Can Lean be a tool for Enterprise Agility?

Most of us would have watched the movie Kung Fu Panda. In the movie, the fighting style Kung Fu was represented and taught as 4 moves whereas Kung Fu has at least 100 moves. Each move has a purpose and the master would choose the right one based on the context. Sometimes Agile is thought of as a few methodologies such as Scrum or SAFe or some tool implementation, whereas Agile is a change management tool with various practices embedded with values. Based on the context, Coaches apply various practices to achieve agility. In our last blog, we saw Spotify as a tool for enterprise agility and in this blog, I would like to explore if Lean/Kanban can be a tool for Enterprise agility.

Agile is a change management tool, which has various practices, tools and techniques. As in any change management initiative, the organisation goes through various troughs and crests. The below graph explains how change management initiative happens in the organisation.  These transformations usually require a reorganization or change in the organization structure or new roles to be created or tools to be bought, which creates uncertainty in the minds of people and affects performance. When the transformation initiative does not the go the way (if they remain in the troughs), organization loses patience and fires the change agent/closes the initiative. After some time, they restart the initiative and they go through the same processes of finding a change agent, try for some time till they lose patience again. In some cases, this repeats quite often and it takes some time before they bounce back as shown in the picture or sometimes, they do not bounce back.

Reference: How the mighty fall – Jim collins

As a coach or transformation leader, it is our role to minimise the troughs that organisation has to go through and make sure that they bounce back.  Lean practices have been used in some organisations where they had gone through similar patterns and they have been able to bounce back. (Ref some success studies where Lean could be an alternate path to enterprise agility ).

At its core, Lean is a business methodology that promotes the flow of value to the customer through two guiding tenets: Continuous improvement and respect for people. Here are some of the principles and practices from Lean that I think that has helped the organisations minimize the troughs.

  • Start with the current process and do small incremental changes. Lean recommends that you start with understanding current process, what is not helping you and start with small incremental changes. Starting small makes people comfortable and easy to support for the initiative.
    • Easy to roll back – if the changes that we started is not going in the right direction.
    • With small J curve (change management graph is called J curve) – Troughs will not get deeper as it is easier to roll back.
    • No reorg first – Lean does not recommend creating new roles for the transformation such as Scrum Master specifically for the change management initiative. Hence it does not create uncertainty in the minds of the people and might not impact the performance of the organization.
  • No time boxes
    • Most business domains do not lend themselves naturally to start work and complete within small and synchronized-time boxes. Product owners had challenges in writing smaller stories and hence the teams were having design in the first iteration and development in the next sprint.
    • Iterations are a low capability crutch for software development teams with poor ability at configuration management and version control and poor capability at coordination and decision making.
  • Flow – Flow based work – Focus on making the work flow from end to end in producing value for the customer. Each team understands the full picture of the process flow from customer entry till they exit, how their upstream and downstream teams work. This empowers the team in decision making. Remember the story of 4 blind men explaining how the elephant looks, that’s how most of us think about our work/processes. This big picture is a great tool for team empowerment.
  • Gain agreement
    • Show mirror to the teams with visual management tools such as Kanban board so that they see what is going right and where they can improve. Information radiators helps the team to understand the bottlenecks in the process and helps to initiate changes to the process.

These practices can be applied alone or combined with other practices to get results. However, looking at lean as a whole, gives better results. Even though Lean seems to be easy to adapt with a few principles, a few tools and techniques, it does not have a prescriptive set of ways/processes/roles/tools/techniques to go from A to point B.  As a Coach, if they can understand the context of the organization and implement the Lean principles/Practices, Lean can also be a tool for Enterprise agility.

Further Read: Book by David Anderson, Lean as an alternative for enterprise agility,

What do you think?

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