Choosing what organisational change methodologies to use in a transformation program can be daunting, particularly as different tools often become a mishmash -- a confused mixture of Lean, Agile, Business Agility and many others. If you are a change leader looking to develop yourself and your team and ultimately create a successful business, having purpose is crucial.
Modern Art of Operational Success: Linking Organisational Methods with Objective Purpose
No matter how avant-garde we think we might be, we could all find something in London's Tate Modern Art Gallery we sincerely believe has no right to be there. Something so ugly, so futile, so outrageously meaningless that it does not deserve to be called art. And guaranteed, a few feet away, will be someone
else who absolutely loves it. The old cliché “... but, is it art?” is always invalid, no matter who asks it, because it presupposes a consensus that does not exist. The only truthful response to such an erroneous question is, “It depends on who you ask.”
Just as art cannot exist within the confines of an objective framework, organisational business methods cannot succeed without them. In this case, that objective framework is purpose. Without purpose, applying any kind of methodology becomes meaningless. Using one or more of the multitude of proven organisational techniques available today makes excellent business sense but using them for the sake of it or simply because they excite, engage or intrigue will dramatically erode their effectiveness.
Method + Purpose = Meaning.
When it comes to the application of organisational methodologies, two simple questions need to be kept in mind from the outset:
- What problem are we aiming to solve?
- What are the most appropriate methods for solving that problem?
Focusing on the paint instead of the painting.
Methods such as Agile, Lean, Kanban and Six Sigma are brilliantly effective methods, but they should never be considered as more than a means to an end. Often teams and even entire companies allow the techniques to gain such an elevated status that they eclipse what they are trying to solve. The method becomes the purpose, rather than the purpose guiding the choice of method.
Several of these methods are so immersive and dazzling, they can cause a damaging myopia or even outright blindness. While immersed in Lean, the obsession can become counting the number of Kaizen events that are up or the number of Green Belts to Black Belts while employing Six Sigma – as if these things are indistinguishable replacements of business outcomes.
Before long it is easy to fail to see the woods for the trees. Business objectives are diminished to the point of becoming, in the worst-case scenario, immaterial. This leads directly to desired business outcomes being downgraded to mere assumptions, and once your outcomes are neglected, you have got serious problems.
Form and Function: Implementing Organisational Methods for the Right Reasons
Back in the early days of Lean, corporate delegates would visit Toyota to see how the automaker employed it, observing the methods, tools and training on the ground. Inspired and excited, they would return to their own businesses buzzing with excitement, tripping over themselves to roll out their very own implementation. Often a painful confusion descended when it came time to assess the situation. The techniques that Toyota had seen so much success with had not worked so well for them. And why? Simple. Whoever they were, they were not Toyota.
Drive the car where you want to go.
They did not have Toyota's problems, neither were they aiming for Toyota's outcomes. By making no attempt to directly link and tailor learned methodologies to fit their specific and idiosyncratic needs, their implementation of Lean had been a largely pointless exercise. It was as if a visit to Toyota had culminated in the purchase of a new car, which had, in turn been excitably driven around and around the car park. Suddenly, they are left wondering why they had not ended up at their destination.
If you want to make green only ever mix yellow and blue.
There are ways to implement different methodologies that are complimentary and highly effective. There are plenty of other ways to mix them that will leave you with nothing but chaos. Some companies, for example, have attempted to combine Six Sigma with Lean and ended up with something extremely ugly that gives them the worst of both possible worlds.
Therefore, it so important to keep the problem foremost in mind and adopt the methods and practices that best suit the culture and circumstances of the business. Individual methods have specific impacts and have been designed to engage people in very different ways. Throw them together without understanding how they can be complementary, and you end up with a terrible mess.
Once the business problem being addressed is clear – process, delivery, measurement and so on, the best combination of methods to address it can be identified. For example, if something across an entire business is required, Agile would not be ideal. Designed for smaller units, Agile does not work at scale. Lean would be far more suitable, with Agile incorporated within it, if required. There are many such useful combinations that can be employed.
“Good enough” is perfectly acceptable.
“Operational excellence” alone will not lead directly to success. Becoming skilled at creating and implementing the right combination of activities is, in the long term, far more important than solely aiming to achieve unimpeachable operational targets.
Do not let methods become the master.
The sheer pace of change in today’s business world has given rise to a new create, deploy, experiment, replace improvement cycle, leaving little time for incremental improvements. Trying to improve a business to the level of excellence in this scenario is futile; the shelf life of these improvements will diminish at the same rate at which change increases.
A competitive drive for excellence in every part of the business lies behind the slavish pursuit for methods today, but letting methods become our master is a mistake. We do not make good slaves! Identifying the right combination of activities and ensuring we are performing them just well enough to beat the competition – and at the same time seeking new ways to do things, is a much better way of doing work. Or put another way: in a disruptive, fast changing world, do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
Insight from Stephen Parry
So, your business is in difficulty. You have one part of the business saying we could do better if the others did better. Everybody is blaming everybody else, but because of this silo mentality, there is no big-picture collaboration.
Often instead of getting people together to talk and create solutions from within, companies will go for a reorganisation or go to a seminar of mine on adaptability or bring me in and assume that once they have listened to me, they will have adaptability as if the method itself was the panacea, not the way in which that method is implemented and managed within the very specific and idiosyncratic framework of that company's problems.
“Methods will come and go, but the principles for engaging the willing
contribution of your people are timeless.”
They will do the same by utilising knowledge from a Lean conference or a business agility conference. They are buying a method and with that, they think they are solving their problems wholesale. They have devolved their responsibility to the method and they have encapsulated all their problems in 1 word, 1 solution.
At that point, the method becomes the purpose. If it is not working, they think, “We must try harder and do more of it!” So, we then put everybody through all the training programs, we do more Kaizen events, but nothing changes, because it will not work. They are working on the wrong problem. Methods will come and go, but the principles for engaging the willing contribution, creativity and problem solving of your people are timeless.
The key is talking and management becoming trustworthy. If you do not do that, you can throw more and more and more money after method, after method, after method. It will all be wasted. Your first duty should be to create an environment of such collaborative effectiveness that everyone knows the purpose of the organisation. Then build your problem solving around that purpose.
“Method wars create tribes.’’
When you introduce a method and it does not work, it is almost certainly not the method's fault. That method became recognised because it worked elsewhere. The reason it has not worked is a problem with you. What happens frequently at that point is that methods are swapped for others. People for whom the method has been working are forced to jump ship, and before you know it, you have an internal method war in full swing. And method wars create tribes. Some organisations even deliberately call these new teams “tribes,” which is of course ridiculous. The last thing we want in the world right now is more tribalism. Tribes live in silos and only ever venture out for a fight. All warfare has collateral damage and with tribalistic wars like this the collateral damage is going to hit you where it hurts – the customer.
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