Every so often I get myself to a place where I start accepting Agile as a sensible, sound way of doing things, as an effective industry-specific implementation/reinvention of a number of Lean principles, reaching towards one piece flow and pull systems, and coming up with stunning pragmatic countermeasures to the problems that this raises.

And then, almost regularly as clockwork, the Agile movement disappoints me with this kind of thing. Like most simplistic rhetoric, it shows itself up as childish and, worse, failing in its objective through pushing away the very people it seeks to help.

What’s going through my mind as I read that is the contrasting approach of Lean thinking:  

The words of Toyota Chairman Fujio Cho, “Go see, ask why, show respect” are now famous as basic lean principles.

lean.org

No-one taking this seriously would publish anything describing an organisation as “Half-Arsed” even if privately thinking so.  

To that, I’d add Jim Womack’s definition of the Lean community: those who sincerely want to make things better. ‘The Half Arsed Agile Manifesto’ doesn’t read to me as written by anyone who meets that definition. Rather than understanding and helping enterprises move closer to the ideal, it seems to be profoundly counterproductive by rejecting any improvement that doesn’t reach perfection.

Just because an organisation doesn’t meet your personal definition of purity doesn’t make it half-arsed. Talking about enterprises in general really does imply that you’re working on assumptions, not specific situations where you have respectfully gone to Gemba and understood. I may be mistaken, but it reads as though written by someone who hasn’t any history in working in enterprises, or hasn’t grasped what that environment is about. 

Agile is easy when there are 10 of you in one room. Sometimes its rhetoric comes across as a fantasy that all software is written like that. Perhaps enterprises (or at least some of them – and the more regulated they are, the more true this is) have constraints you don’t understand or appreciate. Go and see. Ask why. Show respect.

Even enterprises without those constraints can’t and don’t change instantly just because you show up with some bright ideas. Embedding sustainable cultural change in an enterprise takes years, and in some cases is near impossible. Respect those working within that slowness to change. Go and see. Ask why.

If an enterprise is on the path towards your ideal, you should encourage them, not mock them. Show respect.

If today is a bit closer than yesterday, that’s not half-arsed. That’s progress. Respect that progress. What are the blockers to moving closer tomorrow? Go and see. Ask why.

Most annoyingly because of the hope it offers, the article it was based on was thoughtful while being provocative. It starts from the premise of “…to be Agile…” and challenges those who claim to be so without assuming it’s universally axiomatic. It also has the maturity of having actually gone to Gemba a few times, and sought understanding. 

That’s how to be a gadfly.

Now, the next step is to do the Lean improvement.

Go beyond “We can’t because” and move to the Socratic challenge of “how can you do face to face conversations — or get the same outcome by a different means — when your developers are on Mars and that’s hard to change?” and “Why can’t you have effective communication without being less than 3m apart?” And listen to the answers.

Go and see. Show respect. Ask why.

Manifestos are great as historical definitional, aspirational documents. They’re no good whatsoever as an acceptability threshold.

Agilista writers: up your rhetorical game.

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Martin Burns

Transformation Consultant at CA Inc (formerly Rally)
Previously: Leader of software delivery portfolios in large scale orgs.
Specialism: Transforming complex delivery organisations to be more Lean/Agile.
Mindset: Continuous Improvement Obsessive
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CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 (Some) Agilistas: Still Not Yet Lean Thinkers by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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