Lean IT as Agile++ : 5 ways Lean extends the reach of Agile in the enterprise


I am fortunate enough to count Antoine Contal and Régis Médina as my colleagues.  We have been discussing this extensively, especially  following Régis breakthrough on the topic (check his enlightening interview on InfoQ) and the dedicated panel Antoine moderated during the last Lean IT Summit in Paris.

Interestingly enough, we have somehow followed a similar path, though they were ahead of me by a few years. We found with Agile Methodologies a way to solve the same vexing issues while managing software development projects. How to better align software development with business value, how to release on a regular basis, how to build-in quality, how to engage development teams, how to embrace change : agile has helped us a big deal in answering these questions.

But still, we all bumped into some roadblocks that Agile alone can not tackle. We needed to go beyond and extend the reach of our improvement to include management, leaders, operations, marketing, problem solving and make continuous improvement a daily issue. And this is how Lean extends Agile reach in the enterprise …

1. Continuous improvement as a daily practice

Agile continuous improvement mostly happens during retrospectives, i.e once every iteration (which can last between 2 to 6 weeks). Don’t get me wrong : it already is a massive step forward compared to not doing continuous improvement at all. But still, Agile only deals with continuous improvement as batch as Régis states in this InfoQ interview.

The Lean approach (Kaizen) helps in making continuous improvement a daily practice. There is an issue as soon as the daily indicators have not reached the target and the problem deserves investigation and experiments to solve it, on the spot. Lean visual management, even more than Agile’s, aims at making problems visible and creating opportunities to improve.

Making problems visible, dealing with them on the spot, one by one, using the scientific method, is the trick to make your organization a high-velocity one as Steven J. Spear explained. Lean helps you in achieving this.

2. Problem Solving & Learning

According to Taiichi Ohno, our misconceptions are the worst enemies of our organizations operational efficiency. Dealing with these is the key for our development and our success. The way to surface these misconceptions is, when investigating a problem, to define counter-measures together with the expected results these will have. Then, after the experiment, it is to understand what has actually happened and compare it with the results we expected beforehand. The fact that our countermeasures have better or worst results then expected is only secondary : the learning takes place in the space between what has actually happened and what we thought would happen.

Agile is more about having the problem solved. This is why it is so appealing : it does fix software development problems through patterns and turnkey solutions.The issue here is that while doing so we don’t spend enough time to fully understanding the problem :  we just don’t spend enough time to actually learn.

3. Scaling up the full value stream

Agile methodologies are great when you have a 2 pizza team for developing a product. But what about the full value stream ? What about operations ? What about support ? And if you’re a software vendor you’re likely to also have pre-sales, professional services ? What about if you have half a dozen agile teams working on the same product and you need to coordinate their efforts to make sure your product is consistent from the technical, functional and UX perspectives ?

Agile hardly answers all these questions. And this is where Lean extends agile by making us think about the full value stream, and to see it from the eye of the customer.

Most importantly, Lean changes the initiative perspective : rather than asking how to transform the organization around the development team doing Agile, it forces to think how we can better align the team’s work with the strategy while delivering more value to our customers by tackling the right problem, now.

4. Marketing and Customer

For the last few years, the Agile community has been greatly shaken up by the advent of Lean Start-up. One could say that Agile is focused far more in solving the development teams issues than the customer ones.

It is worth noticing that beyond the actual success of this approach, Eric Ries did a fantastic job with this book and concept to succeed where the Lean community has failed during the last ten years : selling Lean to the digital natives. A telling accomplishment.

Yet the Lean Start-up is not a tone down version of Lean, most of the elements are there including the validated learning. The success of this approach tends to prove that there was something missing in the Agile framework, something at the very heart of the Lean approach : the customer.

5. Management

I know there has been this big manager-free or bossless organization fad lately. I’ve mentioned a couple of times how uncomfortable I was with it. Firstly, I find it rather demagogic. Then I’m not sure it would work in any companies. The fact that Zappos is going flat is worth looking at for further developments, but still, a success in such a strong culture would not necessarily mean that it is suitable to any organizations. As Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao put it in their essay Scaling Up Excellence :

“After reveiewing a mountain of studies, psychologists Deborah Gruenfeld and Larissa Tieden concluded that (…) although people dislike hierarchies, they are happier, calmer and more productive when power and status differences are present and well understood.”

The self-organized team is quite an issue in that respect. As Professor Dan Jones put it during the Lean IT Summit : “It is just a way agile teams found to protect themselves from the Taylorist organization. But it misses the point”.

Lean not only includes manager in the initiative but it assigns them a crucial role : the one of developing the people. It is not the same role as in Taylorist organization aiming at enforcing the rules and process. It is the one of coaching the teams, ensuring they work on the right problem, teaching the right way and ensuring standards are updated each time a new way of doing thing is successfully experimented.

Last but not least, as Agile does not leave much room to management, there is no wondering why it is so difficult to scale it up to the whole organization.

Lean IT as Agile ++

Agile is a great way to discover a dynamic way of doing thing. Dynamic in the sense that it opens the door for people to starting think about how they work. Yet, Agile does not tackle many dimensions of the organization and this usually is where the progress stops : come in Lean IT.

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