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  • Robert Enz

High hopes! A derivation of Lean-Agile leadership

Aktualisiert: 29. Dez. 2020

Remember the last innovation competition at your company? Your last teambuilding event? Last session on error culture? Latest initiative on boosting creativity by setting up a football table in the lobby or by placing a gaudy sofa next to a whiteboard? Guest lecture on Change Management? Latest encouragement by the management board to become a bit more like Google, Apple or any other bright star at the heavens of contemporary business? All that talking about out-of-the-box thinking, greenfield approach, about turning customers into fans and employees into entrepreneurs? How about the third major reorganization in the course of just four years? The recent wave of dismissals that has been justified by the need to maintain “competitive cost structures”? The numerous initiatives on Kaizen, Lean, Total Quality Management, Continuous Improvement, Process Management, Operational Excellence, Six Sigma and, yes, the ongoing hype about Scrum, Agile, Design Thinking that are on their best way to descend to the same buzzword level as their aforementioned siblings?


Assuming that hardly any of these efforts have ever led and, under today’s circumstances, will ever lead to sustainable success, it should be worthwhile getting to the root cause of these desperate activities. It’ll probably take no more than the first few minutes of your working day to get you there. If on your way from the company parking lot to your desk you have made one of the following observations you’re near to it:

  1. Reserved parking areas next to the elevators for management representatives

  2. Business dresscodes all around (preferably dark suit plus tie)

  3. The guy wearing Jeans doesn’t take the elevator up to the top floor

  4. Private office with extra amenities for your boss.

If no such observation can be made, get a coffee and be confident to see what is needed to trigger your cognitive process during your first meeting: There you will probably find management people coming late, leaving early, taking phone calls, assigning tasks, giving political statements.

Is it impossible to create a Lean-Agile environment under these circumstances?

Short-term: yes. The behaviors described above are means of expression, statements. Statements reflect attitudes that for their part represent values and needs. Here we reach the very baseline of human nature – and the baseline is hard to deal with. Unfortunately in our case the baseline conflicts with the Lean-Agile value system that leaves no room for non-intrinsic motivations which show up in aspirations to status and power. Our personal agendas, our unwritten policies, the constraints of thinking and behaving we set to ourselves prevent us from moving the slightest step towards Agility. Missing the tools? Forget about them: Agile is not about tools – just like Lean has never been.

But incompatibility of values is just half of the picture.

The other half is enrooted even deeper: in long-term socio-economic developments. To put it more precisely: In inertia – in our unwillingness to react to change that proceeds gradually. Give a warm welcome to the boiling frog that literally misses the deadline to jump out of water which is brought to a boil slowly! Decoding the picture the warming-up water represents the gradual replacement of industrial society by knowledge society while the idle frog stands for the omission to adapt our management style to the new realities.

Scientific management, known as Taylorism, has been the prevalent management approach during the age of industrialization. The concept was built on the premise that the management kept ahead of the factory workers in terms of knowledge. This enabled the predefinition of working procedures whose execution was made subject to close supervision. The management style derived thereof was a system of command and control designed to increase labor productivity. This concept worked more or less fine in the socio-economic environment of late 19th, early 20th century.

However, today the aforementioned premise is no longer valid. The game changing large-scale emergence of high tech has tilted the balance of power between management and employees on the field of knowledge: Nowadays business opportunities will emerge rather from innovative solutions brought up by experts than from the management itself. While this fundamental shift of prerequisites would compel a radically new management approach, we are holding on to tayloristic logics, running our companies by using levers and showing behaviors that are outdated and have lost their effectiveness. To name just a few of them:

  • Target agreements

  • Incentive payments

  • Neglecting outwork

  • Fighting idle time

  • Any form of joviality.

Some collateral damages can be found at the very beginning of this article.

Does the new balance of power make management redundant?

Not necessarily, but it fundamentally redefines management’s role and the requirements for the position. Not by chance the concept of Lean-Agile leadership, a management style tailored to knowledge society, is closer to the profile of a humanities scholar than to one of an economist or an engineer; which of course doesn’t mean that the latter cannot fill the role just as well.

If willing to go for it, here are some principles to lean on:

  • Understand leadership as service to your staff!

  • Remove impediments for your people!

  • Act as an enabler!

  • Create an environment made for knowledge-based work: Foster transparency, criticism, self-organization, lifelong learning, courage, trust!

  • Eliminate internal competition as well as demotivating policies!

  • Human capital is the most valuable asset of your company: Increase it by developing people!

  • Maximize their problem solving skills!

  • Lead by asking questions instead of giving instructions!

  • Embrace idle time!

  • Allow for flow experience by letting people pull demanding tasks and by keeping away any pressure from them!

  • Value individuals and interactions more than processes and tools!

  • Take time for relevant reading – which shall be rather Plato and Seneca than your industry journal!

Still motivated to go Agile?

The least purpose of this contribution is to discourage anyone who has come into contact with Agile and sees its tremendous potential. Quite the reverse: As a concept designed for knowledge society Agile will most probably solve the boomerang topics mentioned above that obviously result from a mismatch of contemporary socio-economic environment and applied management philosophy.

However, this article states that today’s Agile hype is unfounded and will end up in disillusionment as long as we do not shift paradigms. Given the deep psychological and historical anchoring of the latter this is a major challenge. Applying Agile without changing paradigms will cause damages instead of benefits – as has happened before to Lean.

What’s the essence of it?

If you bring a colorful tropical bird to the North Pole it will for sure make a good visual effect. But the bird will still die. So before bringing the bird prepare the ground. To do so, anticipate decades rather than balance periods.

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