The hardest job in a lean/agile transition is with the managers

When you are doing a lean/agile transition in a traditional organization, definitely the hardest job is related to the management.
I already highlighted the role and responsibility of executives in a lean/agile transition in another post two years ago. The people on the working level get into their new roles and practices. They are constantly doing retrospectives and improving their work, and even driving improvement through the organization. They experiment, get feedback and learn from it.

Now what will the middle managers do when they are not frequently needed for fire fighting in the projects? How are they going to practice new skills and habits that they need in the new agile world? And how much of the newly created trust and self-organization can a manager destroy with some harsh enquiry to a team?

At the beginning, many of the managers are obviously more or less engaged in the transition itself. Managers will also sit together and find out how they can coach teams, how they can help people to grow, and how they should do now hiring, performance evaluation, and distribute salary increases and bonuses under agile circumstances.

However, also during the transition it is easy to stay in a command-and-control mode or at least frequently fall back into it. After that, it is getting worse. Managers are moving around in organizations, some leave the place, others join. These others may be joining the company or department for totally different reasons than wanting to be a servant leader, a coach for growing people. Maybe they just want to work in this area. Period.

Now we need practices by which the managers stay constantly engaged with lean and agile ideas.

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One of these topics is Continuous Improvement. It is one of the two pillars of Lean. Hakan Forss explains this is his Toyota Kata presentation – see slides or video.It starts with a common vision for the process of the organization that can probably never reached, and realistic but challenging goals on their way there. Then a team or several teams are improving by experimenting with small changes towards a next target condition, in turn with measuring the results. A lot of learning is involved in this, for the participants as well as for the organization.

Managers can be part of a team for changing things, especially above the level of a single agile team, for solving organizational problems, problems with processes and tools – always following a common vision with the teams, of course. Or they can also train to be a coach for doing this change. Of course, they have to take care like any other coach, that they have practiced the improvement kata themselves often enough, probably with an external coach, before they try to coach someone else.

Managers need to study and practice lean values and practices that they apply to their work with the teams. This can happen in self-study groups with the other managers, and everybody applies it individually. The challenge is always how they are getting feedback to their behaviour.  A good starting point may be the book Management 3.0. by Jurgen Appelo, that give some backgrounds on how a team behaves as an adaptive complex system, and how to grow a team, how to stop demotivating it, and how the boundaries influence the behaviour. His new Management 3.0. Workout book has a lot of tools that managers can apply, from the kudo box to the delegation board, ready to use or to adapt to their organization. By using these tools they slightly change the way how they are treating teams and individuals, expression more respect for people, which happens to be the other pillar of Lean.

Apart from using lean and agile practices in their own work, managers should also do the famous „Gemba walks„. This means going to the people who are actually working, and listening to them, e.g. during their daily standup meetings. The main challenge here is to do it without disrupting or frustrating the teams, e.g. by listening to two sentences and then throwing in an „easy solution“ to a problem without having enough knowledge for really helping them. Instead, only when the team seems to be clueless they can ask a couple of good questions for enabling them to find a solution themselves.

I am curious to learn in which other ways companies get their managers into „lean mode“ and keep them actively thinking lean and practicing lean.

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