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Jim Benson


Lean and Agile: The Catch

Tracking our own failure rate and learning the harder lesson

Published: Tuesday, June 2, 2020 - 12:02

I hear this lament from new practitioners to seasoned veterans: Why isn’t our (insert school of workflow management here) transformation working?

Time and again I see coaches focus on the “deficiencies” of their clients or their companies. If only they would just focus! They don’t do what they say they would! They can’t be bothered to do their homework! All we asked them to do was...

We wonder why our LeanAgileSigmaPrinceEtc transitions are unsuccessful.

It’s simple: We started operating before we stabilized the patient.

Feedback loops are only as powerful as our ability to observe.

This is hard for both coaches and practitioners of lean and its derivatives because it’s easy to teach mechanisms and believe that mechanisms are the path to deeper understanding. Whether those mechanisms are A3s, Fibonacci spreads, 6S, timeboxing, gemba walks, DMAIC, or retrospectives, these are tools used to express value, not the value itself.

It’s painfully predictable. We go straight for the components of the system without knowing what system we need to help build. We remain comfortable in our complacent cocoons—coaching, but neither consulting nor caring. Giving nudges but no guidance. We want them to build their systems on their own.

That’s what we’re supposed to do, right? Not tell them but help them build systems they own and can sustain? And right now you are like, “Yes! That’s it!” So, why is it not working in the vast majority of cases?

We don’t listen to the ample messages out there from leaders in organization design, behavioral economics, or that Deming guy who say that maybe, just maybe, improvement happens in context.

W. Edwards Deming, above statistical process control, above his 14 Points, described successful companies as having constancy of purpose. In his System of Profound Knowledge, he listed four elements of a true system, the last and most important being an understanding of psychology.

Please read the preceding paragraph again.

Companies are made of people, and those people require a purpose. That purpose is their context.

Not vague notions of purpose or more smiling-through-things-not-related-to-work, but actual purpose of what are we doing and why? Who are we working for? How is the world changed by our actions today? Are we professionally and personally satisfied with that change? Why did we get into this profession to begin with?

That sort of stuff. All simultaneously aspirational and functional.

But here’s the thing. Coaches tend to arrive with their box of solutions, they tend to say they want to help you “get the mindset,” and in the end focus on what’s in the box more than who is sitting around the table.

A solution

We need to do what we preach. We need to go to the gemba, to listen to the voice of the customer, and to give a damn about the actual people, the actual professionals sitting with us. Why are they there? Why have we come to have these conversations? What do they do every day? What do they like to do? What sends them home depressed? What makes a good day better than other days?

And you need to go to the gemba for real. To take the time to understand what the company really does, for whom they do it, how it goes well, how it blows up. You need to find their constancy of purpose.

And the bad news? You need to care. Not because they need a hug, but because they need your creativity and your initial ideas of how to solve problems. You need to apply whatever little tools in your little toolbox to their monstrously big problems. You do not need to just teach them a tool.

This is difficult. But the people in the systems we encounter are buried in work, in politics, in regular breakdowns, and in overwhelming potential. Except in very rare circumstances, they cannot dig their way out of their holes on their own. They actually need your help.

Go... help.

First published June 10, 2019, on Medium.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.