A Massive Transformation Begins with a Small Change

February 9, 2011 — Posted by Al Shalloway

I was responding to a couple of postings on the Lean Development user group about how to accommodate push in a pull system. That is, how to have an organization work well when different parts work in different ways. I think this is a really important question – how do we change an organization when different parts of it work in different ways and have different drivers?

My own experience of the bottom up approach espoused by some popular Agile methods is that they won't work in the face of disparity. Change scares people and the bigger the change the bigger the scare. People tend to entrench in these situations. Books that discuss how you can do bottom up approaches often assume that the people will just do it. This is, in my mind, very naive or only useful when you have a truly exceptional organization (one, I must admit, I have never personally seen in my 40+ year career – but I am glad for those that have seen them).

At Net Objectives, we see dozens of companies a year attempting to make the transition to better methods. Most of the time we find small groups who wants change and now has to enroll other parts of the organization in this idea.  This requires a holistic approach in the sense that as one part changes we must attend to how that change influences the other parts to change in an effective way.

The question is how do you affect those parts of an organization, that doesn't know they'd be better off changing?   This is the importance of what we call Lean-Learning. Mike Rother explains it best as Toyota Kata .  This requires small steps in action and then seeing what impact that has on your results.  This is the best, least scary, way to learn.

I've recently started reading Robert Maurer's One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way .  Very nice.  We all know the proverb – "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."  It reminded me that Lean is about small steps. When differentiating lean from other methods, that's one of the first things we notice in the production part of things (small batches).  It's also true in the lean-learning side of things (small increments of learning).  It's also true in how management works with teams (small interventions).

So, one could say "a massive transformation begins with a small change." Small changes do not bring up the defensive mechanism most people have to change. However, how do we know we're changing in the right direction? How do we keep the big picture in mind? Oddly enough, most agile methods I know don't even create a big picture – they start with the team. This makes the small steps often be in the wrong direction. I've written blogs about this in the past, including: Challenging Why (not if) Scrum Fails and  How Successful Pilots Often Actually Hurt an Organization.

The question now becomes, what enables small steps (in batch size, in learning, in small interventions).  Visibility. But visibility of what? Everything important. Clearly the results of what you do is important. Most every Agile method acknowledges this. Even Scrum, in my mind, the least transparent Agile method, has extended the visibility of its work by now incorporating the notion that one must define the rules of what enables a story to get into the sprint (i.e., sprint ready) as well as what gets it out (i.e., the definition of done).

But visibility of work is only one aspect of visibility. Visibility of how the work gets done is another incredibly important part of lean-thinking. Scrum still has a huge way to go to get to the level of visibility of Kanban (see The Real Differences Between Kanban and Scrum). Visibility of how work is done requires the work not to be a black-box, but rather a set of explicitly described policies on how the work will get done. This does not mean prescribed, prescriptive or even exact. It just means that people should not be operating from their gut all of the time. Visibility allows not only for an individual to learn better, but allows for understanding by other individuals of the company how their work affects others.

So how does one take a small change that can move a massive transformation forward? Follow a few simple guidelines. Make sure you can see the effect of what you do so you can learn. Small steps are usually required for this. Make sure others can see how your work is affected by their demands. Consider how any local change will affect the big picture. Maybe figuring out how to do massive transformations is extremely difficult. But perhaps, making small improvements isn't. Perhaps if we're having troubles we're taking the wrong approach.

Alan Shalloway
CEO, Net Objectives

Interested in learning more about organizational and individual change?  Check out our coaching page. 

Interested in bringing organizational change to your company?  Please contact us at info@netobjectives.com.

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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