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Thirteen ways toward being lean and agile

 Denkt an das fünfte Gebot: Schlagt eure Zeit nicht tot. 
[Remember the fifth commandment, don’t kill time.]
—Erich Kästner 

Recently, it occurred to me how often I try to employ a small set of working principles to stay efficient and on the right track with my work. Furthermore, I noticed how these principles align to what we need in our teams and the whole company to be lean and agile. So, I thought it might be worthwhile to distill it into a compact list. Below, I have listed 13 items at the personal, the team and at the company level that are essential to lean and agile working in my view.  In fact, the list reduces to just six items, but adjusted as the context grows.

We are what we repeatedly do. 
Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. 


Working lean starts with how each of us approaches our daily work. So, I start the list with personal habits. 

1. Know the value of your work or tasks

Make sure that you have a clear idea of how your work and daily tasks create value. It’s vital to a sense of self worth. Without that, prioritization remains nebulous if not impossible. 

2. Prioritize your work, daily

You can only do one thing at a time./1/ Thus, prioritization answers the most important question, “what do I do next?” Remember, time spent on one activity steals time from other activities. So, you need a system that shows all your work: a to do list, kanban board, whatever works. Otherwise, urgent things will steal time from important ones. 

What works for me is to start each day with a review of my appointments and my to do list. I identify one or two important tasks (not more) I want to accomplish, and then timebox time to do them. I leave the rest of the day for meetings (and the resulting tasks) and for the flood of small things that arise. 

3. Timebox tasks

Setting time-limited periods for tasks is essential, especially for things that may have limited value-adding capacity. Biggest challenge: e-mail. Setting rigorously limited blocks of time to read and react to e-mail helps me enormously.

4. Stop starting, start finishing

Each timebox should have a result, even if that result is only a part of the full, final product. Finished results is the measure of progress. And, it just feels good to check something off the list. 

5. Build-in metrics or checks

Find ways of getting feedback. Ask the recipient of your work if it helped. Build in quality checks and review periods. Is the work complete? Are the quality criteria met? Are the results accurate? The feedback can be as simple as putting a set of checksums into a spreadsheet to validate the primary calculations.

6. Make it a habit

Repetition creates habits, which in turn has two benefits: 1) we get faster and more efficient at them, and 2) we gain time and energy for more creative pursuits.

Nie wissen wir genau, ob etwas besser wird, wenn wir es ändern. 
Wir wissen aber sehr wohl, dass wir verändern müssen, 
wenn wir verbessern wollen. 
[We never know if things will improve if we change them.
We know very well, however, that we must change, 
if we want to improve.]
—Josef Schmidt


At a team level, the list is the same, but the context is different. Teamwork boils down to agreeing what to do and how to do it, and then each member sticking to the agreement. 

7. Prioritize and agree the work

Where does the value come from? What needs to be done and in what order? Who will do it? As above, seeing all open tasks is essential for proper prioritization. The kanban board remains one of the best means for this.

In a team, agreeing the “definition of done”, the working methods and the priorities is key.  Agreement means consensus building and sometimes requires compromises. And that, in turn, means respect for others’ interests and ideas, as well as their weaknesses and sensibilities. 

8. Timebox the work and get it done

In a team context, timeboxing is even more important than in personal work because the time-wasting potential grows with each team member. Others depend on our timely delivery, and time lost to delays can rarely be compensated. Meetings should be timeboxed rigorously. Long meetings consume a lot of resources without necessary creating tanglible value./2/ Meeting briefly, but more often allows us to dovetail feedback with renewed prioritization. And, let your colleagues finish their work before demanding more. It’s respectful and more efficient.

9. Strive for first time right / fix mistakes on the spot 

Errors are pernicious, less because of the initial mistake than because of the downstream errors and wasted effort they create. I know teams and companies who are spending more than 50% of their efforts on correcting mistakes. Thus, we owe it to our teammates and to ourselves to avoid passing on bad quality.

10. Seek and give Feedback

Essential to the lean/agile way of working is fast feedback. Empirical verification gives us the facts so that we can adjust and improve. With the sprint reviews and retrospectives, Scrum provides an excellent framework for product reviews and team-oriented improvements.

We also owe honest, constructive feedback to our colleagues so that they can learn. We should keep in mind that no one likes hearing he has made a mistake. But, you might not be right, and you might not have understood the context. So, proceed cautiously and respectfully when giving feedback. Moreover, be open to receiving feedback gracefully.

Wer nicht gestaltet hat Anspruch auf Schicksal.
[Those who don’t contribute are entitled to accept fate.] 
—Hans Kasper


Again, the company or enterprise level involves the same principles as above. Here, the challenges arise in ensuring the alignment of actions across the organization, sometimes between people who rarely interact but nevertheless depend on each others’ work. Everyone, from the CEO to the newest apprentice, is responsible for contributing to that alignment.

11. Know the value contribution and prioritize accordingly

Knowing the value contribution to the customers of our work is paramount. What we prioritize and how accomplish the work defines a company’s mission. Lean, OKR or Scrum at Scale are all good methods for aligning priorities. Methodological subleties aside, all start with creating customer value and follow through with eliminating waste, improving processes by way of empirical feedback.

12. Ensure completion and prefer serial processing

Only completed products have value. This rule applies both for customer products as well as internal tasks. But, our ability to get a single thing done is challenged constantly by the lure of new ideas, by the urgency of the day’s emergency or by the endless list of problems to solve. Regardless, we need to ensure an environment that encourages (and allows) teams and individuals to finish their current work before moving on to the next thing. 

Changing priorities midstream is sometimes necessary, but this should come from conscious, agreed decisions. Otherwise, we create a huge backlog of unfinished work that is itself a form of waste, but also generates more waste as we try to manage the list of open issues.  

Finally, for a single set of resources, serial processing always trumps parallel tasks at delivering benefits faster.

13. Establish continuous improvement as the company ethic

The exigencies of meeting payroll or the board’s profit goals force us to focus on core financials. More important for long-term success, however, is a commitment to continuous improvement. Cutting waste will improve the cost-benefit ratio; whereas, cutting costs alone has no such guarantee. Just think of the magic that will happen if top management asks each division head how many waste-reducing improvements toward customer value creation the division achieved that week. What do you think is the next question the division directors will ask their department heads? And so on….

But, there’s no reason to wait for top management to ask the question.  We can ask it of ourselves and of our teammates. 

I could have added quite a few more items to the list: distributing decision-making power throughout the company, techniques for removing or avoiding waste, cost of delay, pull process,es small batch processing, 5 S workplaces and more. But, achieving just some of the above will get us pretty far.

Feedback? Have I forgotten something vital?


/1/ No, you can’t multitask. The human brain simply cannot hold two thoughts at once. Flipping between them always involves some efficiency loss. By trying to multitask, you’ll be slower, less satisfied and more stressed. Persons with ADHD may work better when hopping from task to task. This is, however, a special case.

/2/ Meetings are vital for achieving agreement, but the real work, i.e. the real value creation is usually done outside of them.


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