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Becoming Lean/Agile - A mindset and where to start

Many teams and companies are struggling with the changes needed to become lean or agile. They know it’s the right way. Management has signed off on it. They hire trainers and coaches, who hold fantastic workshops. The energy released can light entire cities. But, the path is longer and rougher than first thought. So, what can we do to ensure real gains occur before the enthusiasm wears off?

Much has been written on lean/agile methods, both on how to structure our work and on how to get there./1/ Among the most promising methods at a team level are Scrum and Kanban./2/ In addition, methods exist for instilling lean/agile habits, such as “Toyota Kata” or “Training Within Industries”./3/ I don’t want to rehearse these methods here. (If you are new to the topic, the citations below will be more than enough to get you started.) Rather, I want to focus on three key goals within the lean/agile framework that generate tangible results, thus refueling the energy stores needed to keep going.

A matter of mindset

Before diving into the three goals, we need to recognize how culture, mindset and action interact. In every company or team, our ways of thinking, our instilled habits, our common assumptions, established pratices etc. together shape each individual’s daily actions. We can’t, however, change the culture by just pronouncing that it will now be different. Rather, change only occurs when individual persons act differently, i.e. in accordance with the new lean/agile goals. And, we need to act consciously toward those goals again and again, until the new way or working becomes an established habit among most members of the team.

Thus, change really happens at the individual and the team level first, with company culture emerging later as the result. For the team, change occurs by agreeing the goals and the new practices. Good teamwork is really nothing more than agreeing on how to work and everyone sticking to the agreement. Furthermore, teams need to set up structures such as Retrospectives to evaluate how well they are doing. Scrum is excellent on this. For individuals, it means committing at a personal level to acting in the new way, and to reflecting on how to improve current habits in line with the agreed goals.

Three key goals

The following three goals will get a team the most bang for your buck in lean/agile terms. There are many ways to set them up as goals, whether as a team goal within a sprint or using a method such as OKR. As long as you set up simple measurements for them, you’re ready to start.

1. Reducing Work in Progress

Toyota already discovered in the 1950s that too much work in progress slowed production. Since there are physical limits on how much can be done by a person or a machine at any one time, anything additional is waste. The objects or “to dos” lie in wait, while we work on other things. They are inventory of half-finished work that has not yet produced value. Furthermore, they cause everything in the pipeline to move slower, a mathematical effect described by Little’s Law./4/

David Anderson shows how to use Kanban to visualize and reduce WIP. First, we make all work visible, by putting it on one big kanban board. With that, we can start to prioritize the work and assess honestly whether our resources are sufficient. Second, we move to a “one thing at a time” philosophy, both at the team and individual level. OTAAT is the fastest way to get something done.  Only finished work creates value.

2. Reducing errors and especially accepted errors

Errors create waste because they require corrections and rework. Furthermore, they generate further errors, wrong decisions etc. This “downstream waste” is robbing many teams and companies of productivity. In a simple situation where a customer order is misunderstood, the entire process chain, from creation, to packaging, to delivery and billing may perform faulty work, all of which needs to be repeated. In addition, the error requires countless discussions and e-mails to clarify what is right.

Of course, to err is human, and six sigma goals of 3.4 errors per million tries are utopian for people-driven processes. Thus, we seek ways to reduce regular, systematic errors. For this, feedback loops are needed to signal the errors as early as possible. Every step in the process, i.e. every member of the team, needs some kind of verification on individual steps. This can be as simple as having a teammate look it over or an additional column in an Excel table that checks the math or checks for completeness.

Furthermore, teams should commit to the quality promise:

  • I shall not create bad quality. 
  • I shall not accept bad quality. 
  • I shall not pass on bad quality. 
The interaction between the first and second sentences can achieve a quantum leap in error reduction. In a team context, especially the second sentence is tough, because it means returning a faulty piece to a teammate. But, it is essential for the teammate to be able to learn from his/her mistakes. Accepted errors—sometimes called technical debt—are doubly pernicious.

3. Reducing delivery times

The last of my “lean big three” is a focus on reducing delivery times. Most important is the time from customer order to delivery to the customer. The lean logic is simple: the raw materials (including our time) only generate value when the product can used by the customer. Before that, they are costs and waste. The cost is the physical time needed to create the value in the thing. The waste is all the other time (waiting, unneeded steps, transport etc.) when no productive work was being done.

Keeping an eye on the delivery times forces reflection on wasted effort, especially on waiting time. The waiting time in a non-lean process can easily make up 99% of the time between order and delivery.  The key questions are: how can we reduce waiting? What steps are actually superfluous? Why did we have to wait?

We discovered that the main cause of delays in our request fulfillment process stemmed from incomplete customer information in the orders. The lack of information required the technical teams to clarify the order, which meant writing extra e-mails, waiting for the response etc. Hence, we’re working on ways to elicit the needed information at the moment the request is placed.

Common to all three goals is the need for measurement or empirical verification. None can be achieved without it. It forms a cornerstone of the Kata method as described by Rother. In fact, Kata is about making a habit of empirical thinking in the improvement process.

Lean/agile are not rocket science. Focussing on the three goals and the concrete actions needed (or just one or two at first) can bring enormous gains in working toward a lean/agile culture.


  • /1/ At the level of mindset and basic action, there is no reason to distinguish between lean and agile methods, hence I fuse them.
  • /2/ Ken Schwaber and Jeff Sutherland, The Scrum Guide: The Definitive Guide to Scrum: The Rules of the Game, 2016th ed., 2016, http://www.scrumguides.org/download.html; Also helpful is Jeff Sutherland, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, First Edition (New York: Crown Business, 2014). David Anderson distills the essence of Kanban into a help guide: David J Anderson, Kanban: Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business (Sequim, Washington: Blue Hole Press, 2010); and in German, David J Anderson, Kanban: evolutionäres Change Management für IT-Organisationen, trans. Arne Roock (Heidelberg: dpunkt-Verl., 2011);
  • /3/ Mike Rother, Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results (New York: McGraw Hill, 2010); Donald A. Dinero, Training within Industry: The Foundation of Lean, 1st ed (New York: Productivity Press, 2005)
  • /4/ A humorous introduction to Little's Law is Gunter Dueck, “Schlangenbeschwörer: Alles am Limit,” Informatik-Spektrum 27, no. 2 (April 2004): 186–91, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00287-004-0384-y;


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