Nigel's experience, which converges the best of Toyota's culture with the agile mindset, demonstrates how adopting Scrum-a framework that enables agile principles to be put into practice simply and effectively on individual teams-does not always and does not necessarily have the effect of sparking real organizational momentum. One needs to be aware of the potential of the agile approach but also of the obstacles in the face of which the momentum can die down.
The momentum is bound to die down if agility is perceived by management as a set of specialised tools and practices, typically 'leave it to IT'; or if management calls in consultants to give teams their medicine, the 'scrum or agile drug' that will solve everything.
As Nigel delved deeper into the agile experience, spreading the practice of Scrum in organisations, he increasingly realised how they are complex adaptive systems but lack awareness of it. Management frequently tends to behave according to linear thinking: problems are "things" that are solved by other "things", the consulting products, that are bought on the market. If adopted from this perspective, the benefits of agile experiences brought into the company risk being dissipated in a short time.
On the contrary, the constant adoption of agile practices helps the emergence of a new mentality in teams and in the organisation as a whole, a mentality made up of a drive for improvement and discovery, of routine self-examination and verification of results, of transparency in the circulation of information, of sharing of objectives, of individual confidence in taking initiatives, of alignment, trust and autonomy.
Take care of these four aspects and your company will become more and more Agile!
1. Look for weak signals. The plan can turn into an iron cage. If we are too focused on executing our plans, we risk missing or not understanding the signals that the market or ecosystem in which we operate is sending us.
2. Create constraints that enable change. Often people to report a problem, or to advance an idea in the company, have to overcome a wall to be heard. Existing constraints in organizations slow down, hinder or even prevent improvement. Problems that could be intercepted upstream in the process find themselves downstream much larger, much more expensive to solve. -
3. Ensure psychological security. Responsibility is empty if it is not assumed by the worker himself, by the one who really "owns" his role. It is said that people cannot be motivated; motivation is already inside people but external conditions do not allow it to express itself.
4. Unleashing the power of teams. Productivity and performance depend to a very large extent on the quality of team dynamics. The growth of teams is fundamental for organisations, but it takes place first and foremost in the place where value is produced. Context is everything, so team training should be conducted where the work is done.
"They talk and talk but they cannot walk the talk".
Agile thus takes organisations a giant leap forward from traditional top-down project management methodologies, which are geared towards building and representing a predictability that is as precise as it is fake. Spectacular Gantt charts that inspire a sense of control but in the end produce the infamous "green shift" effect: at each stage the traffic light is green, the schedule seems to be adhered to until the last stage, when it suddenly turns red, the project fails, the schedule jumps. In the traditional approach people, and managers, have no idea how to plan progressively, how to alter the plan for the next 24 hours based on what has happened in the last 24 hours.
On the contrary, agile culture allows companies to transfer control from the paper of the Gantt chart to the reality of the context, to embrace uncertainty and creativity by activating the power of teams. Thus interpreted, Agile certainly allows the organisation to make a transition, a shift from state a to state b.
But this is not yet a true transformation. Without a holistic approach, capable of transcending the design dimension to the organisational scale, it will never really be possible to transform an organisation.
This is why agile works best in small companies, small holistic spheres that contain everything needed to bring value to the customer. Here the ideal size of Scrum (a team dedicated to a project) can somehow become structural and continue to unfold its positive effects over time. Here agility as an emerging attitude can take hold and become a corporate culture.
It is much more difficult to replicate this dynamic in a large company. Nigel here cites the case of Gore, the company that owns the Gore-Tex brand, famous for its constant drive for innovation and at the same time for its managerial style free from rigid hierarchy (and the two elements are closely related). The quote is from Malcolm Gladwell's book, The Tipping Point, which reports how Mr. Gore himself reached a certain size and no longer knew what was going on in the factories. The 'holistic bubble' is lost once a certain size of company has been reached and cannot be recovered; Mr Gore's extreme solution was to sacrifice control in order to let the holistic bubbles live and safeguard their innovative capacity. This is the example of a billion-plus company with the spirit of an SME.
But transformation is an effect, not an end for the enterprise. The end for the business is to meet the customer's need, to bring them the value they need in the time they need it, in the cost they need it. That's why a tool like Scrum is an excellent tool to improve people, teams and the organisation while delivering value, growing the agile culture in the enterprise and building a positive tension that leads to the holistic approach and transformation.
Agility is an emerging attitude: let's walk the talk!
It's complexity, baby
Nigel and his collaborators have created a representation, the Flow System, which helps to conceive and manage the business more realistically in the face of an uncertain and ambiguous world.
We must not forget linearity; thanks to lean management we know how to manage it, how to improve its flows; we know how to "isolate" it in order to put these optimisations into practice. But then we have to go back to the complexity of the systems in which we are immersed. Here the correct metaphor is circularity, or rather the circular and spiral movement that allows improvement and progress through experience and experimentation. This is the role of the Scrum sprints, compact sessions in which a team learns and at the same time achieves something accomplished and functional that allows the project to move forward without all the steps needed to reach the final goal being clear.
Complex systems have feedback loops that complicate or completely inhibit rigid linear planning. They need new and different ways of contacting the external environment.
A complex system, for example, needs a plurality of sensors to enable it to detect weak signals of change and to act promptly, before the signal becomes a problem.
We would be in a completely different situation today if the community, nations, supranational bodies and businesses had picked up on the many weak signals that had long anticipated the current global crisis (not even the authority and fame of a Bill Gates was enough to trigger adequate responses to the emerging problem of viral pandemics).
In the recent history of business, perhaps the best known and most glaring case is that of Nokia, a company that held a dominant position in the market but was unable to intercept the nascent developments in mobile telephony embodied by the smartphone (ironically, it was among the very first companies to adopt agile methodologies).
On the other hand, there is the virtuous case of Tesla, a unique newcomer in a sector that seemed to be totally dominated by the incumbents of the post-war period, capable of innovating the perception of the electric car and transforming it into a top-of-the-range product.
Already in the teaching of Taichi Ohno, father of the Toyota Productions System, there was a powerful call to "go and see", to move physically or experientially (as can happen in the remote interactions of these weeks) to the "real place", confronting the "real thing", all meanings enclosed in the expression Genshi Genbutsu. The agile culture continues along the path traced by Toyota's tradition, with new and more articulated tools.
In Nigel's Flow System guide, for example, there is a reference to sensemaking, a technique that helps teams and organisations to develop, through storytelling and narration, shared mental models to cope with complex and uncertain environments. It involves multiplying the return of different points of view, in real time, to give the team an almost 'holographic' view of the situation in which it is acting.
To catch weak signals that are anticipatory of profound turning points in systems, organizations can also activate continuous scanning of the environment using different perspectives, interdisciplinary viewpoints, in order to identify abnormal behaviors, signals or events-internal and external-that appear in the background of the scene.
Andon effect and the power of teams
It is the power of the team that marks the experience and therefore Nigel's story because in the team lies the founding dynamic of the agile organisation. This power can remain confined to the experience of the individual project, and that is certainly a good thing for the success of the project itself. Or, as we have seen, it can reverberate progressively throughout the organisation towards the emerging agility that is needed more than ever by any company, of any size, in any sector.
The team is the secret of agile transformation. Obvious? It doesn't seem so. Even today, organisations, even small ones, are still dominated by the logic of silos, departments with their own objectives that are theoretically aligned in budget planning but in fact isolated, when not conflicting, in the day-to-day running of business activities. And if, once again, the Lean approach represents an enormous step forward - because it leads us to read the horizontal flow of value through the company's sectors - it is equally true that the Toyota Production System does not in itself teach teamwork, nor does it aim to build teams. Quite simply, insofar as it deals with managing and optimising linearity, Lean Management does not consider team building to be central either. This, as with traditional companies, remains a 'complementary' practice.
But there is a secret within the secret, an enabling condition of any team performance. It is the psychological safety described in Amy Edmondson's book The Fearless Organisation.
Once again we find the roots of this organisational condition in the Toyota system.
In Toyota's production lines there is a rope at each station, called Andon (originally a term for paper lanterns), which allows the operator to stop the whole line if he sees a problem. The example shows a condition of high responsibility and at the same time of "security" in pointing out problems and defects and in the ability to take very important decisions, also from an economic point of view, to deal with them in a timely manner. Typical of many Japanese companies, and for our mentality in contradiction with the absolute sense of authority of their culture, is the possibility that the subordinate acts defying and momentarily undermining authority precisely because he or she is the profound owner of the process, or part of the process, which he or she is supervising.
The tool indicates the importance of making decisions and solving problems 'on the spot', without waiting for a manager to intervene or for quality control to notice the defect downstream in the production process. The Andon rope, literally, marked the superiority of Toyota's production system over its Western competitors.
Today, to return to the complexity challenge, it is somehow about having Andon strings at the organizational level. Here the empirical and iterative dimension borrowed from agile design and made to "scale up" to the systemic level is crucial: in the scrum-driven project team, the worker's ownership of what he or she is doing is total, which gives him or her the confidence to decide, explore, risk and make mistakes. In this sense, lean is no longer sufficient; its linearity-effective and perfect in the production line-prevents it from exploding the "andon effect" on the organizational level. This requires a holistic, "circular" approach, which our Nigel seeks to explore in his Flow System, a synthesis that combines lean and agile by integrating different techniques but always relying on people and their behaviors, without which even the best tool is doomed to fail.