There are many different variations of what business agility is. Personally, I like to think of it as a company’s ability to effectively and efficiently satisfy its target market through rapid experimentation and learning. Businesses nowadays need to be able to turn the ship around quickly and successfully grab opportunities once they spot them. Easier said than done, right?
In fact, when talking about business agility, I have this interesting analogy that I make with rock bands and musicians in general. Let me explain.
Beyond Local Optimization – What I Learned from Playing in a Rock Band?
Being a hard rock enthusiast myself, I have always wanted to play in a band. Fortunately, at one point in my life, I got the chance to do that and I was able to learn what it was like being in a real rock band. Even though we had some success, eventually I decided to focus my full attention on Kanbanize, but that’s a different story.
Anyway, when I was playing in the band, I realized that there was a close correlation between music and business agility. In music, it’s all about producing a strong and memorable melody. So, it doesn’t matter how fast and good the drummers are if the guitarists can’t keep up with their pace. You will get a distorted melody.
I believe the same thing applies to business organizations. If you turn some of your teams Agile, while the rest operate and think in the old way, you won’t get too far.
That’s why I see the solution here in systems thinking. Instead of looking to make local optimizations and trying to fix every single flaw in your organization separately, focus on the bigger picture. Alternatively stated, look to optimize the whole. The goal should be to build connected value streams that form a symbiosis and thus achieve an end-to-end flow inside your organization.
So how do we do that? This is where Kanban comes into play.
Kanban as Business Agility Enabler
In Agile, there is a lot of talk about the effectiveness of applying different frameworks or methods. Often companies end up doing Agile by following specific rules, without actually being Agile. While it’s OK to stick to the guidelines, in the beginning, we need to look for ways to dissect from them and avoid becoming mechanical, like robots. Putting ourselves in unknown situations is the only way we can evolve.
To back this up, I am going to share with you a quote by the famous American writer Henry Miller who says that:
All growth is a leap in the dark, a spontaneous unpremeditated act without the benefit of experience.
I believe that Kanban is a perfect illustrator of that mentality. First, you start with what you do now without applying massive disruptions to your existing processes. Then, you look to incrementally evolve them. This allows you to keep what has been working for you so far while reaping the rewards that gradually stem from Kanban.
As mentioned above, to enable business agility in your organization, you need to take a wider look at your systems and optimize the whole. Kanban allows you to do that through visualization of how the workflows throughout the system. This initiates organizational transparency and promotes shared understanding of the process, allowing leaders to swiftly change direction if necessary.
Furthermore, Kanban asks us to limit work in progress and focus on one thing at a time. This builds a pull system where teams commit to new work only when they have the capacity to do so. As a result, you will have the means to create stable work processes that enable a smooth flow of continuous value to the end customers.
The question is how do you implement those things in practice to achieve true business agility? Let me share with you 10 tips that work wonders for us at Kanbanize.
Tip #1 Mature your Kanban
It boggles my mind but many people still think that Kanban just means sticky notes on the wall. They divide their workflow into three work stages: “To Do”, “In Progress”, “Done”, visualize their tasks and then quit because Kanban didn’t work for them.
Why did that happen?
Well, because Kanban is so much more. To achieve business agility, you need to have a true Kanban system in place. If you are currently not doing Kanban, then I advise you to start and then look to gradually mature your implementation without rushing things.
A great way to do that in practice is to follow the Kanban Maturity Model and apply its practices with a dedicated Kanban tool. In Kanbanize for example, we do that with our own tool as each one of our teams continuously looks to refine their workflows for higher efficiency.
Waste is the opposite of value. So, you should be constantly aiming to eliminate as much waste as possible from your processes. To do that, you need to have a way to visualize it in your workflows so you can deal with it as soon as it appears. In practice, this can happen with the help of Kanban boards.
For example, things such as product and customer issues, waiting for approvals, blocked work, etc., are all waste that you should look to remove fast. This will allow you to free up your team’s capacity so they can deliver new value to the market more frequently.
Tip #3 Be Fanatical About Customer Support
When a customer comes to you with an issue, you should be able to provide them with support as fast as possible. This creates a great opportunity for you to collaborate with the customer and understand what their needs and wants are. As a result, you will have the chance to open up another feedback loop in your process that you can use to gather further insight about your product or service.
In Kanbanize, we track the time it takes for every support ticket to leave our system. This is known as “cycle time”, which we measure with a dedicated chart, called a Cycle Time Scatterplot. We aim to rapidly engage our customers in communication and not only resolve their issues but also gather fresh feedback from them. This leads me to my next tip.
Tip #4 Be Fanatical About Customer Feedback
In today’s volatile business environment, feedback is everything. The ability to rapidly execute on customer’s requests is what constitutes agility in organizations.
That’s why you need to use every single opportunity to collect customer feedback and then visualize it, so it becomes more actionable. As a product company, we do that with the help of a visual backlog where we record our customer’s requests. Then, we prioritize them based on urgency and demand. This process allows us to quickly deliver the most critical value to our target market and thus continuously satisfy it.
Tip #5 All Managers Should Be Teachers
When trying to achieve business agility, teams are usually the ones to get trained. Often managers lack from the equation because they are too busy. The expected result is suddenly everybody to get Agile.
I beg to differ. Business agility requires managers to turn into leaders, managing only the work, not the people. And all great leaders must be also teachers who lead their teams by example. That’s why I believe that when adopting Agile practices, it’s the managers who should get trained and then pass on what they have learned.
I see this as a master-apprentice relationship and it’s not only about getting Agile. Managers should cultivate their team’s talent and then use it to evolve their organizations in general.
Tip #6 Foster Horizontal Leadership
Many people work in companies with a vertical, top-down structure. Therefore, this is how most things happen in these organizations. The problem is that value is not generated that way. Instead, it is generated horizontally. It comes from an environment of constant collaboration between teams where the “official titles” are not of big significance.
In Kanbanize, for example, we strictly follow the paradigm that “nobody has a monopoly, on good ideas” and that “we are all leaders”. This enables us to think outside the box, freely share our opinions and accelerate innovation with our efforts.
Tip #7 Convert HiPPOs to HiPOs
Have you been a part of an argument where everybody leans toward the opinion of the person with the highest authority, even if they believe it’s wrong? I am sure that you have, at least once. This is what creates what is known as the HIPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) effect and often produces the worst business decisions.
To avoid that, you should look to create a safe environment in your company where team members are allowed to test different hypotheses and are not afraid to make mistakes. Once you have some data ready, discuss it with your team and make collaborative decisions based on the Highest Probability Option (HiPO), instead of relying on your gut feeling.
Tip #8 Everything is an Experiment
Remember how you can satisfy your target market? Through rapid experimentation and learning. Without experiments, we don’t have insights. Without insights, we don’t know what works and what doesn’t. Being Agile is literally about doing something small, testing it if it works and then adapting to the results. This is what closely depicts Deming’s PDCA cycle. When running experiments in your organization, it’s crucial to keep them short so you can get feedback and learn as fast as possible. Once the experiment is over, make sure that you have learned something from it and you have a clear idea of what steps to take next.
Another important thing to mention is how you track your experiments. In Kanbanize for example, we visualize and review them with the help of dedicated stages/columns on our Kanban boards. This keeps us up to date about the progress of our experiments and allows us to engage in collaborative discussions about what more we can improve.
Tip #9 Scale Kanban in your Organization
To achieve true business agility, you need to be able to quickly switch from one thing to the other so you can effectively turn the organizational ship around when necessary. I believe that the key to doing this lies within achieving high-level transparency of your processes by scaling Kanban across the entire organization.
In Kanbanize, we apply that technique by introducing interconnected Kanban systems. They go from the team level all the way up to the strategic level. In practice, this can happen with the help of both Management and Team workspaces. We use the former to visualize our company’s high-level strategic plans, while in the latter, we break them down into smaller deliverables that are connected to the teams responsible for their execution. This approach allows us to quickly adapt to the requirements coming from the highest level in the organization and promptly switch our priorities. As a result, CEOs and senior managers have a way to bridge the gap between planning and execution and thus effectively implement their strategic plans.
Tip #10 Be Inclusive
Last, but not least, I believe that we should be inclusive in whatever we do. Business agility is not something that you can achieve alone or within a week’s time of training on Agile practices.
So, look to invite anybody from your team or the Agile community with good ideas to support you on this journey. And don’t forget to experimentally evolve your processes. If you see that something doesn’t work today, collect your feedback, and adjust. This will allow you to be one step closer to achieving business agility tomorrow.