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Blending Lean and Agile for True Transformation

In today's rapidly evolving business landscape, organizations need to be both efficient and adaptable to remain competitive. Lean and Agile methodologies help businesses achieve these goals. Their true potential lies in a carefully balanced blend, a mix that transforms them into something greater than the sum of their parts. In this article, we'll explore how Lean and Agile can work together to achieve results and shed light on the potential benefits of incorporating techniques from change management, Lean Six Sigma, and Kanban.

The Power of Combining Methodologies

Imagine a painter who starts with primary colors, expertly blending and experimenting until they achieve the perfect shade – one that's unique and perfectly suited for their purpose. Contrast this with an artist restricted to a single primary color. Their work may be beautiful, but their options are limited. Similarly, organizations can combine Lean, Agile, and other complementary frameworks based on their specific challenges and goals. This creates a tailored approach that helps them deliver with a focus on the customer and goals of the company. A purist approach, focusing solely on either Lean or Agile, can be restrictive and limiting:

  • Lean: Emerged from the structured world of manufacturing, emphasizing waste reduction and process optimization.
  • Agile: Originated in software development, prioritizing adaptability using iterative
  • Modern Reality: The lines between software and manufacturing are blurring, making flexibility and efficiency equally crucial for success.

Erich Leonard, a Business Agility leader at a global product development and manufacturing company, lives in those blurry lines. He and his organization are using Lean and Agile in a dynamic equilibrium. In their quest for an adaptable and lean operating model, they use elements of Scrum and Scrum@Scale with lean tools.

For example, when systemic impediments are suspected to be slowing the progress of agile teams on product development, Scrum Masters use the A3 process, a tool used in lean, to clearly identify the presenting problem and then systematically measure the current condition, work through the root cause, and create an experiment to test possible countermeasures.

Another example is their volunteer Value Stream Management teams. These teams form with the Scrum accountabilities of the Product Owner, Scrum Master, and Developers and the commitment to a Product Goal. This Product Goal is based on the improvement of a key business process. Instead of just creating a backlog of ideas on how to improve the process, they use Value Stream Management to define the current state of the Value Stream Map. They then measure each step and find a potential bottleneck. It is here that they create a Product Backlog to improve the performance at the bottleneck. With multiple of these teams in flight with dependencies between processes and common stakeholders, they use practices borrowed from Scrum@Scale such as a Product Owner team and Scaled Sprint Reviews to keep the communication effective.

In the complex world of mechatronic manufacturing, there are many suppliers and manufacturing interfaces. Here, agile teams are working with external dependencies that are using many different work processes. In these cases, the use of kanban boards based on the desired flow of work, the use of WIP limits, pull, and flow metrics helps to create higher levels of predictability amidst a large amount of uncertainty.

One final example is in what Erich calls coaching engagements. These include workshops where business leaders have a problem or opportunity that needs a solution. Here A3’s are used throughout the planning process to define the business leader’s challenge, the current conditions, and the desired future state. This helps the Agile Coach define their facilitation plan and the tools that they may need to have ready for the workshop to be a success. At the end of the workshop, the learnings can be added to the standard work for other coaches to consider for future workshops.

Potential Pitfalls of Combining Methodologies

While combining methodologies brings incredible promise, it's crucial to be aware of potential challenges:

  • Complexity: Integrating multiple frameworks can create layers of complexity. Start with a clear understanding of your core problems and introduce new concepts incrementally. Practitioner Advice: Erich has found that starting with an explicit practice, like Scrum, helps stakeholders gain familiarity. The team can then pair that practice with one or two complimentary practices that address their expressed pain points to accelerate the change.
  • Conflicting Priorities: Lean's emphasis on reducing waste can sometimes appear at odds with Agile's iterative approach. Maintaining a focus on customer value helps align these objectives. Practitioner Advice: Erich suggests engaging stakeholders in a mapping exercise for the Product Goal continuing to involve them on a set cadence. When feedback alters the direction, even in a small way, share the observation so people see how iterations with feedback enhance the outcome.
  • Cultural Resistance: Large-scale change can face resistance. Strong leadership support, clear communication, and consistent feedback from those doing the work is essential. Practitioner Advice: Form a small Leadership Action Team (LAT) that communicates a clear strategic vision of the future efficient and adaptable organization. Create a regular cadence for engagement directly with the teams practicing with Lean and Agile. Then create and monitor metrics that inform you of your progress toward the vision and communicate key points at all levels.

Unlocking Further Excellence: The Potential of Blending

  • Change Management Integration: Before implementing new frameworks, understand your organizational culture. Communicate with teams using their language, involve key problem-solvers early, and empower leaders to focus on finding workable solutions rather than prescribing rigid answers. Change management smooths the transition.
  • Lean Six Sigma's Impact: Lean Six Sigma provides a set of analytical tools aimed at reducing variation and defects. When used in conjunction with Lean-Agile, organizations can further enhance efficiency, boost quality, and drive continuous improvement within their iterative cycles where there’s too much variation.
  • The Role of Coaching: Coaching techniques are invaluable in successful transformations. They guide teams through change, support the adoption of new methodologies, and foster a resilient, adaptive culture.

Blending Lean and Agile is a journey of discovery. Organizations willing to experiment, focus relentlessly on customer needs, and trust their teams will reap the rewards. Use familiar concepts as stepping-stones, explore potentially compatible frameworks and always tailor solutions to suit your specific context.

Remember, the most powerful blend is the one that brings you closer to realizing your organization's unique vision.