Agile is a Buzzword That Misses the Point

Like fashion, the business of business — that is, business schools and consultancies — needs to come out every now and then with new packaging for existing ideas. In general the new packaging tends not to substantially change the basic idea but uses new words in the hope that this will capture attention.

“Agile” is one such word. In brief there is nothing wrong with the word “Agile” nor, more importantly, the ideas it represents. Firms such as BCG, McKinsey and others do a good job of capturing the basic idea of agility and an agile organization, as well as the benefits of this approach to organizations as well as the challenges in becoming “agile.”

For example, McKinsey in an article “How to Create an Agile Organization” wrote:

Rapid changes in competition, demand, technology, and regulations have made it more important than ever for organizations to be able to respond and adapt quickly. But according to a recent McKinsey Global Survey, organizational agility—the ability to quickly reconfigure strategy, structure, processes, people, and technology toward value-creating and value-protecting opportunities—is elusive for most.

Similarly BCG in their article “Applying Agile to Software Development and Beyond” wrote:

Agile practices radically improve digital delivery by fostering an iterative, empirical, and cross-functional approach to building customer-focused products—all with a keen eye on continuous improvement. If done right, agile transformations can indeed drive tremendous benefits:

  • Higher-quality product development
  • Enhanced speed to market
  • Increased efficiency/productivity
  • Improved employee morale and engagement

However, the majority of agile transformations do not meet expectations—typically because they are limited either to a narrow technological focus that excludes the business or to a dogmatic implementation of agile development. Agile practices have little chance of gaining traction unless organizations realize they might require fundamental shifts in processes and cultural habits.

Although early writers on Agile understood that “agile” was a repackaging of Lean, that observation has largely disappeared from contemporary material.

The problem with that omission is that it misses the opportunity to explore why Lean’s ideals have proven elusive for most organizations to achieve and thus provides lessons for those pursuing its latest incarnation, Agile.

What is that omission? Putting at the heart of Lean/Agile a standardized Root Cause Problem Solving process and Issue Management System at all levels of an organization as the basis for how an organization operates and for its model of leadership. In addition, it’s understanding how much of a culture change is required in most organizations in order to do proactive root cause problem solving.

The problem with the phrase “root cause problem solving” is that perhaps it lacks the right sizzle to capture the attention. Another way to think of this Problem Solving System is that it is a continuous design process (“design” being a more au courant word these days).

Inherent in agile thinking is the idea of a viable design that we use and then continually improve in response to real-world application and feedback. The idea of designing a top-down-driven, once-and-for-all “final” design is replaced by a viable good design that is then continually changed emergently, bottom-up, as that process design is actually used.

This idea is part of the Toyota Production System a.k.a. Lean: the need for a standard, stable approach for everything (it’s more difficult to continually alter a process and maintain quality standards if there is no firm common base from which everyone evolves), the importance of direct observation of the process in action to see opportunities for change, the need for a common approach to methodical, scientific root cause problem solving, an environment free of fear to identify problems, and a coaching rather than controlling model of leadership.

The reason Agile/Lean proves illusive for most firms is that it requires a rewiring of how leaders at every level of an organization think and behave. The notion of managerial competence — I am the boss because I know the answers — is altered to a far different model of leaders as facilitator and coach and of frontline staff that are both empowered to make changes and equipped to take on that responsibility.

The consulting firms do a good job of identifying the benefits and characteristics of Agile/Lean (see McKinsey’s “The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations” as an example) but almost always leave out the most important ingredient: the culture, systems, skills and talent required to conduct continual, empowered, cross-functional, integrated root cause problem solving activities at all organizational levels.

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