Seven Practical Tips for Business Agility

April 16, 2019
12 minute read

It’s cliche now: innovation, change and disruption is more frequent than at any time in the past. Businesses continue to struggle with agility. Even after 10 or 15 years trying to speed up, some large organizations still have limited capacity to respond to change quickly. Practically speaking, what can these organizations do to get faster? And how can they get faster without causing other problems?  How can they achieve real business agility?

This article is based on the idea that there are common root causes preventing business agility.  Based on my experience with many organizations, as well as research conducted by innumerable researchers and consultants, the following is a good list to start with:

1. Reduce Work in Progress

Limit WIP for Business Agility - Highway Traffic

The single most important tip is this one! Most of us are completely oblivious to the damage caused by trying to do many things at once. If you can do just one of these seven tips to improve business agility, do this one.

Reducing work in progress (WIP) means simply that we must “stop starting and start finishing”. If you have five projects on the go all the time, then those projects are all going to take at least five times longer to complete than if you have only one project on the go at a time.

Why is this so powerful? The simplest way to imagine this is with the model of a road. If the road is full of vehicles, then all of them take much much much longer to reach their destination. If the road has lots of space, and very few vehicles, then those on the road can get to their destinations quickly.

In work environments, your stakeholders will ask you to do things, and you will likely say “okay”. However, if you start on new things all the time, you will have less and less time to focus on each of them. You will start to multitask. We know that multitasking is bad for our efficiency. Each time we have to switch between one activity and another, we have to give up focus, re-focus, and possibly re-set our work environment to work on the new task. Not only that, but mentally we will be less capable due to the stress of multiple unresolved concerns.

Finally, just from a simple mathematical standpoint, Little’s Law states that the average time to complete an activity is proportional to the number of activities currently in progress. In other words, the more stuff you’re doing, the longer it takes to do everything.

So how to change it? Depends if you are working…:
– …on your own, consider Personal Kanban
– …on a team, consider the Team Kanban Practitioner learning event
– …in a larger organization, consider starting with the Kanban System Design learning event

2. Improve Technical Capabilities

Business Agility - productivity and efficiency through technical capabilities

Why is the cloud so popular for businesses? Why are many large businesses implementing DevOps? The same reason: huge improvements in productivity. Essentially, the cloud and DevOps are both related to the technical capabilities and automation capabilities within an organization. By improving these capabilities, you create efficiency, quality, and even improve morale.

Efficiency is created when it takes less time to do the same task and when you stop doing some tasks that aren’t adding value to your outcomes. Most organizations are heavily dependent on technology. Often technology provides key market differentiators for a business. By improving technical capabilities, you go to the very core of the business. Technology often handles repetitive tasks for us. Automation of repetitive tasks through software or robots is often less expensive, and faster than having even highly-trained humans.

Quality is created when you create/do the right thing and it is fit for purpose to a customer. In many businesses, we suffer from mistakes, defects, or delays. Automation can often be applied to improve quality. But other technical capabilities also can help. For example, providing your staff with better tools helps them become more efficient.

Morale improves when people are doing work that satisfies their needs and their wants. As we improve our technical capabilities, our staff and colleagues will be able to focus more on the common motivators such as mastering their responsibilities, working more autonomously, and working towards a customer-focused purpose. Additionally, as your business improves its technical capabilities, your staff will appreciate your willingness to invest in improvement in general.

How can you do this? Simple: have your technology staff learn Agile engineering principles and practices which will have a direct impact on business agility.

3. Increase Skill

Practice makes perfect… it also makes faster (to coin an awkward phrase). Practice isn’t the only aspect of skill development. As people in your organization increase their skill level, your business will go faster. One interesting example of this is Toyota: everyone working on a manufacturing production line is compensated not based on time served, but instead based on the number of skills and the depth of skills.

Skill development requires investing time and often money.  The payoff can be large.  Although not every professional development investment will pay off, it is usually to the benefit of an organization to provide both defined and flexible opportunities for people to develop new and existing skills.  The hard part is measuring this benefit.  Often, the main benefit is in the speed in which tasks are accomplished and problems solved.  But, we can’t always know that there are direct cause-and-effect relationships since most work is complex.

If you want to develop skills, one way to justify the time and money spent is to do some historical data tracking: how long did tasks take in the past?  Then see if you can build a simple financial model for the impact of doing the same tasks in the future.  If you aren’t able to do this because of a lack of historical data, then you may still be able to create a financial model, but you will have to justify it more carefully, possibly with industry data.

In a way, increasing skill is a way of increasing personal agility… And personal agility at the level of your staff and managers increases business agility.

4. Parallelize Work

One of the biggest hinderances to business agility is the idea of working sequentially.  Most organizations have more than one person available to do work. How we organize those people around the work can have a huge impact on our speed. Many organizations organize people around specific skill sets. Then, work is passed from one person to another, or one group of people then another. This is a variation on the assembly line model. This model causes a great deal of inefficiency: sequential work steps take longer than parallel work steps.

A great example of this is cooking a meal for our family. It’s true that some steps must be done in a particular sequence. However, if we want to enjoy our food, we likely want all food items ready at about the same time. As well, if we have older kids, we naturally want them to help out with meal preparation since it shortens the time to do the work. For example, one child might prepare a salad while a parent cooks a steak and another parent prepares the potatoes.

The same can be done in a business to a degree that is often not realized. Most work can be parallelized with the right tools and the right skills.  At a team level, the Scrum framework provides a number of excellent techniques for helping to parallelize work when you are building products.  Consider attending the Certified Scrum Master or Certified Scrum Product Owner training, or consider bringing us on-site to do a non-certified Scrum Master training.

5. Discard / Filter Requests

Business Agility - Filter and Discard - Mountain of Trash

Sometimes a request just shouldn’t be accepted. This is the concept of making sure we are working on things that really matter. When we stop working on things that don’t matter, our overall productivity improves. Imagine that you are working on three tasks. The first task is going to save your business $1M, the second task might earn your business $20K/year, and the third task will make an existing customer become a reference account; it can sometimes be hard to decide what to work on.

So in order to filter requests, you need clear criteria. You need a clear understanding of the vision and values of your business. Anything that subverts those should be discarded, and anything that is tangential to them should be deferred or discarded. You need some simple business-oriented metrics such as Return on Investment, Time to Market and Customer Satisfaction to evaluate any given bit of work.

Also, you need the authority and/or the courage to say “no”. This is probably the hardest part of filtering requests. Sometimes you have to say “no” to a client. Sometimes you have to say “no” to a boss.

You can discard requests, and say “no” more easily if you make a deal with your stakeholders. The nature of this deal is that you will deliver faster, and with higher levels of reliability. In many respects, this is about re-establishing a culture of commitment and integrity.

The most important way to filter requests so that you improve your business agility is to focus on the customer. The customer is the person (or entity) who decides to spend money in order to use your product or service.

6. Reduce Variability

Reducing variability means looking at your work and seeing how the amount of effort varies among types of work or based on qualities of the work. For example, if you start a customer service task, and it takes 8 days to completely satisfy the customer (!!!), when your normal time to satisfy is just a few hours, then you should dig deeper into that activity. Possibly perform a root cause analysis. You may find that you can recognize a pattern or a decision, or a system that creates the initial problem. Then fix it.

As you fix the root causes of these sources of outliers (variability), your work will become more reliable, and in general, you will get faster.

Lead Time Distribution Graph

The above charts show “lead time distribution”. How long does your work take to do (horizontal axis) vs. the number of items that took that long (vertical axis).

By looking at the lead time distribution, and finding ways to prevent items from ever taking a long time, you can dramatically improve how fast you deliver things.  In other words, not doing the long lead time work improves business agility.

Learning to deal with the statistical elements of your work is an important skill introduced in the Kanban System Design (KMP I) and Kanban Management Professional (KMP II) learning events.

7. Improve Quality

Poor quality is one of the largest factors preventing business agility. However large it is, it is also one of the hardest to improve. Quality (and lack of quality) is often deeply rooted in the habits and culture of an organization. Therefore you will struggle to change it… just like you might struggle to eat healthier foods or watch more educational movies.

With several of our consulting clients we have found huge opportunities for improvement based on quality. One organization spends over 50% of their productive time fixing quality problems! Many organizations experience 20 to 35% of their time dealing with quality problems. This is common.

The solutions are often simple to describe and learn, but very hard to practice. If you have a bad habit that is causing quality problems in your organization, you will resist changing it because you will…:
– …want to deflect blame,
– …be comfortable with how you currently work,
– …want to minimize / intellectualize the problem, and
– …accidentally revert to bad habits in times of stress.

In order to improve quality, most people and organizations will need intensive hand-holding, extremely strong executive and leadership support, and a good long period of time to establish a new culture.

What to Do Next to Achieve Business Agility?

Some of the tips above may be easy for you… but others might be quite difficult.

If you are a manager or a business leader, I strongly recommend you attend one of our  Kanban System Design learning events.  And if you work with 7 or more other managers or leaders, I strongly recommend that you have our Accredited Kanban Trainer (Jerry Doucett) come to your location to run the session.  The Kanban System Design workshop will provide you the details and the in-class guidance on applying many of the above tips to your specific work environment and help you achieve real agility in your business.

Berteig Consulting

Empower Your Entire Organization with BERTEIG Consulting in Agile, Scrum, Kanban, SAFe and LEAN.

Bruce Power
Capital One
Equitable Life of Canada
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