Lean-Agile Leadership Series – Post 4: Clearing the Way as a Leader

Think of a train moving down the tracks, heavily loaded it can plow through just about any obstacle. There are times however where obstacles become so large or numerous, such as when deep snow covers the tracks, that it’s necessary to place a large plow on the front of the train. This plow is what will allow it to move through the terrain with greater ease of efficiency and decrease the likelihood of a derailment.  That train is your organization attempting to deliver value, and you are the snow plow up front clearing the way.

As a lean-agile leader one of the most important things you’ll be working to do is to actively and pro-actively remove roadblocks holding your teams, programs, and processes up.  Part of the lean concept is to remove waste and streamline flow throughout your system.  That said, many of the organizational impediments to progress surface as delays and bottlenecks.

The focus of the teams is to keep their heads down and working towards the goal.  When they run into an impediment it’s up to them to let someone know, usually that someone is the team scrum master.  Often the scrum master is able to handle roadblocks on their own and require little outside assistance in order to move forward.  There are times however that the impediments are much larger and/or organizational in nature and they need help.

The lean-agile leader is one of the escalation points for teams to take these roadblocks to for resolution.  Ownership of the issues and follow-through are key to ensuring that progress is not impeded for long.  The longer the delay the more potential cost, lost opportunity, and/or missed commitments begin to surface.  

What about the issues that aren’t reported?  This is where your experience and perspective will be invaluable in helping you find and solve some of the trickiest of problems that organizations can face.  Being proactive and reviewing data, monitoring the flow of value, and conducting periodic assessments are great ways to nip issues in the bud before they become a larger obstacle to progress down the road.

We’ve often asked leaders to make themselves more visible and available to the teams in an effort to proactively identify anything that could potentially impact their teams in the future.  With their eyes focused on the end goal many teams can’t see the forest from the trees and get lost in the details or day to day tasks they’re working to accomplish.  As a leader who is familiar with their organizations process, team practices, and framework knowledge you’re best equipped to seek out and correct these opportunities for improvement.  

What types of things should you be looking for?  Most often roadblocks show up as delays in our delivery, missed commitments, and a general lack of movement of value throughout the system.  While conversations with those closest to the issues might help you solve these problems, most teams aren’t even aware they’re experiencing a problem until several cycles have passed.  This is much too late in the process and in a complex scaled environment, can delay an entire division or group from completing on time and meeting customer expectations.  

Getting familiar with the different types of data available to you will be instrumental in moving down this path.  Understanding average lead time, team cycle times, WIP effects on work completion, and delays in the deployment systems are all great places to start.  Depending on the tools available to you and your organization this data might be available real time alleviating the need to do research over extended periods of time.

A couple pieces of advice. The data is there to help teams and organizations improve themselves.  It’s not there to compare one team to another and/or berate teams who are underperforming.  We use data to reflect back a reality to a team so that cycle over cycle they have opportunities for improvement and stability.  If leaders begin to use this data to beat teams into submission, the value of the data decreases over time since teams will catch on and do their best to make the data look good, regardless of the reality behind it.

Secondly, don’t trust just one piece of the data to tell the whole story.  You’ll often need more than a burn-up chart, CFD (cumulative flow diagram), and the number of defects to really tell the whole story.  Utilize the data coming out of team and program retrospectives that get to the root causes of these issues and focus on the potential solutions that can arise through that process.  If the teams that are experiencing the issues aren’t conducting regular retrospectives and having the tough conversations necessary to improve, work with the team scrum master to come up with a plan to get the teams back invested in the inspection cycle.

Finally while it’s important to help the teams remove the impediments and keep moving forward, it’s equally important to do your best to ensure that you’ve laid a foundation to keep it from happening again.  There are going to be times where it’s necessary to implement something that will help in the long term, be sure to anchor these changes in the team process or organizational framework.  There will also be times when an obstacle you face is man made, or team made.  Be sure the teams also take some ownership in the resolution of these issues otherwise you might later find your teams buried in organizational debt that they unwittingly built and you inadvertently enabled by not informing, nor allowing them to take ownership of their part in the debt.

Interested in finding out how you can transform your business or organization? Contact AgileFire today for a free consultation!