Breaking Through The Wall: Designing organisations that work for Lean and Agile thinking people

damaged-wall_fkvgdCP__LCan we design adaptive, innovative and engaging organisations for employees, managers and leaders alike?

Can we really change cultures and management thinking in reasonably short time-frames?

The answer is yes to all of the above provided you know how to break through ‘the-wall’ when you hit it. So what do Lean and Agile principles tell us about the way we need to design, build and operate modern businesses?

Hitting The Wall

You can tell when a Lean or Agile program hits ‘the-wall’ in an organisation. Just stroll down the hallways and you’ll hear comments like:

  • The Senior Managers just don’t get it.
  • How can we possibly scale the program up across all departments?
  • The Return on Investment hasn’t lived up to expectations
  • And of course, the classic, “we should start again and try something else”

All this leaves the Lean and Agile enthusiast, and the staff they motivated, stuck in place asking “how do we move forward”?

Designing for Adaptability

The real point of change is to design better organisations with work that is more rewarding, fulfilling, and even meaningful. To do this we have to ensure management is focussed on developing creativity, innovation and disciplined experimentation to continually solve efficiency, effectiveness and any other problem the organisation encounters.

These are the engines that drive adaptability. The principles and intentions at the heart of Lean and Agile must be supported by organisational practices, structures and behaviours – these are a matter of design not culture as many would have you believe.

The Work-Climate

The real test of how well the design of the organisation supports the engines of adaptability is through a close examination of the work-climate.

The work-climate is the surface layer of a culture which influences how we make decisions, collaborate and most importantly, collectively learn. A work-climate analysis provides a window into aspects of everyday work and organisational design that either helps or hinders the willing contribution of the workforce towards improvement, change and innovation.

In our change work, we find people want to behave in more constructive ways, but organisational systems and norms prevent them from scaling ‘the-wall’.

Passive Resistance

It takes a lot of individual effort and position power to scale the wall alone. Some succeed in changing the environment even while the vast majority of their colleagues keep their heads down patiently biding their time until those who are driving change fizzle out.

Sadly, many organisations have become very adept at passively absorbing change pressures until the fizzle out point.

Another Brick In The Wall

New forms of adaptability have been implicit in the lean and agile movement for some time. But they are rarely implemented because managers mostly use Lean and Agile for ‘traditional’ managerial outcomes– such as driving down costs, looking for efficiency gains and possibly an enhanced customer experience. Simply trying to do the same thing for less instead of doing something different for more. E.g. new products and services for more revenue.

Continuous Change not Continuous Improvement

The reality is that it should be about mastering continuous change, not continuous improvement. Master continuous change and continuous improvement follows. The inverse is not true.

It’s about being adaptive, changing rapidly, making it effective and then changing it all again. Creation, optimization, destruction becomes an everyday process – an expected business practice.

Paradoxically in a highly technological and complex world the workplace needs people more than ever who see the big picture, collaborate to resolve the problems of continuous change and have the ability to continually redesign their own jobs, goals and measurement systems.

If you release the potential of your people, the people will realise the potential of your business

The importance of organisational design in promoting the right behaviours to create adaptive work climates cannot be underestimated.

The promise of Lean and Agile principles is in redesigning the work and the organisational practices to nurture employees’ willing contribution to establish a real human enterprise that is adaptive, innovative and engaging at both the group and organisational level.

The blog post below dovetails with the subject of a talk I’m giving at the Agile Eastern Europe Conference taking place in Kiev, Ukraine April 8th and 9th. For more information please click here.


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The Agile Challenge

The Agile movement is growing every day, and it is a very effective model that encourages intimate collaboration in order to overcome the deficiencies within an organisation. However, there are two problems with this model. While it works great with small teams, it is very difficult to scale up – even using the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe). Secondly, it works best as a tool to circumvent institutional roadblocks instead of addressing them directly and changing the culture. As a result, the roadblocks stay in place as impediments to future innovation.

So, as more and more teams embrace Agile thinking, problems with the institutionalised designs, roles, measurements, targets, processes, and most importantly, the management culture are never fixed – just avoided. Therefore, an organisation’s ability to adapt becomes dependent on teams working well in spite of the entrenched way of doing things.

This is a nonsensical way to run an organisation and is really just a symptom of the top-down, mad drive toward increased efficiencies at all costs. Indeed, a point has been reached where well-meaning staff have little choice other than to focus blindly on their assigned task, while everything else becomes “out of scope” or someone else’s problem.

These issues, unfortunately, don’t go away either when the models are scaled-up using SAFe. The complexity of the workarounds simply increase to the point where the company itself and SAFe become barriers. While well meaning, SAFe is a symptom of the disease it is trying to cure. It is a brave, but flawed, attempt at controlling Agile. It is seductive to those who think they can impose a SAFe central control structure on Agile, because it is anything but safe in practice, as it takes the Agile out of Agile.

I suggest that initially Agile itself was a response to the rigidity of the Command and Control model, a way for work to get done against a backdrop of corporate entropy and a growing culture of de-personalization within the workplace. However, Command and Control is attempting to reassert itself by introducing a SAFe work control system where people are again reduced to functionaries within a process, where insight and innovation are ranked well below efficiency and cost. People cannot be forced to be Agile and innovative. Agile and innovation need willing contribution.

Many Agile enthusiasts were extremely wary of SAFe when it was first introduced. However, they came to see it as inevitable and, as a result, have become proponents of it. This is shocking and is a stark reminder of what happened to the Lean movement in the past. Consultancies have created Lean control systems to drive efficiencies, which has put the movement back fifteen years. It has not recovered, and many brave souls are fighting a losing battle against this ‘fake’ type of Lean.

I will be the first to admit that for managers who simply want to get a project completed, Command-and-Control Agile is probably going to work, although it is really just a way to “kick the can” down to the road for someone else to take care of later. So, what is the alternative? We believe it is an approach called Listen and Adapt.

With Listen and Adapt, the customer and staff drive innovation, and every part of the business is able and is expected to address the customer’s needs quickly, because the adaptable framework anticipates changing requirements and “Listens” for change signals. This model creates a cultural transformation, resulting in becoming more intelligent with their responses to competitive marketplaces.

Listen and Adapt builds organisations that promote thinking and collaboration. The outmoded ways of working and organisational barriers are removed, while changing measurement systems along with the services and products themselves become the norm.

A lesson learned from start-ups around the world is that the best way to create value is through the willing contribution of all staff and managers. It drives and secures long-term prosperity by creating unprecedented loyalty from customers and employees alike.

So, while Agile teams are constantly trying to work around internal roadblocks, Listen and Adapt organisations are continually dismantling the barriers to innovation, increasing willing contribution, and ultimately, contributing to greater wealth creation.

Is your organisation spending more time struggling against internal barriers than it should? Contact us today to discuss running an internal half- or full-day Adaptive Organisation Simulation workshop.


Taking the temperature of the micro-climates within your organisation

Most people I speak to think that measuring the work climate of a company is interesting.

But when I point out that work climate actually has a direct impact on profitability they tend to listen just a little more intently. The tool we use to measure organizational climate within organizations is called Climetrics. And despite what you might think it has absolutely nothing to do with the thermostat.

I like the metaphor of weather because it is a simple concept for most people to grasp.

Let’s say the weather across Europe is generally warm. However, France is different to Denmark, but they’re both in Europe. It’s the same within global organizations. The whole organization has a climate but that general climate is made up of the many micro-climates in each division and department.

Using organizational Climetrics, we measure how well an organization engages, learns, makes leadership decisions and improves at all levels. And from those measurements we can very accurately predict how successful they are going to be over the long term.

The part that hooks people is that it’s all measurable. We don’t just take the climate of an organization – we measure the micro-climates within it. This allows us to see right down to the departmental level and examine the internal structure as individual pieces of the larger puzzle.

Through our analysis we can see deep into the organisational structure and can tell what is working and what isn’t. From our diagnostic we can then create a comprehensive custom program that addresses specific needs and problems – without disrupting areas where the “weather” is fine.

But there is another dimension that I haven’t mentioned. So far all our measurements are at the ground level. But if you’ve ever been in a plane, you’ll know that the view from the cabin is always sunny when you get high enough. This is where the hierarchy of an organization tends to view things from. And Climetrics is a way to show them that while everything might look great from above – there may be turbulence ahead.

If your organization’s climate predicts your long term profitability then you need to find out what that climate says about your future. Storms or sun? It’s up to you.

If you are interested in speaking with someone about how Climetrics could help your organization please call or email us today.