Dear Mr. Clarke: What Do You Mean by “Lean and Agile?”

In an email intercepted by the Associated Press last week, GM North America President Troy Clarke said, “In these unprecedented times, GM is reinventing every aspect of our business, including our organizational size and structure, to create a lean and agile company.” I immediately started wondering what Clarke meant by “lean and agile.” Ultimately, everybody wants a lean and agile company (and physique for that matter). The opposite of lean and agile would be fat and slothful. No one is going to aim to develop a fat and slothful company. It’s easy to use “lean and agile” as buzz terms, and I often wonder whether folks who use those terms really understand how much discipline, strength, and dedication it takes to really be lean and agile. Just like with our bodies, getting an organization in shape is no small task, especially if it’s ballooned out of control. And of course, it’s impossible if we don’t even know what lean and agile means!

If you think you want to be lean and agile and you think you want to do it with Scrum, I need to ask you some questions:

1. Before you try using Scrum, how are things going now? If things are going just fine and you’re producing great products with no problems, don’t change a thing. Keep doing what you’re doing.

2. Are you ready to consider changing major practices of your organization? Are your employees and managers (at least on the pilot team) ready to change the way they plan, meet, review things, release product, document, test, design, express requirements, do reporting, etc.?

3. Can you bravely face impediments that might be really scary – employees you like who might be under-performing, reports that give you comfort that are no longer part of the framework, micromanagement activities that give you a sense of control that you can no longer do in this agile world?

4. Are you willing to make reasonable, up-front investments in training, technology, and people to become agile? Botching your first attempt could be a good learning experience but with “just enough” of a push from tools, training, and people, you increase your chances of success sooner rather than later. In today’s world failure is not an option. You have to make every effort to do it right the first time. Are you willing to make the smart investments to be successful?

5. Do you have a reasonable amount of patience? Real change takes time. Do you have the patience to watch pilot efforts develop best practices and naturally scale from those successes? Just enough patience is necessary – demanding that an elephant become agile will not make it a gazelle overnight.

6. Do you invite failure? Inviting failure is good because it means people are testing the boundaries of their skills and pushing themselves to do things just outside of their comfort zone. We want to invite just enough failure and make it safe to fail at reasonable “stretches” of folks’ competence in order to get them to grow and be better. We want to fail small and often rather than big at the end of a project. Early failure lets us stretch our abilities, learn from our mistakes and constantly improve.

7. Can you relax in conflict? Passionate, invested teams pushing themselves to the boundaries of potential and just a half step further will have conflict. That conflict will allow your organization to grow and thrive but conflict-averse managers will stifle it.

8. Do you have respect for people and faith in them? People are not resources. Chances are your company is filled with incredibly competent people who come with a life, a family, friends, demands outside of work, and a drive to do their best job. People want to be successful at what they do, not just because of financial reward, but because success is its own reward. If, rather than spending time managing them to make sure they’re not slacking off, you can inspire them to do their best possible work, you’re on the right track.

Ultimately, the pinnacle of agility is an organization with a clear vision, where every employee feels inspired to achieve and confident they will because they know they have your support. So Mr. Clarke, is this what you mean by agility? If so, it sounds like a really big job, so why don’t you come to our class in Ann Arbor and check it out? http://www.danube.com/courses/290 Remember, leanness and agility are just adjectives that describe such an organization. So let us show you how to get there with Scrum!

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Posted in Agile
3 comments on “Dear Mr. Clarke: What Do You Mean by “Lean and Agile?”
  1. Bryan says:

    I really liked your list. So often people want a quick fix, but are not willing to make fundamental changes, are not willing to trust people, are not illing to “invite failure” and don’t have the patience for real change.

    Bravo for pointing this out!
    — Bryan

  2. Katie Playfair says:

    @Bryan
    Allowing failure was one of the hardest concepts for me to internalize (Ok it still is sometimes). Especially when you’ve been the hero in past projects, to train yourself to let go, not rush into save the day at the expense of yourself and everyone else’s learning, and accept that the consequences of failure are probably not life-or-death, at least not on the little things, is such a challenge.

    Much like Scrum, learning to allow failure, learning and improvement to happen is a gradual process. Start small. Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? 🙂

  3. srinivas chillara says:

    @Katie Playfair
    Also it helps to note, that it was possibly burnt in a day. If anything Scrum actually makes it easier to handle failure, because we can contain the failure to a sprint or two. The chances that the whole gigantic project is a failure is much reduced.

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