I have been an Agile practitioner for many years now, and was one of the early adopters of Lean thinking and Kanban for software teams. During that time I have observed remarkable improvements at the worker level, at the team level, and at the program level.
However what I haven’t seen when using these methods is a real change in management thinking, which has left me curious.
I am fortunate that over the last few years I have been able to hear opinions and stories from a community of Agile, Lean and Kanban practitioners; in those conversations I have seen a pattern.
People tell me that having applied either Agile, Lean, or Kanban, or some combination of the three, it has led to great results at the individual, project team and program level, matching my own experiences. We see many of these examples being written in books, presented at conferences, posted on blogs and message boards. All good.
People then go on to tell me (usually in the corridors at conferences, or over a drink at the bar, or over email) that it isn’t as successful as they would have liked, because they have been hindered by management; they tell me “management doesn’t understand the benefits” or “it’s the fault of the managers not to get it“. There is lots of talk of “bloody middle management” or the “frozen middle (management)”.
I hear of many Agile, Lean, or Kanban interventions that begin at the team level, starting off successfully, but which then bump into management who either kill it, limit it, or do nothing to help improve it.
People complain to me that “the Product Owner never shows up to the planning sessions or standups” or that “the stakeholders and managers never show up at the product demos or showcases” or that “they just don’t understand what will happen if we don’t pay down some of our technical debt”, or that “the management have received training but their behaviour hasn’t changed, they still do what they used to do before”.
I’m told thing like “managers still want us to be seen as busy all the time”, or “management has promised it will be delivered on a certain date without consulting us”.
Even those Agile, Lean or Kanban interventions that have executive IT support struggle to go beyond IT. I’m told that “the business isn’t engaged” or that “the business can’t dedicate someone to our team” or that “the business just doesn’t understand the benefits this will give them”. They also tell me that “Procurement are hindering us” or that “Finance and the budgeting process is hindering us” or that “It doesn’t fit within HR’s role profiles”.
Here is such a good video summing all of this up
People tell me “if only they would change, then everything would work as I want it to”.
Thought leaders tell me that making the work visible will provide transparency and an environment of honesty. This in turn will build trust with stakeholders and management. Transparency could mean a story wall, a Kanban board, published policies, information radiators, charts, metrics, data, product demos etc.
From my observations this new visibility has certainly increased awareness, and increased dialogue, but I have not seen too much evidence of it changing management’s underlying assumptions about the design and the management of the work. “Showing” isn’t the same as learning.
I hear from other practitioners that after they have left an organisation things start to revert back to how they were before, often not a complete reversal but certainly a back slide.
What I have learned through these conversations is that regardless of whether you are using Agile, Lean or Kanban it’s the underlying thinking; management thinking, that needs to be addressed. All of these methods are only as good as the thinking behind them.
I am curious if you have seen the same observations I have listed above, have experienced the same limitations, or have you experienced a change in management thinking via the use of Agile, Lean and Kanban. What other positive results have seen from your usage of Agile, Lean and Kanban beyond the team level and where do you see their limitations?
As a footnote, my curiosity into all of this has led me to search for the roots of traditional management thinking. I have made some amazing discoveries. These will be published shortly in a series of Webisodes on this blog.