The Goal Is Business Agility: What’s in Your Way?

Business Agility – our true goal

Business Agility is the ability to quickly realize value predictably, sustainably and with high quality. This requires much more than the team and must go from the beginning of the initiation of projects through their deployment and support.

Agile has mostly focused at the team level. The Agile Manifesto mentions the team in almost every value and principle statement but rarely mentions business and doesn’t mention management at all. As Agile as grown its purpose has shifted more to creating business agility with team agility being a step along the way.

Understand Your Problems Before Looking for Solutions

Unfortunately, there is no “one-size fits-all” solution to any complex problem. This means that for any framework, no matter how good it is, there will be a need to adjust it to some degree in order to fit the current context. After 20 years of Agile, a great deal is known about how to do this.

We know that blindly accepting a defined, set solution is not ideal. There might be value but there will also be resistance by imposing a solution. We know you do not have to re-inventing the wheel; adjusting an existing framework, or even growing your own, can be more effective.

We know you must attend to your organization’s culture and current state before beginning a large-scale adoption. This does not need to take long but it requires honesty and clarity about the dynamics of your culture. Compare this with the requirements of the framework. Look at what has been learned by many other organizations. There are well-established patters of solutions that can address the various situations and challenges faced by many organization.

Although the title of this part says “problems,” it’s worth noting that a better way to think about this is  overcoming “challenges.” This is not being “Pollyanna,” about putting positive spins on problems. Rather, it reflects the importance of understanding what problems are.

Too often, we think that the problems are the “real thing.” For example, most people would consider a flashing blue light from a police car behind them to be a problem. And if you don’t need a police car stopping you, it probably is! But the flashing blue light could be a good thing if you’re driving to the hospital and about to run out of gas. What’s the difference? It’s what you’re trying to accomplish at the time. In the first case, you want to go somewhere without interruption (and without a fine). In the second, you also want to go somewhere, but have another problem (or “challenge”): running out of gas.

The reason this distinction is important is that behind every “problem,” there is something you’re trying to do; and you are having a challenge in getting it done. Thinking of it as a challenge reminds you of what you are trying to accomplish; and you might find there is some other way of achieving that.

Having alternatives to achieve your desired result provides options that you can pick by attending to your situation.

Lessons From Lean Thinking

Lean is often described as a focusing on value, the value stream, creating flow, establishing pull, and continuous improvement. What this means is that you focus on the realization of value and manage it in the value stream. You want your value to “flow”, that is, not be blocked or bogged down. Having teams pull from backlogs is a good way to ensure they don’t get overloaded which would slow things down.  By pulling only when they have capacity, they can operate at a peak efficiency.

This is a major shift that Lean suggests – focus on the value stream, not on the work at each stage. Doing this, however, requires that you create visibility and also attend to the ecosystem through which the value stream flows. The first step in this process is to create visibility on the workflow. “Workflow” is how the concept that originated what is being done  proceeds step by step through completion and realization. This is a critical part to being able to manage it – seeing it.

Lean can be thought of as a mindset on how to help solve our problems. But there are some lessons from Lean that are very pragmatic and can be used immediately with little depth of knowledge of Lean itself. Most importantly, you can validate these lessons from your own experience.

The System causes most of our problems

A core belief of Lean is that people are generally good and self-motivated, but that the environment (ecosystem) they are in can both demotivate them and make their jobs tougher to do. Instead of blaming people, we need to focus on improving the system they are in.  This can be seen in one of the strengths of Scrum – cross-functional teams. By creating cross-functional teams individuals can work together better. The implication of this is that if systems cause most of our problems, then we need to look at the system and how it impedes the work being done instead of focusing on the people. This does not mean people aren’t important, but that if we give them a good environment, good work will happen.

We improve systems by attending to the value stream

The value stream is the series of steps from concept to realization of value that takes place in an organization. Many different value streams exist in an organization. We don’t really define them, they are what they are. But we can improve them by feeding them with smaller, well-defined batches of work to be done as well as organizing the talent so that the work can be done efficiently.

The value stream is improved by removing delays in between the steps where the actual work takes place

This is the second big shift in Lean – we are more concerned with shortening time between the steps than we are in how long each step takes.  Why this is important can be seen by considering how much time is spent by work waiting to be done.  That is, a job that takes 2 months may only have taken 1 week if it were done where everybody focused on it and there weren’t any delays between handoffs.

What’s in your way?

Our analysis of hundreds of companies indicates that if one looks at related types of companies, they pretty much have the same types of problems.  The difficulties to achieve business agility get harder and harder the bigger an organization becomes. The reason for this is more because the dynamics between what people want gets more complex than a lack of understanding what is actually required to figure out how to do it. In other words, getting agreement on what’s the most important work to be done is usually at the root cause of most of what’s causing problems.

Not resolving this can cause too much work in process, unclear requirements, building things of lesser value than what’s needed, and many more. Each company will have its own set of specific challenges. As well as what makes them difficult to overcome.  But, as we shall see, these are surprisingly common across many companies. What’s important to keep in mind is our top-level goal (business agility) and to see what’s needed to solve that.

Although there are general consistencies in problems, and even the solutions to solve them, it is important to know what your particular challenges are because even if you want to end up in the same place as other companies, the way you’ll need to get there will likely vary on several factors. These include your culture, organizational structure, skill sets, number of constraining factors and more.

Seeing Your Challenges in the Value Stream

In the same way that we saw how value moves through our value stream, we can look at the value stream to see our challenges. The most common challenges that companies have are:

  • It takes too long to get anything done
  • work is not properly prioritized
  • chunks of work are too big
  • work takes place on too many things
  • there are unclear requirements
  • teams don’t understand the needs of the business
  • some people have too much to do and are constraints on multiple teams
  • there is high technical debt
  • there are many integration errors
  • there is insufficient collaboration
  • ops is blindsided and pulled in many directions
  • there is a lack of visibility of what is taking place

These challenges are represented in the figure below:

Showing common challenges to flow in the value stream
These challenges usually are seen by having by having work be stuck in large queues before the step where the problem is. Lean suggests that instead of focusing on how people can work faster we should take steps to keep our queue size down. This mostly involves working on small batches, how we do our work, and how we organize our talent.

For more information on seeing challenges in the value stream see Inherent Problems at Scale.

 

If you want to learn more about FLEX you can take an online course at the Net Objectives University or take a live course in Orange County, CA May 6-8 or in Seattle in June (both led by Al Shalloway). If you want to learn about how to adopt FLEX in your organization please contact the author, Al Shalloway