Agile 2016: The Lean Buffet

August 5, 2016 — Posted by Tom Grant

The Agile Alliance's yearly US conference is a useful barometer of where many people in the Agile community are — the problems they face, the solutions they've tried, the experiences they wish to share. This year, I was paying especially careful attention to where Lean fit into the picture.

The verdict: It's there, but not nearly as much as it could be. Many of the talks I attended had a nibble of value stream mapping here, a soupçon of Kanban there, without really laying out the banquet of what Lean has to offer. That's a shame, because Lean can help diagnose and address many of the worst ailments that many organizations are facing.

Case in point: Repeated conversations with attendees over breakfast, lunch, or drinks arrived at the same destination, the lack of any view or understanding of the value stream. The starting points were varied — a heavily siloed approach to software development, DevOps headaches, an unjustified faith in tools-based silver bullets, to name a few — but they all were running into the same wall. If you can't see the larger value stream, you have no way to tell if any of the optimization along points in the value stream (for example, Agile at the team level, continuous delivery, etc.) is having much of an effect. In fact, many of the conversations sounded like echoes of what you might learn in a Systems Thinking 101 course, especially the lesson that describes how local optimizations don't necessarily help the larger system perform better.

Lean, of course, is the starting point for seeing the larger value stream. The good thing is, Lean is more than just that starting point, if you're willing to follow its trajectory. For example, the different variety of waste that Lean thinkers have identified manifest themselves along the entire value stream, so you have a good idea what you need to avoid both within and beyond the team. A developer who gold-plates the code is just as guilty of over-processing as the architect who fills in too many details about how the solution might eventually work.

Lean also helps you identify where issues exist beyond the Agile team's ability to control them. For example, in one client organization with whom I worked, the product managers and executives who created high-level backlog items (epics and themes) without any clear idea of their value. Just because a strategic customer asks for a feature, or a competitor just released it in their product, doesn't mean that you need to build it. Although the result was certainly overproduction, another form of waste, the team by itself was powerless stop it.

However, you can't get the benefits of Lean if you just nibble at pieces of what it has to offer. As much as Agile depends on a mindset (an often-repeated meme at Agile 2016), so too does Lean. You don't get that worldview just by having a Kanban board, or going on a short-lived campaign to remove impediments to finishing sprints. Additionally, if you take a buffet-style approach to Lean, you might never hear about the other Lean practices that you might adopt. A significant number of people with whom I've spoken recently about continuous improvement have not heard about the Toyota kata, or not taken the time to learn about it. And don't get me started about the number of times I've heard people opine about their (alleged) Lean startup approaches, without realizing how little thought or effort they've put into the feedback loops...

Fortunately, it's not hard to learn about Lean. There's more to it than many have heard in conference sessions or read in a blog post. Happily. the information is widely available, including information about how Lean and Agile fit together. Lean insights are especially valuable at a time when Agile frameworks are popular. Not only does Lean help define what a framework should achieve, it also provides a useful guide to what you might have to adjust in it.

When I was a child, my family used to take me to a "Western-style" buffet, which was not a formula for a healthy meal. I'd fill up my plate with baked beans, then experiment with different mixtures of soda from the beverage dispenser. As a dumb kid, I had no idea what a good meal looked like, let alone how to create one from the choices offered. Fortunately, when it comes to Lean, we can be a lot smarter than dumb kids. Unfortunately, we often can't see the whole picture of what Lean has to offer, or what Lean demands of us to adopt it.

[I'll have more observations from Agile 2016 in later blog posts.]

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About the author | Tom Grant

Tom Grant is an analyst covering software development and delivery. His Specific focus areas include Agile, Lean, application lifecycle management (ALM), requirements, serious games, and the innovation process. Some of the serious games he has developed are teaching tools, often for people learning Agile software development practices. Others are simulations, intended to help people try out different innovation strategies. He has also taught political science at UC Irvine and Chapman College.


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