Starting A Lean-Agile Transition / Transformation

November 5, 2013 — Posted by Al Shalloway

There are several different ways to start a transition to Lean-Agile methods.  Before we describe them, however, I want to discuss why I say a transition to “Lean-Agile” and not just “Agile.”  Agile methods are very powerful and popular.  However, the Agile Manifesto, and most popular methods that drove its creation (e.g., Scrum, XP) are team based approaches.  While there is nothing wrong with a team based approach, one must remember that team based approaches are mostly applicable to teams.  The attempts to take Scrum to the enterprise via the team focused “Scrum-of-Scrums” has proven to be a very challenged approach.  Once a development organization gets larger than 100 or so people (including developers, testers, analysts, project managers/Scrum Masters), more holistic methods are necessary.

Lean-Agile means that Lean guides the Agile transition.  In particular, the mantras “optimize the whole” and “deliver fast” create the context for the Agile aspect of the Lean-Agile adoption. 

What Lean-Agile Requires

Experience has shown that for multiple team endeavors, the following must be done (see The Lean-Agile Framework for more information):

Business Stakeholder and Portfolio Management

  • Business stakeholders must identify, size and sequence the work to be done with a focus on delivering the maximum business value quickly
  • Continually prioritize across the product portfolio (analysis and delivery)

Cross-Team Management and Cross-Product Architecture

  • Make dependencies across projects visible (proper architecture)
  • Plan the work to be pulled from the required teams from shared backlog
  • Focus on sustainability of realizing value by attending to an architectural roadmap of your software 
  • Avoid delays in workflow across a product's value stream

Team Methods

  • Build in small increments while managing your work-in-process levels. This creates quick feedback cycles while lowering the impact of interruptions
  • Use an Agile team method where team can self-organize within the context of the bigger plan
  • Use explicit policies to create visibility within the team, across teams and to management

Technical Agility

  • Use Acceptance Test-Driven Development to achieve understanding of what is to be built before starting coding
  • Begin with the end in mind – understand how integration across the teams will take place
  • Use proper technical skills to minimize technical debt

How one achieves these practices depends upon the answers to these questions:

  • Who is driving the transition (business, management, development, team)?
  • What is the current process (waterfall, Agile)?
  • How many people are present that must work on several projects at a time?
  • What is the extent of legacy code?
  • Are cross-functional teams present or is the organization siloed?
  • Is the organization in a regulated environment?
  • Are embedded systems involved?

The current culture will also have a significant impact on the approach to take.

The Paths To Take

There are several different approaches one can take in beginning the transition.  The most frequent ones, and when to take them are listed below (not in order of preference but in order of who is driving):

  1. Implement the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFeTM)
  2. Improve the work being given to the teams
  3. create cross-functional teams working together
  4. create a hybrid of cross-functional and flow based teams / individuals
  5. do the Kanban Method

Implementing SAFeTMcan be a good approach when your organization is more than 150 people, there is buy–in at the director level or above and the leap to it will not be too disruptive.  Otherwise, a more localized approach should be taken.

Improving the work being given to the teams can provide surprisingly fast results. Eli Goldratt, creator of Theory of Constraints, said - “Often reducing batch size is all it takes to bring a system back into control".  If portfolio and program managers focus on making requests for minimal business increments to be developed and released, business value is achieved significantly faster and teams tend to stay out of overwhelm.  This is often an effective way to start a Lean-Agile transition.  However, it requires buy-in from the business side of the organization.

Create cross-functional teams working together.  Having teams with all the skills needed to get the work done vastly speeds up the work and eliminates much of the waste and thrashing that occurs otherwise (See Cross-functional Teams Eliminate Waste and Manifest Lean).  This is a great way to start a pilot as long as creating the teams for the pilot does not adversely affect the rest of the organization by making needed specialized skills unavailable to them (see How Successful Pilots Often Actually Hurt an Organization).

Create a hybrid of cross-functional and flow based teams / individuals requires a combination of Scrum and Kanban and can be very effective.  It allows for the creating teams to the extent possible while managing critical people with Kanban.  (See Creating Teams When It Does Not Seem Possible).

Do the Kanban Method is none of the above work.  The Kanban method allows for starting exactly where you are with no change at all except for creating visibility on your work flow.  This visibility will create options to manage your work and will provide insights that will remove delays.  We are strong proponents of the Kanban Method but use it only after options for low-hanging fruit have been eliminated.

For more information, see our Lean-Agile Roadmap.

Getting  Started

We typically recommend a combination of training for:

  • business stakeholders
  • mid-management
  • product management
  • architects

that create a blend of strategic and tactical focus.   Then, select an appropriate pilot project and provide training and coaching for it.  If you are interested in more specifics and how we can help you, please let me know.

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 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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Al Shalloway
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Guy Beaver
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