3 Ways to Approach Lean, Agile, Lean-Agile

When I was a senior manager, fresh ways to look at old situations were always welcome. Now that I’m a consultant and coach, approaching new situations in a Lean way is a key part of the job! Let me introduce three organisational perspectives that I have found helpful:

  1. Right to left
  2. Outside in
  3. Upside down

Not only are they great ways to understand what’s going on, they also help to demonstrate how Lean, Agile, and Lean-Agile thinking can make things better.

1. Right to Left

lean agile approach

If you’ve studied Kanban, you’ll know that we like to review our boards from right to left:

  • Starting at the right-hand side of our boards (where sits the work we recently completed): Will these items stay completed? Did we remember to capture what we learned over the course of doing this work?
  • What can we do to get our nearly-completed work over the line?
  • Are there any issues blocking our in-progress work? What’s being done to unblock them? For items that aren’t blocked, are they progressing as expected?
  • Do we have the capacity to start new work? If that opportunity is coming soon, do we understand what work we’ll choose next, and why?

As any Lean practitioner knows, right to left is also a great way to approach a process you don’t fully understand or isn’t yet working as well as you would like. Starting from the point at which customer needs are met and working backward:

  • Where do the required work products and other inputs come from?
  • By what simple, reliable, and low-overhead mechanisms can we arrange to get them just in time  – no sooner and no later?

Translating these Lean ideas into Agile (and adapted from our True North statement), we come to appreciate the power of starting not with our backlogs, but with our ability to deliver. Not just delivering against requirements, but verifiably meeting needs. Along the way and across the organisation: everyone able to work at their best, the right conversations between the right people happening at just the right moment.

2. Outside in

open-door policy

This too will be familiar to students of Kanban. STATIK, the Systems Thinking Approach to Implementing Kanban (to give it its original if slightly awkward full name) is an outside-in approach to systems design that instead of diving immediately into internals, starts with the customer’s experience of the service or system in question. It’s day 2 of the traditional 2-day Kanban training.

I’ve found that an outside-in approach works well for several kinds of review: strategy review (perhaps you’re engaging with an organisation for the first time), also service delivery reviews, Agile retrospectives, and other capability reviews, formal or otherwise. The next time you hold a meeting to carry out such a review, try this outside-in agenda:

  1. Customer
  2. Organisation
  3. Platform
  4. Product
  5. Team

Consider who would best represent each agenda item, what data they might present, and in what order their recent, ongoing, and planned initiatives might be represented (here’s a clue: right to left). Then consider the potential impact of that outside-in structure. What organisational contradictions, conflicts, and misalignments might be brought to the surface when these different concerns are brought together and reviewed in this kind of sequence?

3. Upside Down

Actively mentor team members

You’ve guessed it: Yet again we touch on something the student of Kanban is likely to find familiar. Here is the fourth and last of the Kanban Method’s Foundational Principles:

Encourage acts of leadership at all levels

Note that it doesn’t say “Have leaders at every level”! This is the positive end result, but it’s not something that happens overnight. It happens because, over time, enough people have chosen to invest in others. In the best organisations, it’s a habit.

Extending this idea, “upside down” alludes to the inverted pyramid, organisations whose upside-down organisation charts convey the message that the organisation exists to support who sit at the top, serving its customers. Leadership at every level is one important manifestation of this way of thinking.

Recognising that this is a long process, another important manifestation is that of change being treated as “real work” – recognised, managed, and rewarded accordingly. How should that real work of change and transformation be managed? Like any other work: right to left, outside in, and upside down of course!

Find out More

I have begun work on a new book that will be organised around the three themes of this post. If you have real-world examples of right-to-left, outside-in and upside-down thinking at work in a Lean, Agile, or Lean-Agile arena that you think might help bring these ideas to life for a general audience, do please get in touch. You can email me at mike@agendashift.com or join the #right-to-left channel in the Agendashift Slack.


About the author

Agendashift founder Mike Burrows is the author of Kanban from the Inside (2014) and Agendashift: Outcome-oriented change and continuous transformation (2018). He is recognised for his pioneering work in Lean, Agile, and Kanban and his advocacy for participatory and outcome-oriented approaches to change, transformation, and strategy. Prior to his consulting career, Mike was global development manager and Executive Director at a top tier investment bank, and CTO for an energy risk management startup.

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