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There is a tendency to jump to solutions before truly understanding the problems. First, try to see the intentions that are blocking and get to the root cause of them. These are critical. They allow for different possibilities for solutions to arise.

As there is great commonality in the challenges people face, there is also great commonality in what needs to happen to solve them. The variations are not in the intention of the solutions but the particular way companies go about achieving them.  This creates the possibility of having a common set of steps most companies should start with while enabling tailoring for the organization so as to be more effective and to set up continuous improvement after starting.

Figure 1 illustrates what needs to happen in order for the flow model to work well. Pay attention to the different shades for the solution blocks. Although there is no one set order, it is usual for the darker ones to come before the others. While many people talk about starting with “low-hanging” fruit, at scale a different approach is needed. This is to start with those items that are feasible that make following items easier to do. Systems Thinking reminds us that all of these changes are interrelated so it is important to attend to both what change people can accommodate as well as what sets up the next win. 

Flex Solutions


Figure 1. What needs to happen in order for the flow model to work well.

Culture not amenable to change

It’s been said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast, lunch and dinner.” The following is a paraphrase from Creating a Lean Culture: Tools to Sustain Lean Conversions by David Mann goes into this.

Culture is important, but changing it directly is not possible. Culture is no more likely a target than the air we breathe. It is not something to target for change.  Culture is an idea arising from experience. That is, our idea of culture or a place or organization is a result of what we experience there. In this way a company’s culture is a result of how people collaborate with each other. Culture is critical and to change it you have to change your method of collaboration.

Focus on agreements, behaviors, specific expectations, tools and routines practices. Lean systems make this easier because they emphasize explicitly defined agreements and use tools to make the work and agreements visible.

Alignment is critical. This requires both what we’re all working towards and how we work together towards that.

Starting with intent

FLEX is based on looking where you are, what your challenges are, what is the intent that those challenges are impeding and only then do we look for solutions. So before going into solutions, let’s look at intentions:

  • Select the value we want to realize. Essentially we want to realize the most value in the shortest time with the capability we have.
  • Refine the product backlog. While we are forced to start with at least the minimum sized increments of value that we can realize, we need to feed the teams much smaller chunks of work.
  • Implement our value at the team level with quick integration. While this is, of course, essential, it’s not always the way to start other than having some Team Agility process be available.
  • Realize value quickly (either externally or internally).
  • Achieve alignment across the organization. Alignment makes possible transforming the purposes of the company into pieces of work that can actually be done.

Core starting points

Although there is no one-size-fits-all approach, there are several things that virtually all companies can start with that work together to make a significant, positive impact.  These are:

  • Create Visibility. You can’t manage your work if you can’t see it. This includes work in process, capacity, dependencies, promises made to each other within the organization, projected release date
  • Use Minimum Business Increments (MBIs) and adopt an MBI mindset. It is critical to work on small pieces of high business value that can be realized quickly.
  • Have a way to decide what to work on when there is limited capacity.  While this might involve properly sequence work in the business backlogs there are several ways to do this.
  • Manage Work-In-Process (WIP). Managing WIP is critical to avoid working on too many things and the multi-tasking and delays it brings.  However, at the start, managing WIP can be done implicitly.​
  • Adopt and “done” and “ready” mindset.  Until we know what it means to complete something we shouldn’t begin it.
  • Guardrails. Create agreements on how to work together.​​
  • Identify risks.
  • Recognize your starting plan is just that: a plan.

Steps down the road

Here are some other steps to explore.  You don’t need to wait to do these, but they are not necessary to get started.

​Other factors

The figure shows flow and the activities that can help achieve it. But there are other factors that guide our action. These are:

  • The role of management
  • A systems-thinking point of view
  • A company’s culture

These are added to the diagram as shown below:

The role of management: Middle-up-down management

The role of management is to create the environment within which those people doing the work can get their jobs done in a way that aligns with the direction and goals set by business stakeholders. This is called Middle-Up-Down Management because middle management looks up to the business stakeholders to see the direction and then down to those people reporting them to see how to help them implement that.

Systems Thinking

A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (sub-systems). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. Positive growth and adaptation of a system depend upon how well the system is adjusted with its environment, and systems often exist to accomplish a common purpose (a work function) that also aids in the maintenance of the system or the operations may result in system failure.

The best way to get a better understanding of Systems Thinking is to watch this 12 minute video: What if Russ Ackoff Gave a TED Talk.