Don’t escalate impediments.

Instead send managers to join daily standup meetings to unblock impediments, develop servant leaders and evolve a Lean culture.

Principle/Assumption

Impediments should be resolved as close to the place where it is felt as possible.

When a working team finds an impediment inside their sphere of influence, then they should resolve it. Effective Lean/Agile organisations will very much enable and encourage that to happen. However, when they perceive an impediment to lie outwith their sphere of influence, they will typically need help, and have a route to access it.

In command and control organisations, this will either be refused, or will disappear off, to either be resolved, or alternatively never heard from again. Organisations who have accepted the Empowerment way of working however sometimes display a tendency to simply reflect back requests for help to the requester:

Sometimes, asking for help may not bring the results you need.

Sometimes, asking for help may not bring the results you need.

Empowering the team is great, and most definitely teaches the team to take responsibility where it can, and to exploit opportunities when they arise. Like the time you run into someone from the platforms team at the coffee machine, and you need help from them.

Observation: Leadership Participation is Sometimes Needed
But sometimes, you genuinely do need participation from someone with wider context and/or greater authority to unblock impediments. And in that situation, simply being told that you are empowered is frustrating, because it clearly is not true.

The approach often suggested is using a co-ordination meeting – the Scrum of Scrums. In this pattern, each team sends a representative to meet with their peers from other teams. Certainly this can facilitate the coffee machine meeting with related teams, and is less unwieldy than having the entire network of people attending one meeting.

But unless you’re thoughtful and flexible about who that representative is, you’re still sending the impediment off into the clouds away from whoever is actually experiencing it.

So how about this:

Reverse the Polarity: Put Managers into the Working Teams’ Standup

Every manager attends at least one standup every day. As a minimum (but not a constraint) this should cover all the teams within their reporting line over time.

While attending the standup, the manager and team/individual experiencing impediments use the coaching opportunity to genuinely:

  1. Expose problems and ensure that the manager is truly aware of the situation at the workplace
  2. Ensure that impediments occurring cross teams are highlighted to a role that has greater context to see and authority do something about them
  3. Establish whether the team/individual really is empowered to resolve any given impediment, clearly giving the authority as well as the authority
  4. Guide and actively facilitate & sponsor a meeting with someone who can help (the coffee machine discussion above, or possibly a more senior level of management)
  5. Understand the impediment better and think through alternative ideas &amp: ways of resolving the impediment
  6. Enable the manager to take on resolving the impediment and visibly make a commitment to do so
  7. Develop joint problemsolving abilities

This uses the strengths and abilities of both manager and team-member(s) as illustrated by Jim Womack:

A lean management system involves managers at every level framing the key problems that need to be solved and asking the teams they lead to discover and implement the answers.

Jim Womack, Gemba Walks

The manager can’t solve the problem alone, because the manager isn’t close enough to the problem to know the facts. But the employee can’t solve the problem alone either, because he or she is often too close to the issue to see its context and may refrain from asking tough questions about his or her own work.

Only by showing mutual respect is it possible to solve problems and move organisational performance to an ever-higher level.

Jim Womack, Gemba Walks

Now to achieve this, you may have to do something about the Pigs and Chickens nonsense often used to keep managers at bay (the parable is useful with observers of course). And it may take time to establish trust that the manager is actually there to help.

Lean Management systems create Lean Cultures

Lean Management Systems create Lean Cultures

Sending managers to where the work is (“Go and See” behaviour) as part of a Lean Management System is a powerful way of both tactically unblocking impediments and developing a Lean Culture. Both of which should result in more effective work and happier people.

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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 Scrum of Scrums: Reverse the Polarity by Martin Burns is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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