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Lean | Agile Means vs. Ends

I’ll start this post with a comment by Dr. Alan Weiss:
“The entire point of bureaucracy is the triumph of means over ends. The results don’t matter, only that the rules are strictly followed.”

Do those of us focused on lean | agile practices run the risk of setting up new bureaucracies to replace the old waterfall bureaucracies? Do we pay too much attention to the means (stand-ups, Kanban boards, story-points) and not enough attention to the ends (business results)? Do we focus so much on following rules that we lose sight of the external business environment, strategy and objectives? Do we understand the “definition of done” for implementing lean | agile practices?

I raise these questions because I am starting to experience déjà vu. Nearly two decades ago, a friend worked at a company that went all in for Six Sigma. The Six Sigma initiative took on a life of its own. Strong leaders were pulled out of line functions, became Master Black Belts and sponsored projects that were only loosely aligned with the business strategy. My friend, who was an English major, was required to learn Mini-Tab in order to retain his executive position. The change management program took hold and people at all levels began using acronyms such as DMAIC, DMADV, CTQ and VOC in normal conversation. Those who resisted change either left the company or their careers were derailed. The Six Sigma effort became bureaucratic and “enforcers” ensured that all the Six Sigma rules were followed to the letter. When viewed from a change management perspective, the transformation was successful. Unfortunately, the business failed and it was eventually sold to a competitor. The problem was not Six Sigma per se. The problem was that Six Sigma became the end.

As we embark on efforts to scale lean | agile principles and practices, we need to remind ourselves that we are seeking to improve business outcomes and the principles and practices are merely an effective means toward that end.

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