Blog of Rob Galanakis (@robgalanakis)

There is no essence of Agile

real agile is: talk to the users directly, know their pain point, address it, repeat. -someone on Twitter who I disagree with

In many conversations about Agile, especially as of late, I read something like the above tweet. I don’t know where the idea that Agile can be distilled down into one or two practices or principles comes from. Thinking this way is extremely harmful. If you think like this, I’d love to hear your explanation.

Agile methodologies come out of Lean thinking which comes out of the Toyota Production System (TPS). The TPS is incredible. It mixes explicit practices such as 5S, ideals such as JIT, and principles such as “respect for people” into a unified, harmonious way. TPS is often represented using a house metaphor as in the following image:


The house is an apt metaphor because every single component is structurally vital. “Talking to users” and “addressing pain points” corresponds pretty closely to “customer satisfaction,” which is the roof of the TPS house. The roof is elevated by the walls, which are secured by the foundation. The roof is integral to the function of a house, but no more so than any other component. Customers can only help inform what you produce. If you are unable to produce those things at high quality, speed, and efficiency, and improve over time, then it doesn’t matter how much you talk to customers.

Adding an Andon cord to an assembly line does not make a manufacturer Lean. Being Lean requires a whole set of practices, ideals, and principles working in unison. It can be TPS, or your adaptation, but it requires incredible rigor, skill, and learning, and it’s not simple. Likewise, no single practice, from TDD to iterations to talking to users, creates a well-performing Agile organization.

There are plenty of pseudo-Lean companies, just like there are plenty of pseudo-Agile shops. On the plus side, the damage from Six Sigma Black Belts is far more severe than the Certified Scrum Master racket.

Companies that are Lean are rare, and have been at it for a while. It’s silly that every JIRA jockey thinks they have learned the essence of Agile. Being Agile is difficult, complicated, and takes a while. Let’s not try and distill it down so much that we totally dilute it.

5 thoughts on “There is no essence of Agile

  1. Bjorgvin R. says:

    Hi Rob.

    How is the damage from the Six-Sigma camp so severe? I assume you mean within software development?


    1. No, I mean outside of software dev:
      It is very much the same as the Certified Scrum Master silliness.
      It’s so severe because it’s been around much longer and in much larger industries.

  2. Bjorgvin R says:

    It´s something I have a bit of experience with. And I think that the Six Sigma toolbox is pretty good in the manufacturing industry. I have a harder time seeing how it fits with research and development. Take software development, I think some of the six sigma stuff could be used on the metric/monitoring side, but I don´t see it fit at all in the development phase.

    I guess the old adage hold true: learn to use the tools, apply where appropriate, and leave them be where not. That worked pretty well for me in my previous company. No need to justify the fancy belts and stuff.

    1. I’m not surprised if Six Sigma worked well at Nokia. Nokia was an industry-leader in manufacturing and operations. In the same way, Scrum has worked well at many industry-leading firms.
      The problem is that once certain practices are codified into a set of tools or certifications, their context is lost, and doesn’t necessarily exist when the tools are next applied. I am sure there are endless companies where Six Sigma consultants have come in and wreaked havoc (directly or by proxy), or made changes that hopelessly drifted towards uselessness. This has happened over and over with Agile and Scrum. I’m sure every industry has a parallel.

  3. Stefan Sack says:

    “When scholars study a thing, they strive to kill it first, if it’s alive; then they have the parts and the’be lost the whole, for the link that’s missing was the living soul.”
    ― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust, Part One

    I think this quote captures well the frequent issues we are seeing when mechanically applying agile or Six Sigma. Just using the tools without “the soul” regularly misses the point.

    Still applying selective agile or Six Sigma practices or tools often does add value to the project or program. It just doesn’t carry all the way.

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