A Little Lean Can Create a Whole Lot of Positive Change

Added to Process

(This is Part 5 in a 5-part series.)

We started this article series asking this question: How much Lean is in today’s Agile?

“Agile” has become an umbrella term that is used for many things that are useful and helpful. However, “Agile” is also a term that is widely associated with cargo cult behaviour.

To come back to our original question on the amount of Lean contained in today’s Agile, we find that putting more Lean back into the practice of a team’s (and organization’s) Agile approach helps reduce the cargo cult aspects of Agile and increases its effectiveness.

One of the things that makes Lean organizations so much more effective than traditional organizations is the move from scheduled work to pull systems. One of the most effective ways to foster pull systems is limiting the Work in Progress (WIP). (See Part 1 for a fuller discussion.)

We discussed WIP limits in three ways: for the individual, for the team, and when the team has the capacity to take more work. In our experience, when teams pull work, they are more likely to see their delays and bottlenecks. They can assess what to do about those delays and bottlenecks to optimize their delivery of value. They can address what to do and when about requests that exceed their capacity.

Then we spoke about coaching. We find too many Agile coaches don’t understand Lean thinking or Agile practices. That means they aren’t capable of supporting or leading their teams and those team’s various leaders and managers to think differently. We don’t see the model of personal life-coaching being helpful in these cases.

Instead, the successful coaches and consultants we see are closer to sports-coaches-–bringing expertise and experience with concrete practices–-which is also much closer to the original ideas from both XP and Lean.

Furthermore, we want leaders to take on coaching for team and organizational development as an important part of their role. That means the leaders need to understand and apply Lean thinking to their work.

Next, we addressed the idea of empiricism and more Lean thinking in metrics (see Part 2). Velocity is a measure of capacity but does not account for delays or work item idle time. Cycle time and lead time answer the question, “When can we see this?” (see Part 3). And, once the teams start to use cycle time and lead time, other people in the organization can do so also.

Analyzing work-items, assigning them to different types of work, and looking at lead or cycle times instead of “estimating” is another pillar of Lean approaches.

We suggest several low-tech ways to visualize cycle time and lead time. And, we suggest honest and understandable charts that help everyone see the progress (in Part 4). Again, this is completely in line with Lean approaches, especially with the visual management part.

So, how Much Lean is in Today’s “Agile”?

Today there is not as much Lean in Agile anymore as there used to be. As you can see from our discussion, it is our experience and firm belief that putting more Lean back into Agile would create better business outcomes and better working environments. This was the whole reason for the Manifesto for Agile Software Development in the first place.

Consider these questions for your team:

  1. How can you limit your team’s WIP? It doesn’t matter what kind of a team you are. If you don’t have the cognitive load of too much WIP, you will likely achieve better results.
  2. How can you create a board or other visibility into the flow of your work?
  3. Which of your meetings could be improved, replaced with other meetings, or eradicated?
  4. Consider the kinds of coaching your team or management might need. Do you need to learn how to work in your context? Do you need training on specific principles or practices? Do your managers need to learn about Lean principles so they can provide you the best possible environment?
  5. What is your cycle time, lead time, and where does your team see delays for the work items? The more you know about your current circumstances, the easier it is for you to choose alternatives.
  6. Which of these metrics make sense for you? Do some of them not make any sense? What would you need to do to use them, both for your team and your organization?

We hope you will find much more value in applying Lean thinking to your current Agile approach.


Part 1: How Much Lean is in Today’s Agile?

Part 2: Adaptability Enhances How We Work

Part 3: Looking at Systems to Enhance Outcomes.

Part 4: Explain dates to anyone with forecasts based on your historical data

Part 5: A Little Lean Can Create a Whole Lot of Positive Change


About the Authors

These days Michael spends most of his time supporting clients in their quest for more effective ways to work, mostly by applying lean and agile concepts.

He has been running his own company since the mid-80s and moved his focus from implementation to organization in the mid-90s. Working in a all kinds of industries from pure software development companies to public administration, he has not yet seen a project where architecture and processes where not of crucial importance.

He organized several conferences around organizational aspects with regard to software development, plays active roles in community efforts (Limited WIP-Society, iSAQB-Commuinty), is a published Author, a previous editor in chief and a frequent speaker at European conferences.

Johanna Rothman, known as the “Pragmatic Manager,” offers frank advice for your tough problems. She helps leaders and teams do reasonable things that work. Equipped with that knowledge, they can decide how to adapt their product development.

With her trademark practicality and humor, Johanna is the author of 18 books about many aspects of product development. Her most recent books are the Modern Management Made Easy series, From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, and Create Your Successful Agile Project. Find the Pragmatic Manager, a monthly email newsletter, and her blogs at jrothman.com and createadaptablelife.com.


This is an Agile Alliance community blog post. Opinions represented are personal and belong solely to the author. They do not represent opinion or policy of Agile Alliance.

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