Some Top Enterprise Impediments

I have had several conversations on this topic lately, so I thought I would post some thoughts. Actually, this will take several posts. (And one could argue that many earlier posts are also about this topic.)

My aim in the comments below is to identify and describe the main impediments that are most typical in a large enterprise. Occasionally, I will speculate or comment on the source of the problem in my experience. While the descriptions may suggest ways of addressing these impediments, proposing a full course of action is not a goal here. First one must identify the real problem.

Word of caution: These may not be your top impediments. The way I look at it, nothing is perfect and everything is an impediment to some degree. But, you need to identify your top impediments today…so you can improve them now. Use the comments below with caution.

Top Management

Top Management itself can be the top impediment. What do we mean by this? Several things. First, top management may in effect oppose the change. Ex: Proclamations that imply a waterfall approach to work.

Does top management clearly support the change? This may be at least a point of confusion to middle managers and performers. In most firms, some people have more courage if they know they are doing things that are generally in the flow of top management’s direction. Ex: Statements that repeatedly mention the core benefits of Lean-Agile will enable greater courage.

Next, does Top Management really understand the change? Understand it well? Surprisingly perhaps, the first two points do not require that top management really understand Lean-Agile well at all. This point means they understand it, and they ideally have executed some work using the core methods. Therefore, they have a chance of accurately coaching wayward participants in the new approaches.

There are other related issues addressed later.

Command & Control Culture

It continues to surprise me that “management” does not understand that Lean-Agile does not take a “command & control” view of people. To me, the choice is very simple: are people free or are they slaves? If they are free, then one must lead them, pull them, respect them. And not push them, boss them, and micro-manage them. If they should be slaves, then clearly workers need to be bossed and micro-managed.

Often, whether Top Management is aware or not, “management” (I am thinking of middle managers here) are using a command and control culture to run the shop to a large degree. These power dynamics can cripple the Lean-Agile adoption.

Now, I do not mean to propose a full laissez-faire view of people. “They are good and I don’t need to manage them at all.” To me, this also is a silly notion. One must be adult and realistic. We lead, we ask, and we pull. But, occasionally we must decide a person is not making it. Occasionally, we must keep asking questions about why work is not done. (There can be lots of reasons, and a small share of them are about the person, not just “the system”, as Deming has said.)

Culture and attitudes of thinking take time to move and change. Top Management, who is always ultimately responsible for a successful change, must expect these movements to take time. This particularly applies to a Command-and-Control culture; this will not change (and stay changed) based on one top management declaration. (Yes, “I command that a command-and-control culture end immediately” does seem almost laughable.)

Lean-Agile viewed as a Technology initiative

Lean-Agile is really not about delivering software.  In my opinion, there are no “technical successes”. Business Value is delivered or not. The customer’s problem is solved (or partially solved) or it is not.

So, every time someone thinks of Lean-Agile as a Technology initiative, that is an impediment to their proper thinking. And the proper execution of Lean-Agile. This manifests itself in many ways.

Delivering business value of course requires daily interaction between Business and Technology people. If Business people hear that Lean-Agile is a Technology initiative, they immediately assume that their role in it is minor.

Perhaps more to the point, solving problems requires the creation of knowledge in some combination of business and technology domains. So, almost by definition, half of the problems in creating this knowledge have to do with the business side. If the Business people do not own Lean-Agile as a means to solving business problems, then many of the most meaningful productivity increases are unlikely to occur.

In any case, Lean-Agile is trying to help solve the Business problem of how to deliver more business value. So, by definition, it should be a Business initiative.

More impediments to follow. Your comments on these are welcome.


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4 thoughts on “Some Top Enterprise Impediments

  1. Robin Dymond

    Executive management in companies drive a set of behaviors with their direct reports. The effects of these behaviors often cascade down through the organization. Shrewd middle managers in a traditional environment spend time and effort “managing up” and stop some of the less productive requests/behaviors at their level, however many do not. I believe much of this is driven by the opacity and inefficiency of the system and heirarchy in which many people work. The NUMMI plant went from being GM’s worst plant when it was shut down to being the best plant after adopting the Toyota Production System (Lean). What radical improvements are possible if organizations fully adopt Lean and Agile principles and practices? MBA school doesn’t emphasize or teach systems thinking, the Deming wheel, TPS, or Agile. Maybe its time to change the curriculum, and for managers to learn new skills.

    Good post Joe!

    Robin Dymond

  2. Joe Little

    Hi Shane,

    Good comment. Agree. The question then becomes, if you are a middle manager and bringing in a new idea, how do you get support at the beginning, and then in the middle and then later? I suspect that you want “support” (albeit different kinds) from “the bottom” as well as from “the top”.

    To me, your point is well-taken that we should not assume “the top” is any more rational about these commitments than the middle or the bottom. WIIFM applies to all, although each of us may see our own interests in a different way. Fortunately, if explained well, Lean-Agile has many things to offer to many different kinds of people.

    If you want to post here sometime, just say so.

    Regards, Joe

  3. Shane Hayes

    John Maxwell said something about acceptance of change and myths around it. One of the myths is that leaders are more accepting of change than others. He said that leaders are resisting change unless it is a change they are leading!

    I believe GM has experienced that. They would send managers through the NUMMI plant every year, but they were at too low a level to make the changes at a broader level. I can imagine managers leaving the NUMMI plant and going to another plant where they did not have upper management support to make changes they saw. There was probably a lot of frustration, because their bosses did not put in the effort to understand the changes or new ideas.

    I have seen similar frustrations in adopting lean/agile ideas. This is like the challenge of adopting Six Sigma as described by Thomas Pyzdek. He suggests if you don’t have top management’s support to adopt significantly new business processes; the change is very likely to fail. Usually agile processes expose inefficiencies and delays as work crosses departmental boundaries. Note that these inefficiencies exist already and are hidden by current measurement approaches and departmental motivations. The managers/vice presidents of those departments are not usually welcoming the suggestion that these inefficiencies exist in the organization. This type of resistance needs top level management (CEO) support to give these managers encouragement and permission to find and react well to these inefficiencies. If you don’t have this kind of support, normal resistance to change gets magnified tremendously. If agile is being introduced from the middle of the management pack, it is likely to be side-swiped and badly bruised if it survives at all.

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