Setting Standards in Agile Organizations

Agility requires orientation. It’s exactly this alignment that enables effective autonomy and decentralized decisions, which make agile organizations so adaptable. But agility also requires common standards and conventions to ensure that effective cooperation of autonomous teams. So the question is not whether such standards are required in agile organizations, but rather how they are created and enforced.

The answer to this question is obvious and well known in traditionally functionally divided organizations: A separate unit of specialists is formed with the task of elaborating, implementing and then continuously improving guidelines, standards, processes, etc. Thus a few specialists design in an ivory tower the standards for the rest. Thinking and acting are therefore just as strictly separated as they were at the time of Henry Ford (where thinking in this sense was still more with the manager than with a specialized unit, but this does not change the principle).

Standards should not be forced down from above but rather set by the production workers themselves.

Taiichi Ōno

An essential innovation of the Toyota Production System, which Taiichi Ōno substantially shaped, was to bring thinking and acting together again at the Gemba, i.e., at the place where the value is created. This enabled Toyota to significantly increase productivity and not only to catch up with the American competition from Detroit from a desperate position, but even to outperform it.

The concepts and methods spread from the manufacturing industry as Lean Manufacturing to many other industries in generalization as Lean Management – including IT, where the Agile Manifesto can be read historically and in terms of content as an application of the Lean Management principles to the process of software development.

Something is wrong if workers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or boring, and then rewrite the procedures. Even last month’s manual should be out of date.

Taiichi Ōno

Owning not renting

For Taiichi Ōno, standards were the foundation of any continuous improvement (“Without standards, there can be no improvement.”). But he also knew that the only people who are allowed to develop and improve these standards and processes are those who practice them on a daily basis. The role of the manager in this game is a supportive one: it’s about empowering employees to do that continuous improvement instead of just instructing them.

Exactly these findings from Lean Management provide the decisive hint for answering the question asked at the beginning, how standards, guidelines, processes, etc. arise and should be further developed in agile organizations. All this clearly belongs in the hands and responsibility of those who have to work with them every day. The motto is: owning not renting.

Just like the task of the manager in Lean Management, the task of the former central offices for standards, processes, etc. changes according to this principle. Instead of prescribing and monitoring, they have to empower people to do this continuous improvement work on common standards. Through training and coaching on the one hand and through good community management on the other.

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