For businesses, Agile is the new fashionable initiative as was E-business was in the 2000’s, Six Sigma was in the 90’s and Total Quality Management (TQM) was in the 80’s. If we look back across the spectrum of these initiatives, we need to examine how many of these initiatives met the goals the business was looking for and, more importantly, if they were fully adopted, remembering that many were derailed, did they deliver the value the business was seeking?
Of course we cannot answer this question with generalities—it’s a spectrum. For some businesses, these initiatives were red herrings, some did not follow through to completion, but certain changes adopted as part of these initiatives had a very positive impact, while others succeeded wildly. It’s a Harvard Business Review case study as to why a business ended up at the point on the spectrum that they did.
Clearly, one fundamental aspect that is consistent across all these initiatives is the ability for a business to embrace change. In a previous blog, “Cloud Computing, DevOps and Business Velocity,” I addressed the issue of business velocity—the rate at which an organization can embrace a particular disruptive technology change. Underestimating your business’ ability to adopt a new technology or process will most likely have a strong negative impact on the outcome. In a recent conversation with a client, the non-IT business areas has been very successful at adopting lean practices, but IT short-circuited shortly after starting. It didn’t outright fail, but after a strong start, they took a break from which they never started back up. Without a post-mortem, we don’t know why this specific initiative fell flat, but we can intimate that if something is difficult and feels unnatural, we’re more easily able to focus our attention elsewhere—think dieting and exercise programs in your own life.
This seems to be the decade of Agility. Businesses want to be more dynamic and fluid. They want the organization to be prepared to respond to market changes more quickly, introduce new products faster, and respond to problems that occur more rapidly. To accomplish this goal, the business will have to let go of some of the ways that they do things today. They will have to re-engineer processes to be more compose-able and componentized so that they are less static. For example, a manufacturer goes through a lot of planning to deliver a new product to market. They go through steps for design, prototype, test, source, manufacture and distribute. The entire cycle may take upwards of a year and is highly automated once it reaches the manufacture stage. Tweaking the product between batches would cause significant delays and pain because the process is static. It effectively amounts to restarting the entire cycle. So, what if they discovered that by simply elongating the body by 2 cm the product was far more useful their intended audience? In this case, agility might equate to being able to complete the design-to-manufacture process faster.
In the previous example, this latter step of being able to tweak the product is called continuous improvement and is a key element of fostering agility. If a product isn’t selling well in the market, many companies will just abandon the product completely due to the costs associated with making the product viable. The reason being that most manufacturers consider that each product is a project and when it reaches the manufacturing stage it moves under the control of operations. That is, the creative team that includes marketing, finance, and other stakeholders view their position as “completed” with regard to getting that product to market and they then move onto other projects. With this mindset, there’s no room for the group to review the process, think about how it could have been done better and then iterate with the improvements incorporated. Hence, they just keep taking their “this is the way we do it” to the next project.
Being agile means being able to control the flow. There’s no way to change how products come to market if there’s a culture of accepting finality once a product has reached a certain point in the cycle.
The other aspect of controlling the flow is managing how products and services enter and exit the development pipeline. I spend a lot of my time helping IT organizations unlock their potential to deliver by helping them to understand that there’s only so much that can be done to improve managing the work-in-progress (WIP). The only way to make gains beyond a certain point is to enable transparency with those that are responsible for inserting work into the pipeline or who are demanding that work completes and exits the pipeline at a certain time.
The following two figures express well the reason transparency is a requirement. I believe most people would agree that managing production is a far easier task in Figure 1 than Figure 2. In Figure 1, there is one input and one expected output. Managing WIP for this pipeline is a matter of optimizing just the process for completing that one deliverable. In Figure 2, there are many more variables at work. There could be contention for resources within the pipeline to support the multiple inputs.
Likewise, there may be a request to reprioritize what gets completed when to meet certain business goals. Perhaps a particular report is required urgently to support a key business decision. I personally dealt with this very scenario when the business I was working for years ago was suddenly engaging in acquiring another company. All focus was transferred to producing the needed financial statements and everything else was put on the backlog. In that particular case, the CEO and CFO were the customer, so no one questioned the delays to their projects, but for many IT organizations reprioritization requests are never that clear making it very difficult to manage the control of the flow. Hence, transparency and communication between those consuming the services of the pipeline and those who own the control of the flow of the pipeline is an imperative for agility.
Like TQM, Six Sigma, and E-Business, Agility will require changes to the fundamental way that a business operates. An analogy of this process can be as benign as a person recovering from knee surgery or as complex as recovering from a stroke depending upon what the business wants to accomplish and how they are organized currently. Along the way, people will most likely be the biggest hurdles to success.
When change of this magnitude occurs, employees tend to become very myopic of their own situation. To mitigate this risk, it is critical that changes are reviewed with employees prior to change, during implementation and after the change is enacted. Management must gauge if employees are struggling because the complexity of the change or because they personally don’t agree with the change. The former can be overcome with education and support while the latter should be dealt with quickly through removal.
Businesses can succeed with their Agility initiatives given they identify and mitigate key risk factors prior to starting and are willing to commit to looking critically at the way they have been operating the business. In agile software development, developers are trained to think about ways their code can break and then write unit tests to ensure that the software is sustainable in light of these possibilities. Creating an agile business means looking at ways to ensure sustainability in light of market changes, new competitors, supplier changes, and changing customer demands.