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The culture behind Agile practices

Lean and Agile practices are all the rage at companies of all sizes, but culture is king when it comes to Agile project management success.

In this interview, Agile and Lean project management expert Joseph Flahiff discusses the challenges of combining Lean and Agile practices, and why building the right culture and asking the right questions are key to project management practice success.

Joseph Flahiff Joseph Flahiff

How are Agile practices evolving?

People are applying it to areas other than software development. I have people in my class working on an ERP implementation, which is software, but it's not software development so much as implementation. Another client is in marketing and sales, and he wants to figure out how to use Agile to solve problems with the way projects are being run in his organization. Another client works in a logistics environment, shipping goods, and is trying to figure out how to use Agile to do that. Well, you don't.

Why not? What should they be trying to do in terms of better project management, Agile- or Lean-related or not?

You have a set of problems that are unique to your organization and you need to look at solving those problems, but people don't want to do that. It's very hard work to create a culture -- the first thing people should do is create a culture where people can say, "This is broken," and not get slammed for saying that. The culture needs to change to look at solving the problems and not blaming the people.

But that's not where people are going. People are looking at Agile and saying, "Hey, there's a lot of success around it and a lot of buzz around it, so how can we apply it?" They're asking the wrong questions. They need to ask, "Where are the problems that we're experiencing?" and "How can we resolve them?" Mike Rother, who wrote [the management book] Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness and Superior Results, talks about how this same problem is happening in the Lean environment, where we've taken things like Kanban [a project storyboard] or just-in-time [training], and various tools from Lean in manufacturing, and we're trying to apply them and they don't always work. The hot thing in Agile right now is Kanban, and Kanban comes from Lean. It's a tool that helps with the continuous flow of products from request to customer. The problem is we've grabbed the tool, in this case Kanban, and we're implementing the tool when people should be looking at your problems and how to resolve them.

How can people start to look at the problem itself, rather than at a project management approach or tool to resolve a problem?

The first thing people should do is create a culture where people can say, 'This is broken,' and not get slammed for saying that.

Joseph Flahiff,
president and CEO, Whitewater Projects Inc.

Culture is slow to change, but the first thing to do to move in the direction of cultural change is [to] define what it is that your company does. What is value in your organization to your customers? Who are your customers, both internal and external? As a CIO, [you] need to figure out what is the value that my department, that my company, delivers, and how is that measured? Then look at the things that are slowing the delivery of that value. Next, create a culture that is constantly picking away, in little bits and pieces, at those problems, keeping you from getting there.

To explain the cultural difference: In Toyota Kata, Rother describes how Toyota has a cord that is pulled to stop production if there is a problem. I asked my class how many times they think that cord is pulled in a day. They said two, four, maybe six times. The answer is a thousand times in one day. If that number dropped to 700 in the United States, we would celebrate the improvement. What happened at Toyota is the manager called an all-hands meeting and said, "We are down to 700. That means either people don't feel comfortable pulling the cord when we should, or we are not pushing ourselves to improve. Let's get back up to a thousand."

Here in the States, if you raise the red flag in your PMO [project management office] and say, "This practice is a time-waster," you get slapped for it. In the Toyota culture, you are praised and told, "Great, let's go fix it."

What are some of the problems project managers are running into when they try to implement a combination of Agile practices and Lean?

Agile is heavily influenced by Lean. A lot of things that come out of Scrum, such as empirical process control and errorproofing, are Lean. The read, doing and done columns of Scrum point back to a Kanban board.

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It's not hard to integrate Lean and an Agile approach. The tricky part is understanding that most of what we think of as Lean is developed for manufacturing, so [in manufacturing] you're talking about creating a lot of the same things, while projects by nature are created to be one-off. Another challenge when trying to implement Agile is that it was designed for product management and not project management. Limited scope is fine for a project, but in product management you want to expand the scope and come up with new ideas, for example. On the other hand, if a project manager is constantly coming up with new ideas for the project, then they're guilty of scope creep. This is a fundamental tension we see in Agile [when it's applied in an organization where they're doing projects and not recognizing the product nature of Agile.

Are we going to see a new discipline emerge that takes the best of Lean and Agile practices? The best of both worlds?

I hope so. It would be culture management or culture growth. If you don't have that culture where it's safe to say, 'This is broken,' then you can't have constant improvement. I would hope there's a future that says the place where we're going is this discipline of culture management.

Joseph Flahiff is president and CEO at Whitewater Projects Inc., a firm that provides Agile project training and consulting services. Before establishing Whitewater Projects, Flahiff worked for a multistate health insurance company, providing Agile project management and training for a three-year, $20 million project that coordinated the work of more than 100 team members.

Let us know what you think of this story; email News Director Christina Torode at

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