Lean/Agile: a frugal, local approach in tune with a shrinking world

Written by Guillaume Dutey-Harispe, on 08 February 2021


"Thanks" to the pandemic that has shaken the world for a year - and its way of persisting despite our efforts - we can clearly see that we are entering a new era: the world as we knew it is undergoing ever faster and more drastic mutations.

In this short post, we would like to share with you the reflections that this unprecedented situation inspires within Aneo Agency, related to the transformations of work and the strategy of companies driven by Lean/Agile approaches.

Lean/Agile: Learning to Survive 

There is already a rich literature on the connections between Agility and Lean, but if we had to summarize it very briefly, we could say that what unites the two approaches is the priority they give to:

  • Knowledge of frontline teams over planning,
  • Continuous improvement over predefined processes,
  • Disruption as the only vector of progress over optimizing the existing,
  • Self-organization of teams over directive management,
  • Measuring value over perceived value.

Both approaches also share a similar history in how they have been perceived as "magic wands" by organizations that have integrated the form (ceremonies, roles, concepts) while neglecting the substance (organizational change, decision-making, value-driven management). This has led - but is it really a surprise? - to strong disappointments and frustrations.

The common characteristic of Lean/Agile approaches is that they are not methods or frameworks with a beginning or an end. On the contrary, they are guiding principles (continuous improvement...), general guidelines (rather this than that...), fundamental approaches whose translation into concrete actions will be carried out in the field by the teams.

This continuous improvement of work organization led by teams aims to adapt to a changing environment (economic, cultural, climatic): "Surviving is learning," as theorized by Edward Deming and later by Peter Senge.

Lean/agile: Concern for Customer Value, a Powerful Agent of Mutation

Lean and Agile also share this seemingly anecdotal question: "How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?"

By breaking down this question, we can make visible how this phrase offers avenues for reflection to support the challenges of organizational evolution in a changing world. 

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

The beneficiary of value is the customer. By taking the time to listen to their needs, validating that it solves a real problem, and continuously adapting, the customer receives the best value "for them."

Note: this is about value for them; not for the margin, not to reinforce our organization, or to adhere to our preconceived vision of their needs. The reward we gain is that this customer will not only stay but will recommend us to those who are not our customers, which is especially crucial in the age of digital transformations.

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

In a world decidedly in decline, more value does not mean more volume but more impact in the face of limited resources. The value delivered to the customer will be measured qualitatively, not quantitatively, and within the constraints of strained access.

This approach requires an effort to understand value and what is not, considering the availability of resources. This notion is not so obvious for the customer themselves and will be discovered incrementally. Incrementally, because intelligence and collaboration will have been invested to allow this progress in steps, discovering and adapting to what creates the most value for a specific customer at a given time, with what is available.

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

The promise of unlimited growth now appears as a promise that cannot be kept. The roller coasters experienced by the world's economies show that the notion of planning has lost its relevance. This almost permanent state of instability will weigh on all organizations and their ability to reinvent themselves regularly in increasingly shorter times.

In this spirit, we will have to redefine what growth is: growth is no longer a GDP calculated on the wealth produced/consumed by a country. Other factors must be taken into account, and well-being, satisfaction, and the impact on natural resources must be integrated into the calculation.

To make this new and growing adaptation effort sustainable, can organizations and the teams within them afford not to learn new interactional modalities, new postures that will allow them to evolve calmly and discerningly in an uncertain environment?

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

In a volatile world, reality is changing, and the only way to predict is to validate step by step the attempts, as signified by the "C" (check) in the PDCA cycle. Thus, the ultimate judge that guides all successive adaptations of the transformation becomes the value delivered to the customer.

Alongside Design, it is with feedback (fast feedback) that the adequacy of the delivered value to the customer is verified. This feedback can only be based on delivered production. The regularity of delivery to the customer becomes a crucial issue; frequent delivery shifts from a commercial objective to a structuring strategic issue to understand the evolution of our client's needs.

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

Solving complex problems is a skill that presupposes the collaboration capacity of the collective. It requires intelligible systems for intelligent people, with both realities feeding off each other.

The classic figure of the manager will not emerge unscathed from this atomic change. From a task distributor/controller, they will become a facilitator of collective intelligence, serving the growth of teams as well as maintaining the vision that underlies the organization.

The notion of "we," limited to (necessarily strategic) actors, will not be sufficient to accommodate the consideration of the complexity of this "new normal," requiring a deep, cultural transformation of the relationship to work, colleagues, and managers.

How can we sustainably deliver more value to the customer?

It is on this last aspect of the "How" that the ability of organisations to adapt to changing conditions depends. A quick look at the last thirty years of business transformation shows that the difficulty is not so much in designing new production methods... as in implementing them while taking existing methods into account.  

Lean and Agile also share a common approach in the injunction "we start where we are", without making theoretical transformation... a prerequisite for practical transformation.  

As the desired state of transformation is not set in stone (or in the slides of the umpteenth consultancy firm), it is even easier for new methods to be discovered by players who are reinventing the capacity for experimentation in systems that are sometimes sclerotic.

The stakes, the vision, the ambition, the "For What" are the prerequisites which, when compared with the situation, enable a trajectory to be determined. And to avoid falling into the trap of tunnel programming, there is no requirement for the vision to be a precise point of destination, nor for the trajectory to be certain: both can be revised.  

Returning to the Origins of Lean/Agile: A Frugal Attitude

The scarcity of resources is a path we are engaged in, concerning energy, time, and our collective intelligence capacities (for example, with the telecommuting tsunami).

In this new ecosystem, the resources involved in the transformation will need to be used frugally, with the goal of leveraging the creative capacity of teams to quickly make the right decisions, always in continuous relation with customer demand, guided by the "just necessary": neither too much nor too little.

This situation is similar to the creation of Lean, which introduces the pull flow to compensate for the scarce resources accessible by the post-war Japanese economy, or to the Agile movement, which was born to end the recurring failures of IT projects, moving from planning to an incremental, iterative, and adaptive approach.

The profound cultural transformations that occur through the practice of Lean/Agile approaches are the goal. Thanks to these transformations, organizations can prepare themselves to adapt to a rapidly changing world, guided by a coherent value system and relying on the collective intelligence of their collaborators.

And, given the urgency of the situation, it's a good thing that this collective intelligence is available: it's up to us to find ways of putting it to use.