Moving forward
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Moving forward

Agile dojos for organizations in transformation

An organization’s transition to agile forms requires upheaval of the status quo and may be perceived as scary. Field experience has inspired us to create a model to facilitate it.

Written by Samuele Pretini — Agile Coach
I am a Lean / Agile coach. These concepts guide my attitude, every day I try to combine them with my engineering background to deliver the greatest value.

I want to share with the reader an idea of an organizational model to make people work together: what we sometimes call “work,” but which could also become an activity in which more than one person is involved.

These reflections stem from the field experience gained by accompanying and facilitating the agile transition of some organizations. It is not my intention to bring out the umpteenth organizational framework but to outline the contours of space for experimentation, based on lean and agile principles, that allows organizations and their employees to evolve in conscious and critical respect those same principles and values.

The conscious organization

People often consider the company as a monad, a single entity, closed in on itself, without contact with the rest of the world, and self-sufficient — an organism in a vacuum.

The reality is a bit different; every company is a universe made up of many entities, which is part of something much larger and more complex.

A living organism is composed of cells, discrete, living, and active entities, each of which performs a straightforward task and, at the same time, interacts with other cells and with the outside world. This organism produces value, but only through the continuous interaction of all its parts.

There is room for functional specificity, but not for sectionalism, silos, and power games because this would only damage the whole organism. Everyone’s attention must be focused on the company, which, all together, must live and act to carry out its task and produce value for its end customers.

The ultimate goal of my model is to foster the autonomy and self-determination of working people and prepare for them a fertile territory ready to be changed. This space respects the fundamental values and principles and the vision of the teams, the company, and the final users.

The model tries to favor the autonomous and partially spontaneous yet controlled evolution of a group of people who, working together, talking, and making mistakes together, manage to evolve by leveraging their internal capabilities, with a minimum of external help from coaches or specialized figures.

The path is modular and flexible according to the specific needs of the realities it applies: you can therefore design a course that involves a few or many people, but those involved must be genuinely active and aware of the road they are traveling.

I have emphasized the dimensions of freedom, operativeness without many constraints, not even methodological, without necessarily dictating rules and expecting them to be followed by faith.

The most significant value that people can obtain through the action of a coach in a path of evolution is awareness of themselves, their current reality, and their intellectual capacities. When I speak of attention, I mean an understanding of the pain points and difficulties experienced every day and of one’s real possibilities of putting in place countermeasures to counter them.

Beyond the isolated continuous improvement, the productive cell.

The model that I am about to describe is an architectural and organizational form that can be adopted by one or more Teams, including the whole company. The primary element is the single Team and includes paths and attentions addressed to the individuals who compose them.

The Kaizen Team is a collection of people who embody the spirit, the values, and principles of the Lean and Agile philosophies, along with those that inform the corporate culture. The people in this Team are those who, better than others, have adopted the methodologies and practices that characterize the architecture proposed in this article and know very well the operations and production peculiarities or habits of their company.

On the other hand, the production cell is made up of a group of people who, all together, have the necessary skills to be able to carry out the realization, or the maintenance, of a product or service. The cell resembles the traditional concept of Team but extends it: it can contain one or more Teams, all involved in production.

The cell is independent but lives in an organism — the company, for example — of which it is integral. There is a symbiotic relationship essential for the life and prosperity of the business and the delivery of value.

The cell needs other entities to perform tasks external to the production, such as purchasing semi-finished goods or services, recruiting people, etc. In this aspect, the model has a very close affinity with the idea of the Lean factory. These considerations are valid whether the company operates in software development or manufacturing.

The illustration represents a configuration in which multiple cells work together to build value. The reality may be simpler than this, with a single cell (made of multiple Teams) that alone operates and is sufficient for the purpose of production.

The pre and the post cell

Communicating cells directly with the outside world could be detrimental to the cells themselves, their stability, durability, and performance, and the value produced, which may not be at the expected levels for reasons of time, coordination between competing activities, etc.

The cell is then joined by additional activities that complete the proposed model: the pre-and post-cell.

Pre-Cell

The purpose of the Pre-Cellula is to have an initial contact with the outside world to direct the most suitable cell or cells to perform the required work. In other words, the pre-cell is a filter that lets through only the right things, at the right time and in the right way. It will be the task of the cells to make contact with internal and external stakeholders and involve them in the production according to an iterative-incremental process.

The output produced by the pre-cell is a backlog for each production unit or a group of cells. The input backlog to the cell contains the blueprints, and the pre-cell crudely roughs out the needs.

The cell’s job is to take such projects or requests, analyze them, and initiate production by constituting its internal backlog.

The pre-cell is composed of a homogeneous representation of the people who make up the cells. It, too, will consist of all specialties. People can also rotate within the cell and the Pre-Cell to involve everyone in the whole organism.

Post-Cell

Regardless of the specific reality, the output of every single cell is something useful, of recognized value, and that works perfectly. Therefore, it is better to talk about ‘outcome’ rather than ‘output.’

The outcome of one cell could be a part of something much more significant, consisting of the creation of other cells or coordination between different results. Or a cell might produce several outcomes, and their outward release must be controlled. In all these cases, the post-cell acts.

The post-cell protects the cell from the harshness of the market and reality without isolating it. The coordinated action of the pre-cell and the post-cell protects the cellular tissue from potentially damaging stresses that could distract the production units from generating value.

Kaizen Team people will help, assist, and participate as supervisors, mentors, or trainers in the cell or Pre/Post Cell activities. They will bring their experience and expertise to help other people in their most delicate steps or facilitate everyone’s evolution and improvement.

The cell is flanked by entities that complete the proposed model: PreCell and PostCell have the function to protect and facilitate cellular activity .

Activities of related functions

Let’s keep in mind that the company is not formed only by the directly engaged people in production. Instead, we have to consider the whole ecosystem also created by the people who work around those who do the production contributing in an equally substantial way to the production of value: the functions of HR, Operations.

While previously, these functions performed tasks supporting the company and its people, in this scenario, their focus is on value delivery. Some of the tasks will be done directly in the cell, and the remaining part will have to be done by related functions.

Everyone must take an interest in production, be present at events, and feel the mood. Complementary functions must be aware of what is going on and how production is proceeding to fulfill their new task: to be at the disposal of the improvement of the working conditions.

The Agile Dojo

The passage towards the organic structure is certainly not automatic because it involves a profound change in conceiving work and the production of value. It is not even sure that the organism wants to transform itself entirely if we continue with the metaphor. So we see the concept of the dojo, or platform, emerging, pushing people to experiment with specific organizational solutions in the wake of the critical concepts of the Lean and Agile philosophies, made available to them in a playful and cheerful, non-coercive way.

In the case of a cell, it should have specific characteristics such as multidisciplinarity, decision-making independence, the ability of self-determination, the choice of its members, etc. But cells should collaborate, especially those that together contribute to the construction of a common goal. Such collaboration is all the more valuable, the more we think and want some key production indicators to be good: for example, the time of realization of features, the percentage of errors made and the time of their resolution, etc.

People could use this arena to experiment with various organizational solutions. Non-Agile or Lean solutions could also be tested and then draw their observations by comparing them to others.

As you can see, architecture is a preferential way, a marked path, but it does not rigidly impose a way of working. On the contrary, it provides people with fertile ground, ready to apply the values and principles of the Lean and Agile philosophy. It will then be up to those who work to adapt the architecture to practical reality without changing the few solid bases on which it is based. Among these bases, however, there are wide margins of action and adaptation. This availability is at the complete disposal of people, who obviously must be prepared and aware of doing. Hence the need to provide a theoretical/practical basis for all the people who will be involved so that no one has to wonder why things are done, and at the same time, everyone can advance their ideas for improvement autonomously and consistently.

Certainly, the dojo is based on and facilitates the exercise of Lean and Agile values and principles. Still, let’s think about this. We will find that it is mainly a way to get used to reflecting, thinking about ourselves and our work constructively, and criticizing what we do for the sake of improvement, always refraining from denigrating others to assert ourselves and our thinking. With this model, I would like to promote reflection on what we do and how we do it on a freeway and free from retrospection but only oriented to our evolution. The Hansei precisely.

Short bibliography

  • Toyota Way — J. Liker
  • Toyota Way per le Lean Leadership — J. Liker & G. Convis
  • Lean Thinking — J. Womack & D. Jones
  • Lean Philosophy — V. Mascherpa
  • Management 3.0 — J. Appelo
  • I 10 insegnamenti di Taiichi Ohno — Y. Wakamatsu & F. Capellozza

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