Lean Thinking

04 October 2016

Principles Part 5 - Self Similarity

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We have now covered six principles -
They are built around small, self-organising teams

  • The team has a clear vision of what they are doing and where they fit into the bigger picture
  • The team has a well defined backlog of work
  • There is a content authority responsible for making sure decisions are made quickly
  • There is a clear bidirectional service agreement between the team and the rest of the organisation
  • There is a fast feedback loop that allows the team and organisation to optimise both the process and the product.

At this point we have everything we need to enable a team to operate in a really agile way. The team doesn't need anything else. So why are there seven principles?

The seventh principle isn't a team principle. It's a scaling principle. Very few organisations are able to deliver real value with a single team so the last principle kicks in when you don't have just one team but a team of teams, or a hierachy of teams all working together to deliver value. The first 6 principles define how you should set up your teams, the seventh principle defines how you should link them together -

  • The organisation should be self similar at scale

There are two ways an organisation can handle scale. They can do what most organisations do and add extra complexity to their processes to handle the extra complexity of scale or they can develop a simple pattern (like teams operating under the first 6 principles) that works and iterate that in a self similar way to operate at scale. Add complexity through extra processes or iterate simplicity through self similarity.

What do I mean by self similarity? It's pretty much what it says on the tin - each level in the organisation should look and operate in a very similar way to the ones above and below. If the bottom layer of the hierarchy (or the end of the value stream if the organisation is organised that way) looks like a team of teams fed by a product owner team working off a single backlog of small pieces of work, then the next level up (or in front of them in the value stream) should look like a team of product owners being fed by a business team, working off a single backlog of larger pieces of work. Or something like that.

Importantly, if your bottom level delivery teams operate using the other 6 principles, then so should the teams ahead of them in the value stream. And the teams ahead of them, and so on across the whole value stream. This means that the feedback loops and service agreements the team has in place can be extended to cover the value stream end to end (or the hierarchy top to bottom). This lets the organisation do end to end feedback, learning and improvement across the whole value stream, not just at the team level. It also means that the organisation has an end to end service agreement where everyone from the delivery folks on the teams right up to the most senior managers know what is expected of them in order for the organisation to deliver value.

The organisation now has a single, end to end mechanism for feedback and improvement, rather than the maze of interconnected, overlapping and mutually incompatible systems and processes it probably has in place now. The organisation can now spend time actually learning rather than just shuffling issues around between various systems.

This self similarity also has another benefit - it makes the organisation easier to navigate. How many organisations have you worked for where the policies and procedures for running, say, a project were completely different (and even contradictory) to those for running a large program? Different tools, different processes, different funding cycles, different reporting, different governance structures, different escalation paths and so on. Every team or group within the organisation is engaged in a different way with different cutoff dates and different processes. Every level of management interacts with the rest of the organisation in a different way.

Large organisations can be very difficult to navigate because they do not do things in a consistent way as you move along the value stream (or up the hierarchy). This leads to all sorts of waste and inefficiency. In some organisations there are teams of people employed (often called business project managers or engagement managers) just to navigate the maze. One team of teams that I coached had a whole team dedicated to this. Out of 7 teams, one full team did nothing but engage other teams within the organisation to get stuff done. That's pretty close to 15% of the group's effort that went into managing this lack of consistency. You can quantify the cost of this and it can be huge.

It's not just the cost. Information also gets lost as it moves through the maze. Issues need to be moved from one issue tracking system to another in order to escalate. Feedback gets lost. Information gets massaged and manipulated by people who want their area to look good compared to others. Things fall through the cracks and get lost. Some organisations have so many cracks that barely any information is able to flow around the organisation at all. All this has a direct impact on the organisation's ability to deliver end to end value.

Delivering value in a large organisation can be extremely difficult because of this lack of self similarity. Coordinating large numbers of different groups, all with different processes, means that the organisation spends most of its time shuffling information around and making sure that it doesn't fall through the many gaps. It doesn't have much time left over to actually deliver value. The system is just too complex to work efficiently (or at all).

Self similarity at scale is an organising principle that allows a large organisation to free itself from the constraints of complexity. It enables scale by iterating a simple pattern rather than by adding extra complexity.

That wraps up my 7 principles. 6 principles for organising teams -

  • Small, self-organising teams
  • The team has a clear vision of what they are doing and where they fit into the bigger picture
  • The team has a well defined backlog of work
  • There is a content authority responsible for making sure decisions are made quickly
  • There is a clear bidirectional service agreement between the team and the rest of the organisation
  • There is a fast feedback loop that allows the team and organisation to optimise both the process and the product.

And one principle for organising organisations at scale -

  • The organisation should be self similar at scale

By following these principles, an organisation of any size should be able to develop ways of working that allow them to focus on delivering real value. They should be able to develop ways of working that allow them to be agile.

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