How Do I Know If Agile Is Working?

Moving the queen

Moving the queen, Gabriel Saldana, CC BY-SA

“How do I know if Agile is working?” This is a question I’ve been asked a lot recently in one form or another. If not Agile, its Scrum, or Kanban or SAFe or something similar. My usual response is something along the lines of “How do you know of anything is working?” And there generally isn’t a quick and easy answer to that!

I’ve come to the view that Lean and Agile practices and techniques are simply tactics. They are tactics chosen as part of a strategy to be more Lean and Agile. And becoming more Lean and Agile are seen as important to make necessary breakthroughs in performance in order to deliver desired results.

With that perspective, then the answer to “How do I know if Agile is working?” is that you achieve the desired results. That’s probably a long time to wait to find out, however, as it is a trailing measure. It is necessary, therefore, to identify some intermediate improvements which might indicate the results are achievable, and leading measures can be captured to give hat earlier feedback.

The lack of a quick and easy answer to “How do you know if anything is working?” is often because Lean and Agile have been introduced as a purely tactical initiative, without any thought to how they relates to strategy, what measurable improvements they might bring, and how any strategy and improvements will lead to desirable results. In fact very few people (if any) know exactly what those desirable results are!

I’m increasingly trying to work the other way – what the Lean community call Strategy Deployment. For any transformation to work, everybody in the organisation needs to know what results are being strived for, what the strategic goals are that will enable the necessary changes to get there, and what measurable improvements will indicate progress. Then the whole organisation can be engaged in designing and implementing tactical changes which might lead to improvement. Everything becomes a hypothesis and an experiment, which can be tested, the results shared and adjustments made.

In other words, Strategy Deployment leads to organisations becoming laboratories, where Lean and Agile can inform hypothesis on strategies, improvements and tactics. I think its the secret sauce to any transformation, which is why I’ll be talking about it more at various conferences over the rest of the year.

The first one is Agile Cymru in a couple of weeks. There’s a few tickets left, and considering the line-up of speakers, and the ticket cost, its incredible value. I highly recommend going, and I hope to see you there!

 

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Strategy Deployment, the X-Matrix and Kanban Thinking

Strategy Deployemnt

Kanban Systems are an enabler of evolutionary change. And so is Strategy Deployment. Strategy can be defined as how you will make a positive impact, and this implies change. As the saying goes, “hope is not a strategy”, and neither is doing nothing. Deploying that strategy, as opposed to defining and imposing a tactical plan, enables the evolution of the tactics by the people implementing them.

I have found that putting Strategy Deployment in place is my preferred approach to starting off any change initiative, and that as suggested above, there is a strong synergy with a kanban-based approach. (This is not surprising, given the roots of both in Toyota and Lean). In particular, I have been using a format known as the X-Matrix to setup Strategy Deployment.

The X-Matrix

The X-Matrix is a cornerstone of Strategy Deployment. It is an A3 format that provides a concise and portable shared understanding of how strategy is aligned to the deployed tactical initiatives, alongside leading indicators of progress and anticipated end results. I learned about the X-Matrix from the book “Hoshin Kanri for the Lean Enterprise” by Thomas L. Jackson, and I have previously blogged about how we used the approach at Rally.

CD Form 1-2_A3-X X-matrix

The X-Matrix has 5 primary sections, all of which are connected. At the bottom, below the X, are the results that we hope to achieve. To the left of the X are the key strategies that will get us to those results, and to the immediate right of the X are the measures of improvement that indicate how well we are doing. (Note that this is labelled process as it refers to process improvements). At the top, above the X, are the tactics that we will use to implement the strategy. Finally, on the far right are the teams that will be involved in the work. To link these together, the corners of the X-Matrix are used to show the strength of correlation or contribution between the different elements.

Thus it becomes easy to visualise and explore how a strategy, or a measure, correlates to achieving results. Similarly, it is easy to see and discuss how a tactic will correlate to achieving a strategy, or how it will contribute to moving the needle on a measure. And it is clear who is accountable or involved in each tactic. Having all this on a single page helps creating clarity and alignment on the why, how, what and who of the work.

Kanban Thinking

This works well because it wraps all the elements of Kanban Thinking nicely. The results are equivalent to Impacts, the process improvement measures are ways to Sense capability, the strategies can be derived from exploring various Interventions and the tactics are the experiments created to Search the landscape. (Note: While all the examples I have seen have financial results, focussing on value based impacts, there is no reason why flow and potential based impacts could not be forecast with alternative results).

What I really like about Strategy Deployment, and the way Jackson describes it in his book, is that it is a form of nested experimentation. From an organisations long-term vision, through its strategy, to tactics and day to day operations and action, each level is a hypothesis of increasing granularity. As each experiment is run, the feedback and learning is used by the outer levels to  steer and adjust direction. Thus a learning organisation is created as the learning is passed around the organisation in a process known as ‘catchball’, and within this context, Kanban Thinking (and the Kanban Method) provides a synergistic means to running experiments and creating learning.

Do you know what results your organisation are aiming for? Do you know the strategies being used and how they should lead to the results? Do you know what improvement measures should indicate progress towards the results? Do you know how your tactical work implements the strategy and which indicators it should improve? Are all these elements treated as hypothesis and experiments to create feedback and learning with which to steer and adjust?

If you’d like help answering these questions, using the X-Matrix, let me know!

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