It’s All About Agile and Lean

It’s All About Agile and Lean

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Ravi Kumar Pillai

Living in the age of disruption replete with rapid and unexpected changes is indeed challenging for all of us. As for businesses, the scenario is indeed daunting. Onslaughts by fierce competition and buoyant customer expectations dot the contemporary business canvas.

Competing for market share and customer attention is no more a marathon race; endurance is not sufficient to succeed. Today’s businesses should be much like sprinters and demonstrate energy, focus and winning attitude to beat competition. Companies need to be fit and alert to stay ahead of the curve. “Survival of the fittest” has given way to “survival of the nimblest.”

Customers and employees are central to business today. A clear paradigm shift from getting things done to thinking from the customer’s perspectives. Creativity, critical thinking and social competence are critical success factors for businesses. Change is the core theme of management today. The two defining trends in current management narrative are innovation and transformation.

Innovation essentially means breakthrough thinking. It triggers the development of new or improved products, services or processes. Transformation implies a holistic framework of change management that covers structure, systems and capabilities across the organization. Businesses need to transform in order to refocus strategy alignment, enhance operational efficiency and create novel customer experiences. Reluctance to change renders businesses irrelevant to the emerging ground realities.

While conceptual clarity and proactive planning are important, project management competencies are the key differentiators between winners and losers. Ability to anticipate and adapt to changes in business environment and customer needs define strategic preparedness of enterprises.

It is not mere coincidence that Agile and Lean are among concepts most discussed and debated in strategic management. It is necessary for everyone interested in product development or business transformation initiatives to clearly understand them.

‘Agile’ originated as a software development framework; ‘Lean’ emerged in response to the pursuit of operational efficiency ramp up in manufacturing. Both transcended their initial spheres of application and have since matured into broad-spectrum approaches to enhance efficiency, effectiveness and customer experience. Enterprises today recognize the synergy and complementarity of the two concepts. Together they present an integrated approach to ensure end-to-end project management effectiveness.

The traditional approach to project management is referred to as waterfall method, because like cascading water, the project is broken into a series of sequential steps starting with planning, all the way to delivering the planned outcome. At each step, progress is measured against the target and schedule. Enterprises across the globe have achieved success with waterfall approach. But waterfall works well in projects with relatively low uncertainty. Today, the risks and uncertainties of resources, funds, competition and customer expectations are varied and complex. In a project to develop a product that is yet to find a market, waterfall project management is an expensive and risky way to find the market fit. Similarly, for transforming an existing business that has slackened due to routineness and predictability of responses, a cross-functional and dynamic approach is called for to break the process entropy.

Agile is the answer. The Agile framework was presented in 2001 by a voluntary group of seventeen project managers from diverse fields of Information Technology in an attempt to find “an alternative to documentation driven, heavyweight, software development processes”. They drafted a ‘Manifesto for Agile Software Development’. The credo of Agile was spelt out with precision as follows therein:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
  • Working software over comprehensive documentation
  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
  • Responding to change over following a plan

(The words in the extreme left of each sentence show the highlights of Agile. The underlined words on the right at the end of the sentences indicate what Agile is NOT!)

Agile is a way of managing change with active involvement of stakeholders. Transformation, whether at macro, enterprise or individual level may appear too big and complex at first look. Like standing at the foot of Mount Everest and staring at the scary peak. Ask the mountaineers who succeeded in conquering the peak and they will tell you that they pursued the discreet and achievable targets which were broken down to the smaller time frames; they learned lessons from their experience, corrected the course midway and achieved the goal. Faced with unexpected challenges, they quickly huddled together and improvised the responses quickly. That is the way the agile works too.

Agile focuses on three pillars - customer focus; incremental achievements; checking and validating progress. Change involves people and their interactions. Processes and plans may draw up the blueprint for change. People make that happen. Most corporate transformation programs fail due to the disconnect and low engagement level of people.

Agile as a shared belief promotes inclusiveness, ownership and co-creation of initiatives. When Agile becomes the corporate culture, it creates and sustains openness, creativity, critical thinking and result orientation across the organization. It empowers employees to be focused, own up failures, learn from experiences and see actions and outcomes more from a team perspective.

Agile as a framework for product development has caught the imagination of organizations in Technology domain and beyond. While there are several methods of Agile, one of the most widely used approach is Scrum. It is based on a 1986 paper written by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka for the Harvard Business Review. The term, Scrum, is adapted from the game of rugby and indicates teams forming a circle and going for the ball to get it back into play when the game looks tight. Scrum has team effort, task orientation and realistic appraisal of constraints at its core. Scrum follows a structured approach with project roles and responsibilities clearly defined.

An implementation plan for Agile through Scrum would typically involve:

1. Reviewing the context, rationale and need to implement Agile in the organization. This initiative could be taken not necessarily by top management, but by any insider with strong passion and ability to present a persuasive case to the Management.

2. Identifying and assigning the Scrum Mentor - an external or internal resource who can play an effective facilitator role.

3. Getting top management buy-in. A transformation projects without express and visible sponsorship of top management has little chance of success.

4. Forming a cross-functional project team of passionate participants.

5. Building an eloquent shared vision of the project among the participants.

6. Assigning the key Scrum roles and responsibilities among team members and setting the procedures for discussions, recording and review.

The Scrum structure comprises of “sprints”, each sprint being a slice of the overall project with a fixed period of work cycle, typically between one to four weeks. The sprints enable execution focus, continuous monitoring and review of project progress. By going through the iterative process of discussions, review and refinement, Agile facilitates project implementation in an orderly, measurable and resource-optimal manner.

While Agile sets the tenor for product development and business transformation, Lean approach streamlines effective execution. Lean methodology developed around the Japanese approach to eliminate every potential wastage in a production process. Lean stresses on simple and productive processes to cut down the steps that do not add value. When applied to areas beyond manufacturing, lean implies eliminating wastages of various nature. Lean framework identifies eight potential wastes that can be eliminated such as wait (inbuilt delays in processes), defects (quality control issues), transport (logistics for resources and outputs), movement ( avoidable mobility due to defective process flow), excessive inventory ( input stocks more than operational requirements), over the production (surplus finished products inventory), avoidable processing and unused/underused knowledge and skills of employees. These factors were originally identified in a production scenario but apply to services as well. Unnecessary meetings and documentation are sources of the wastages. Eliminated wastages are equivalent to revenue earned!

Lean methodology has been applied to startup process by Eric Reis, the author of “Lean Start Up”. The “build-measure-learn” feedback loop is at the core of the Lean Startup model. After building the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) incorporating the essential and most critical customer needs into the product design, it is provided to a sample of potential customers for gaining their insight and feedback. Based on the rapid learning and review of feedback gathered, a series of iteration is undertaken to refine the MVP to a launchable product. Lean management keeps costs to the minimum and improves time-to-market.

Agile and Lean are invaluable tool kits to execute projects. The two processes should be seamlessly integrated to provide an end-to-end product development and execution framework. They are essential reading for entrepreneurs and change managers.

*Ravi Kumar Pillai is CEO and Principal Consultant, Cherrypick India Consulting and Business Solutions Private Limited, Trivandrum and can be contacted at cherrypickindia@