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Agile and assembly lines

Coder Friendly’s got an interesting article about Agile Evangelism. First I’m not going to take issue with the article itself but something that he quotes from DanC’s Lost Garden on Managing Complexity:

The repetative (sic) steps that a single worker performs on an assembly line is a good example of a simple task

This is a terribly Fordist/Taylorist view to take of assembly work. That most beloved of industrial examples, Toyota, takes weeks to train its process-line workers to be able not only to do the simple repetitive steps of assembly, but also to be able to identify and rectify problems with the assembly-line. As Steven Spear, author of Chasing the Rabbit (my review here) might say, anyone who thinks that “assembly line” work is simple task probably doesn’t understand the nature of their process enough to keep up with their more innovate competitors, let alone outdistance them. Understanding your process, well more importantly, your organisational goals and how your process does or does not fulfil those goals, is critical to improving your organisation, and it leads me onto the idea of “evangelism”.

I both agree and disagree with Coder Friendly’s position:

Don’t become an evangelist yourself : look at your project and decide which methodologies is the most adapted. Sometimes, Agile is not the right one but if you see that your requirements are far from agreement or certainty, Agile approaches are probably a good choice.

I agree that “evangelism” can be politically off-putting.People don’t react well to being told their old kool-aid contains poison, and to uncritically drink this new kool-aid instead. However the main problem I have with a statement like this is that non-Agile companies use this “adaptation” argument and approach, in order to keep their poor contexts alive. This is the fallacy that’s found in ‘scrum butt': “Oh we do Scrum, but …”. The clauses after the ‘but’ are typically critical. The organisation concerned is usually trying to keep some essential organisational dysfunction alive, because of politics, resistance to change, simple misunderstanding, lack of understanding about their own process, or maybe even simple laziness. I’ve got no problem with an organisation that is mature in its use of an agile method adapting it to their local circumstance – in fact if you are doing it properly, with its emphasis on empowering teams to own their process and carrying out regular ‘inspect and adapt’ at the end of every iteration, after six or twelve months of this the process will most certainly be adapted to the local conditions.

However, the real danger is at the start of the agile adoption process, when you have people hand-waving about “can’t do that here”, for whatever value of that there is. I’ve seen it said about: pairing; story boards; acceptance criteria; automated testing; retrospectives; daily stand-up; adaptive and emergent design; and just about every other aspect of XP or Scrum process. The reason is, I think, that these organisations rarely understand what the real organisational goals actually are, and they understand even less about their existing process, to the point they just “do” the process that “is”. “It is what it is”, is a great term, and if anyone says this to you it’s just a fatalistic attempt to accept as unchanging something you can change. Accept the bad. Don’t think it could be better.  Attempts to meddle in the process, i.e. change it, induce fear, and with fear often comes timidity.

This is where you need a real agile evangelist. This is not someone who just thinks that Scrum or XP or whatever other process should be blindly substituted for the existing one, but someone who understands that process is about competitive advantage, eliminating waste, and that you have to start from a known position and continuously work towards improvement. Change is not just good, but necessary, and you need those change agents. Passion for doing things better is bad? Only in a change-averse company. So learn your existing process, thoroughly, and then learn the proposed agile process, thoroughly, and only then will you be able to ‘synthesise’ a replacement. Only I think you’ll find that replacement will look a lot more like the plain old agile process than your existing unagile process. After all, if your existing process already has adequate inspect-and-adapt cycles within it (not lip-service ones, real ones), probably you are already doing and agile or lean process even if you don’t call it that, and you’re already number one in your marketplace. If not, perhaps you require the passion of an evangelist.

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