Lean Thinking

Dave Martin  

Dave Martin

We have all heard about organisations that have successfully made the transition to an agile way of working. Some of us may even know someone who knows someone who says they worked at one once. But much like sightings of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot or the Tasmanian Tiger, most of these claims evaporate under even basic scrutiny. Now, I know there are agile organisations out there. Organisations that have been born in the agile age and have been built from the ground up with agile principles in mind. I'm not talking about those organisations.

I'm talking about the old, legacy organisations. The ones with decades of process and culture to remake. The ones we are always being told (mostly in press releases or flashy conference presentations) are transforming themselves into new, agile organisations. Shedding the baggage of the past and embracing the bright, agile future. But scratch the surface and how many have actually managed to transform themselves? "But transformation is hard", I hear you say. "It takes time and many organisations just haven't had time to complete the job. What you ask isn't fair". And indeed, transformation is hard so let's relax the criteria a bit - how many organisations have actually managed to establish even the start of a real agile culture?

We have all heard the story of the hyperproductive team. That beautiful creation that is 400% more effective that regular teams. The team that never stops getting better. But how many of us have actually seen such a thing in the flesh? I have been lucky enough to see one or two but most teams never reach those lofty heights. Why? Is it because we have the wrong people? Not smart enough? Not talented enough? Not committed enough? I don't think so. I have seen very talented teams struggle while teams that had much less raw talent went on to do great things. Although talent helps, there is no guarantee that a talented team will become hyperproductive and a less talented team will not.

Is it the methodology they use? Is scrum the recipe for hyperproductive teams? Is it Kanban? Crystal? SAFe? Less? Again, none of these things seem to matter. I have seen teams struggle and succeed with all methodologies. So what is it then that allows some teams to become hyperproductive? In my experience, there is one thing that allowed my hyperproductive teams to become hyperproductive - they are parts of hyperproductive organisations. The hyperproductive team is a myth.

When a team in an organisation decides to do something a bit different (like adopting agile), the rest of the organisation tends to push back and force the team to conform to the normal way of doing things. A team, isolated and on their own, can only resist that pressure for so long until they have to give in. It's like standing outside in a thunderstorm - sooner or later you will get so uncomfortable that you will have to retreat to shelter.

But what if you could take some shelter with you? Something like an umbrella perhaps? It's not exactly comfortable standing under an umbrella in a raging storm but it will let you withstand the elements for longer than you could if you didn't have one. This is what we do in organisations when we start to engage leaders. When the team's leader gets engaged with the change, they can provide some shelter to the team. They become the team's umbrella. But as anyone who has stood outside with an umbrella in a storm will know, the protection they provide is limited at best. We need something better.

We've all been there. We know that there is a better way to do what we are doing. There has to be. The universe isn't cruel enough for this to be the only way. If only you had a few minutes to think about the problem you are sure you could come up with something much better. Problem is, you don't have a few minutes. You are flat out trying to get whatever it is you are doing, done. And because the way you are doing it is inefficient, it's taking ages and you are already at risk of missing your deadline. You just have to keep going and hope you have some time once it's finished to work out a better way for next time. Of course that never happens because the next task is also inefficient and so that time to improve never materialises.

As AA Milne said in Winnie The Pooh -

“Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. It is, as far as he knows, the only way of coming downstairs, but sometimes he feels that there really is another way, if only he could stop bumping for a moment and think of it."

Welcome to the improvement paradox.

03 October 2017

Teams As An Ideal Gas

I have a confession to make. I'm a bit of a physics nerd. Actually that's not true. I'm a huge physics nerd. I'm not a trained physicist, I'm an engineer by training (which is pretty close...BTW that loud noise you just heard was a bunch of physicists' heads exploding at the thought of being compared to an engineer) but I have always loved physics. All that sets the stage for my next sentence - I was reading an article the other day on ideal gases (as you do) and suddenly thought that gases make a great metaphor for our teams. Stick with me on this...

An ideal gas is a construct physicists use to better understand the behaviour of real gases. Real gases are messy and awkward and do some strange things (like heat up when you compress them) which make studying them difficult. An ideal gas is a conceptual model of a gas that you can use to infer the behaviour of a real gas. In an ideal gas, you assume that the particles that make up the gas are free to move without impediments and when they interact, they do so in a perfectly elastic collision - both particles rebound and go about their business with no loss of energy. The speed of the particles is related entirely to the temperature of the gas. The hotter the gas the faster they move. This also makes an ideal gas a model of an ideal team.


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