban, lean, management, scrum

It’s nearly Christmas: time for wishes. This is how I envision and wish Agile and Lean to be (and I’ve seen it work, multiple times).


Value and Delight, On Time

The two pillars of Lean, as defined by Toyota, are continuous improvement (Kaizen) and respect people. Scrum and Agile are based on the Lean principles and disciplines. Agile and Lean (done right) enable your organisation to create the most value in a given amount of time—and to continuously increase your organisation’s capability to discover that value, shape scope and build awesome solutions.

To achieve predictability and improve transparency we use empirical process control, measuring velocity in Scrum or lead time in Kanban. Kanban requires an explicit process to compare lead times, Scrum requires fixed-length sprints to compare velocities.  

Both rely on self-organisation by implementing a pull system and encouraging shared responsibility across cross-functional teams to ensure the quality of work.

Obsolete Concepts

To get the most value out of this approach, the organisation needs to remove constraints that limit the creation of value by the knowledge workers in the organisation. Some of these constraints will be concepts that made you successful, and that will be hard to let go.

Yet, everything that decreases a person's focus on the overall maximising of value should be considered a constraint (aka impediment) that needs to be removed, changing your organisation step by step. 

Changes in your organisation need to be sliced into deliverable increments just as the value and scope of your products and services and their implementation should be planned and controlled in iterations as well. This constant pace creates a safe environment that people can thrive in, as the scope of change is limited.

Typical constraints I've seen in organisations include:

  • Functional silos (sequential development by specialist teams)
  • Projects
  • Bonuses based on individual goals and targets 

All of these three (and there might be more) lead to local optimisation instead of end-to-end optimisation of the whole value stream. Get rid of structures that stand in the way of emergent excellence. Examine restrictions on any type of flow in your organisation to add them to this list. 

How do silos, projects and bonuses stand in your way? Silos create hand-offs which limit collaboration. Individual targets misguide people to sub-optimise and stand in the way of collaboration. Projects, as I see the concept used in today’s knowledge work organisations, are artificial containers which limit options, for instance because scope tends to be fixed too far in advance. We lose more using this concept than we gain from it.

I’ll elaborate on these topics, why and how they can be dysfunctional and how you might replace them in later posts.

Embrace Emergence

Your organisation needs structure to flourish and grow. If the current structure is not the right one, how do you choose another? Think gardening instead of architecture. Today, people in organisations tend to be structured according to their type of work. I encourage you to rather structure the value, the different ways you delight your customers, and to let this inspire the structure of your organisation. That will increase your organisation's ability to discover value, shape the scope of your solutions and deliver the value quickly to the customer. 

Delighting Value

Stephen Parry and Steve Denning argue that the best value-maximising strategy is not numbers-driven, not focussed on eliminating value through cost-cutting and corner-cutting, but on delighting customers. Focussed on understanding the needs of the customer and doing more than meeting that need in a me-too, mediocre way. But instead continually surprising the customer by exceeding expectations, showing a deep understanding of the customer experience, and valuing the customer’s experience of your product or service.

To achieve that, start with delighting your employees to motivate and enable them to delight your customers so that their money delights your shareholders. 

Challenge to Improve

Don’t forget it’s all about continuous improvement, about continually questioning how you do things now to be better equipped for the challenges of tomorrow. Let me paraphrase a quote that Tobias Mayer tweeted earlier this year: 

Agile and Lean have a single purpose: to continually challenge the status quo. If you’re not doing that, you’re probably an impediment to it.


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Discussion 1 Comment

Fully support your wish Olaf. Focusing on the end-to-end process and increasing coöperation delivers value to your customers. And you can continuously change the way you work, improving in an agile way!

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