The agile community is full of drive and new ideas. This is what I’ve liked for the last 10 years ever since I joined it. However, it may happen that the community enthusiasm makes me uncomfortable. In all fairness, I no longer share its hunger for new concepts to keep the community buzzing with novelties and shining new toys.
One of the target domains of new concept mass-production for the Agile community during the last few years has been Lean. Lean Start-up, Lean UX, Lean Analytics, Lean BtoB, Lean Kanban (probably the most confusing of all), Lean YouNameIt – not to mention SAFe framework that proudly displays the Lean flashy sticker on its top left corner.
This enthusiasm has had interesting consequences. First, it has allowed to put Lean in the spotlight as people were seeking alternative modes of management allowing to navigate the complexity of the 21st century business world. Second, it has also proved instrumental in introducing Lean to a new generation of professionals – including this blog main contributor.
Another consequence, more questionable, has been the advent of a new breed of self-proclaimed “lean experts” or, even worst, – Taiichi forbid – self-proclaimed “senseis“. I know alleged senseis who actively support the agile psychoanalytic trend, who are keen on the blame game, who rather jump to solution (“hey why don’t you do TDD?”) rather than try to understand the root cause, or who have never been to the shop floor to fully understand what has happened: they are just an embarrassment for the whole community.
I remember the endless music discussions I had with my friends, as a teenager, deciding whether this band was playing jazz or not. This was just some passionate but fruitless taxonomy semantic. There is something else at stake here: we want to challenge this Agile Leanwashing to make sure some opportunists joining the bandwagon do not tarnish Lean hard won virtuous reputation, the same way 6 Sigma may have done at some point. It is also very easy to turn a lean initiative into some control-freak productivist approach, a risk you don’t want to ignore.
A sixty years old system of Management
Lean is a discipline that has existed for the last sixty years or so. It has slowly but surely unfolded into a system of management and leadership with astonishing results. This is a system obsessional with the confrontation to the most brutal reality; a system whose virtue is embodied by a relentless challenge of mental models; a system that is much more focused on facts, practices, humility, and respect for people than to shiny new concepts.
In Lean culture, a professional becomes an expert after ten or fifteen years of daily practice.Strangely enough, making a talk in an Agile conference or writing a blog post on the topic does not make you (or me) a sensei. The aim of this blog post is to sort the wheat of the chaff in order to shed a clear light on what Lean is and what it is not. The idea is to help people buying these types of services so they know what to expect.
Ask the expert
In order to achieve this, I have asked a genuine sensei : double Shingo prize winner Michael Ballé, co-author of one of the most important business book of 2014 : Lead With Respect a book about Lean deployment at a software vendor house.
Michael – why is it so important to understand as to whether our initiative is Lean or not ?
Good question. Why do we do lean? We aim to align customer satisfaction, employee engagement and commercial success. So far so good. But lean is not just any which way of doing so. It’s a definite method born out of decades of experience. Unfortunately, many people will do anything they can think of to apply tools but avoid aligning with the principles of lean.
Lean is about sustaining sales by satisfying customers in delivering on time good quality products at a reasonable price. Quality and productivity are achieved by moving testing closer to value added work and stopping at every defect and solving problems rather than live with the unnecessary costs of dealing with defective work.
Overall costs are reduced by seeing that “capacity = work + waste” and eliminating waste through pulling work: more frequent deliveries and always smaller batches, in order to achieve better quality and higher productivity with greater variety. Built-in quality and Just-in-time create the overall framework of lean. All the activities that drive the lean system on a daily basis are about involving every one every day everywhere in problem-based learning of standards and in encouraging initiatives through continuous improvement or kaizen, which requires a specific form of management and leading with respect.
How would you benchmark an initiative to find out if it is aligned within the Lean principles?
As you mentioned, lean is not a free-for-all. It’s a definite discipline with well-established principles and specific tools. It is also a system – one can’t ignore the left-hand site legs of a table and expect it to stand. The various aspects are interconnected and work together to one single purpose: encouraging every one to think deeply about their customers, their work and learn-by-doing. If any of the 10 following statement is not true, chances are your “lean” is not, well, lean:
- Team aims to improve the customer experience by solving all claims
- Leaders, Managers and team go on the shop floor to understand the facts where and when they happen
- Teams visualize the projects objectives
- Managers listen to the obstacles faced by each and everyone in the team
- Team has a Kanban practice to visualize immediate priorities for everyone
- People are trained, on the work place, everyday
- PDCA is taught, to make everyone more autonomous in the daily work – problems are tackled and solved every day
- Cross-team/departments activities are carried out to develop team work throughout the organization
- Frontline workers initiatives are supported by managers who observe directly what happen and by teams learning from the improvements
- Mutual trust is developed while helping teams succeed and while recognizing their efforts.
Now about the coach: how can you check as to whether your alleged Lean coaches actually are real ones ?
Top of my head, here are ten additional questions you can ask yourself. Again if any of the following is not true, chances are this is not a Lean coach.
- Do they have someone to coach them, a proper sensei ?
- Are they interested in the product performance for the customers ?
- Do they understand ROCE ?
- Do they make the link between Jidoka and productivity ?
- Do they make the link between just-in-time and resources shifting? Are they obsessional about leveling?
- Can they show the potential in every day’s work? Can they compute the takt time on day one?
- Do they master different forms of visual management, the tools and their goal?
- Are they able to assess strength and weaknesses of teams, products and processes?
- Are they searching for the right balance between pushing and supporting people?
- Are they able to give practical exercises to develop people rather than doing, for the people?
Thank you Michael – It’s now up to everyone to make sure they actually are on a lean journey with a proper coach and not on something different, that still may be helpful and working, but that is not aligned with the principles of lean.