Why Understanding Lean Is Essential in an Agile Transformation

June 22, 2016 — Posted by Al Shalloway

This blog is the first of several blogs explaining why Lean is essential in a transformation to Agile.  These blogs will discuss:

What Is Lean?

Throughout this article, I will use “Lean-Thinking” to mean the thought process behind what is often called Lean Manufacturing, Lean Product Development, Lean Services, and Lean Software Development. This Lean thinking is as essential to the various practices of Lean as gravity is to building bridges, ships, planes or space craft.  How you use the laws is different in each case but ultimately the principles of gravity remains unchanged.

The reason it is important to understand the Lean thinking behind the different Lean domains is that it keeps us from drawing naive inferences about how one type of Lean might or should work in another type. The practices in Lean Manufacturing do not directly translate to Lean Software Development, for instance. Don Reinertsen once told me, “Toyota is a great shopping place for ideas;” however, it is important to realize that drawing inferences from one domain to the next is fraught with a certain degree of risk of both misunderstanding what Lean actually is and in missing opportunities to apply it in a new domain. This is especially true in thinking Lean in Software is the same as Lean in manufacturing.

Lean Thinking as a Generalized Set of Principles

Here is the essence of Lean thinking:

  • Our work is part of a complex system.  This implies we must take an holistic view and that our improvement should be guided by increasing our understanding of the system we are in and improving our methods based on that understanding
  • People are our greatest asset.
  • Management leads the organization in continuously improving its ability to add value to its customers.
  • We create flow by doing things “Just-in-Time”: Eliminating delays in workflow, feedback and utilization is essential to eliminate waste.
  • We must attend to the quality of our process. Not doing so will result in unstable workflows and waste.
  • We must make all work visible.
  • We must manage our workflow with a pull (kanban) system.

Let's consider some of these Lean thinking principles.

Implications of systems thinking on how to improve

Systems thinking, the basis of Lean thinking, implies that almost all of an organization’s challenges are due to the system.  Therefore, the focus is on improving the system within which people find themselves.  This is a significant shift in thinking from classic Agile approaches.  Lean focuses on improving the system so that people can get their job done.  Agile tends to be focused on the people, assuming that they will be able to make the improvements on their own.  Since most improvements require management, this turns out not to be valid thinking.

Management leads

“Management leads” does not imply top-down management.  Rather, Lean thinking prescribes what is known as Middle-Up-Down Management (see Towards Middle-Up-Down Management). In Middle-Up-Down Management, management’s role (the “Middle”) is to create an ecosystem that is designed to allow for the implementation of the business needs of the organization (Up) by enabling those doing the work (the “Down”) to work autonomously.  This is a different paradigm from both the top-down approach often found in Waterfall-like environments and the team rules attitude somewhat espoused by the Agile Manifesto.

Management is also responsible for continuous improvement of the organization.  It does this by watching how work is being done and taking direction on improvements from the people doing the work.  Many of these actions attend to rearranging how people are organized so they can work better together.

Create flow by doing things “Just-in-Time.”

Eliminating delays in workflow, feedback and utilization is essential to eliminate waste.

Think about a time when you observed a misunderstanding in a requirement and it took weeks to discover that misunderstanding.  This is a delay in feedback.  Or a time when a developer wrote a bug and only discovered it weeks later.  That is also a delay in feedback. Delays cause waste.

We must attend to the quality of our process

“Process” has a bad rap in the Agile community.  In Lean thinking, “process” is more like standard work. It is the best way we know how to do something at the moment. And when the moment changes, the standard work definition will change.  Lean never suggests following anything blindly. 

Make all work visible

Work being visible means anyone can see it. It also means that the process being used can be seen.  This is the anathema of a black box process.

Manage our workflow with a pull (kanban) system

It is virtually impossible to plan any workflow that has any amount of variation in it.  Attempts to figure out how long things will take are problematic. When different teams have dependencies upon each other – both in terms of the work being done and the people needed to do the work – the inherent errors in the planning will propagate and cause significant challenges.

Upcoming Blogs and Events

The next two blogs will build on this one and show how virtually all Agile methods can be placed in the context of Lean-Thinking and how that will enhance them in the process.  We have several upcoming events on Lean-Thinking and it's application.  Please see our events page for more.  We're also in the process of putting together a public in person class and an online class.  Please contact me if interested. 

Al Shalloway, CEO, Net Objectives

 

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.



        

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