The other week I attended a course that introduced a lean and agile mindset to a group of leaders in a company. My role was to sit back and observe (and to shoot in some of my experience during the training) - here’s one thing I observed.
At one point in time, after we’ve been through the agile manifesto and the principles, and finally the principles of Lean Software development a high ranking manager next to me raised his voice and said:
This all sounds very good. I buy all of it. Its common sense. But the one thing that I don’t get is why we realise this now. We are doing something very different than this now - have we been stupid before?
The discussion that followed was very fruitful and the people in the room learned a lot. But I wanted to go beyond the question. Because he’s of course not stupid - he’s very knowledgable and experienced. And so was everyone else in the room.
But why does things that sounds very good, is common sense and that I buy all of it - comes out like something totally different and unnatural in many organisations.
Also I’ve often been so surprised that, sometimes, very senior people ask me for advice in these matters. It’s not like I’ve been given the wisdom of the Gods, or that I’m smarter than the people in the room or virtually every organisation I’ve been in.
How can this be? How can I see so many agile/lean guys face-palm themselves over the horrors they see in many organisations - organisations that has a lot of very smart people and that are thriving.
It’s perspective. All perspective
One of my role models is Dan North, he once said:
What has to be true in their world for these actions to be sane?
It’s a great way to change perspective and seek understanding. If I stood where they are standing - what are they seeing? Why are they acting like they do, if I presume that they are not stupid or malicious on purpose.
Without going to deep into psychology and bringing it back to the topic at hand: agile and lean - I think it’s like this:
With lean we take a totally different basic premise for how work should be handled: we manage for flow, whereas many organisation instead manage for resource utilisation. Now I propose that one is not generally better than the other - they just strive towards different goals. I know which one I think is better, but since lean is a business strategy I’m going to treat it like that, a strategy, and continue to use it until I see something better.
When you manage for flow you turn the tables totally for how we are treating, managing and organising our processes. Here’s a few examples that is very different from traditional methods when managing for flow;
- Slack or idle time is not bad, since it gives room for innovation and also make sure that works flows even faster (i.e. I’m available when needed). For example consider mob programming where 4-5 people take turns using the same keyboard and screen - a very popular agile method.
- Problems are not bad - they are nuggets of gold for those to improve their process even further. Stopping and reflect on the problem to do even better tomorrow is a great thing.
- Changing is a constant - nothing that we do today is guaranteed to be there tomorrow, if it turns out that changing a role, process or policy will give us better flow. Your competitor doesn’t care how you are organised, how your roles are defined.
- Smaller things are generally preferred over bigger, that reduce risk, increase throughput and quality.
- Principles and ideas are better than best practices. Best practices are best in a certain context - with principles and ideas we are allowed and encouraged to look beyond the practice and find something that works better for us. Here. Now.
There’s of course many more things that could go on that list. And each of them are probably a blog post (or book in some cases) of its own.
Fear or something else?
What I’m saying is that by introducing lean thinking you are looking at the problem in a very different way. You would not train to have muscles like Usian Bolt if you’re going to run a marathon. You would not build an oil tanker to cruise around the beach - it’s a different problem, different context and requires a different solution.
A few times (ah, well quite often in fact), when I introduce lean thinking and practices people push back. “This will not work here”, “Ah, but that’s Spotify - they are completely different” or “Have you ever seen that done in a bank? In Sweden? That’s been around since XXX? That has exactly as many employees like us? And a system park” (sorry - lost it for awhile)
This is natural. Because just imagine. Someone walks into a room and states a new perspective that you never thought about before. Not only that - a perspective that might make your current ways, and roles (YOUR role maybe) and your ideals look bad.
It’s like this excellent video tells it:
If he’s right - what does that say about me?
And that’s correct. Because the organisation is, of course (hopefully even), built to support the paradigm that the organisation believes in. In one indecent I presented the ideals of lean to a group of managers. At the end one of them said:
I like it! Faster flow, slack and less utilisation - all great stuff! Never talk to my staff about this!
Of course I asked why:
Because I get paid by how much my staff is utilised. 100% utilisation is the goal
The organisation was built to support the paradigm that it believed. And lean is of course the exact opposite of those ideas.
If you want even more things to think about, consider the goal of a separate IT-department is. Organising into separate departments is not (always) optimising for flow, right?
This helped me to understand why people, sometimes, are upset or thinks that the current ways cannot be changed. Also it made me more humble for the fact that there’s another way to view the problem.
It’s not that one perspective is smart and the other stupid, one good and the other bad - it’s just different.
The organisation (and me as being part of it) needs to decide if we want to change from the one to the other (I suggest in small steps experimentally). The rationale behind that decision is of course if we think that the cost of doing that change is worth the benefits it brings.
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