Lean or Agile in large service organisations?

Business Improvement consultants work in increasingly complex environments. The recently coined term – VUCA – really does spell it out. Volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. So, I can totally understand that change and improvement need to happen more intuitively, and I totally get the principles of Agile. A couple of examples of these principles from the Agile manifesto are:

  • Business teams and developers must work together daily throughout the project.
  • Effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation

See the full manifesto here

The challenge

I was recently asked to look at how business improvement projects flow from operations into a business unit which has responsibility for making the improvements, and writing new guidance.

The operational area is changing dramatically due to rapid advances in digital technology. People’s roles and responsibilities are changing equally fast. And coordinating all this requires strong yet collaborative leadership. The environment is such that the business improvement teams’ default approach is to jump straight to ‘solution’ mode. They label this Agile, and the approach lacks the steps fundamental to Lean improvement principles. for example, they don’t appear to:

  • Baseline the current cost of the problems
  • Forecast the benefits
  • Establish terms of reference
  • Set clear roles and responsibilities
  • Develop communication plans

By contrast they are taking a more agile approach, working regularly with others, face to face, communicating fairly informally, reaching consensus and launching new processes quickly. Very much along the lines of the Agile manifesto.

However, the risk – in fact, the reality – is that Agile project teams are doing parallel activity all across the organisation, because they don’t have Lean rigour and discipline in place to prevent this happening. It’s sometimes just easier to work in an Agile way than a Lean way – informally, with small teams around us. Lean, when done well challenges us out of this comfortable space and encourages us to use structure, data and evidence to improve and standardise performance across wider teams, more holistically. Difficult and slower to get going, however my recent experience has indicated there are distinct benefits to taking this approach, especially in a large organisation.

Your help

So to all you Agile experts, I have a question. How can an agile approach work effectively across large organisations? Large scale change requires processes to ensure the improvements are fully understood, communicated, implemented and sustained. I’ve drawn up a table setting out my understanding of how Lean improvement works in a large organisation. I’ve attempted to equate this to the equivalent stages in an Agile project. However there are several blanks. Can anyone advise me please? Can you fill in the blanks?

Next steps

I plan to analyse all responses, and encourage the debate. Ultimately I hope to compile or support the compilation of a good practice guide on integrating Lean and Agile principles effectively for large organisations. The solution will need just enough discipline, structure and communication mechanisms to enable innovative, yet controlled change across large organisations. Please let me know if any of you are interested in collaborating.

Further information

During my research for this blog, I came across several articles which compared Agile with Lean, including this one by Thinking Portfolio. Also an APM webinar transcript, proposing a blend of the two approaches.

About Lose the Box

Maureen Whyman is the owner of Lose the Box, a Business Improvement consultancy based in Nottingham, the East Midlands. We blend simple science with creative facilitation, inspiring leaders, managers and teams to work more collaboratively and productively together.

Our unique approach generates confidence and commitment to change and transformation. As success grows, organisations achieve long-lasting improvement, strengthening well-being, skills, and processes for their clients. See testimonials here.

Please contact us on 07824 660 120 or info@losethebox.co.uk for a no-obligation discussion if you think we could be of assistance. 

Follow us on Twitter and Facebook @losethebox.



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