Paying attention to Management attention

I’ve been talking recently about the challenges of keeping sustainable sticky Continuous Improvement programs. An aspect I’ve mentioned but not emphasized enough is the lack of management attention. In this blog post I will focus on why management attention is so important in improvement programs, why is it lacking and what might we do about it.

Why we need management attention

Basically to change the system of work you need the attention of people that are in charge of it and can change it. If they don’t have enough capacity to work on the system you will end up stuck. You might find yourself focusing on local optimizations, you might even make progress in things that affect the overall system, but changing things like management decision filters, approach to targets (or lack of them…), relations between silos and the like will be difficult.

You might rightly ask: “Aren’t we supposed to trust the people working in the system and empower them to take charge of the system design and improvement?”. Yes we should! But getting to such a system typically requires significant change/transformation of how the system of “changing the system” works. You need attention of the people in charge of that system to change it. We’re back at square one aren’t we.

You might make a case for Guerilla warfare – working with people on the ground to change the system of work without showing up on the organization’s radar or at least without requiring formal support. That might work for initial “scouting” and establishing a case for new ways of working. I haven’t seen or heard of cases where the guerilla warfare was able to scale the change in a persistent healthy way throughout the organization.

So basically, can we agree that at least at some point of changing the system of work or system of improvement we need the people managing the system to start investing attention/capacity cycles in studying and improving?

For my inspiration on this term of “Management Attention” and it being the constraint of our systems you should watch Exploiting the Constraint: Management Attention by Eli Goldratt.

 

Why are we lacking Management Attention to Improvement work

Many managers don’t pay as much PERSONAL attention as we’d like to studying and improving the system of work or in the capabilities of their organization. Why is that?

Some managers thrive on urgency and opportunities for heroism. One can probably inquire about the ecosystem in which those managers thrive and who is responsible for changing that system. Basically as long as the organization cherishes and commends this kind of management rather than quiet steady capabilities-focused management we shouldn’t be surprised. The counter-measure? Seek to change this “policy” constraint which typically is driven from way up… This can be hard, but if you don’t deal with it don’t expect much traction.

Other managers DO care about improving the capabilities of their organization. They DO care about the system. They just don’t have the capacity / cycles to invest in it.

Let’s pause for a second and reflect on this issue from a different perspective. We’re all familiar with the team that is so busy delivering value that doesn’t have time to retrospect let alone take action towards improvement. What can such teams do? They can start by bringing their system of work under control using approaches like Kanban or Scrum. Then they can start allocating capacity to improvement. Scrum forces team to spend at least the “Retrospective” ceremony time for improvement but still many teams don’t take action based on the retrospective. Allocating capacity towards “Improving the system”/”Housekeeping”/”Engineering Improvements” or however you want to call it is key to getting actual results and feeling that the time spent in Retrospectives or Kaizen events is well spent. This allocation of capacity can be achieved in Kanban by always having one experiment in progress for example. Or one experiment in every Sprint Backlog if Scrum is more your cup of tea. So what can we learn from our advice to teams?

Personal Agility for Managers – Exploiting the constraint

A manager can start to bring his work under control by using an approach like Personal Kanban. Once under control he can start allocating capacity and attention towards improving. Improving his personal system of work, so he can free more and more capacity to strategic themes in his system of work. What might those be? For example driving and supporting improvement agendas of the organization he’s in charge of.

If managers are a key leverage point for improvement programs, we can also see them as bottlenecks/constraints for the “System of Improvement”. What we are suggesting here is to focus on this constraint and ensure managers achieve the best results they can with the time they have.

Decentralized Control – Subordinating to the Constraint

The next step is to subordinate to this constraint. Subordinating means to look at the system and finding opportunities to divert work from the constraint elsewhere, or do work in a way that makes the work of the constraint easier/faster. One way to achieve that is to Decentralize Control. If more and more work can be decentralized, we can free management attention/time. This can be “work” decisions such as what to pull, how to deal with conflicts etc. It can also be “improvement” work. They key though is to do it right. Not just decentralize but give good guidance as to the Intent of what we are trying to achieve. For a great talk on this subject watch Donald Reinertsen’s LSSC12 Talk.

 Takeaways for Lean/Agile Journeys

My current thinking is that helping managers improve their personal agility using approaches like “Personal Kanban” should be a key building block of successful improvement program. I started nudging managers I’m working with to consider this when I’ve seen them become the constraint for the “Improvement Journey”.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that many of AgileSparks‘s current clients are exploring “Personal Kanban” in parallel to improving their wider systems. We are also working to help them pro-actively. AgileSparks coaches such as Danny Kovatch have been working on Personal Agility programs and approaches for a while now, Jim Benson exposed many people in israel to Personal Kanban in his Agile Israel 2012 talk as well as a workshop he ran when he was here.

A great side effect of working on something like “Personal Kanban” while running or preparing for a “Kanban Method” journey is that a key group of stakeholders for the journey are experiencing it first hand and leading by example. If they can “Limit WIP” and show to people they are doing it, there’s a higher chance that “Stop Starting Start Finishing” will stick on the team kanban board. Or on the portfolio board. It might be an interesting approach to start with Personal Kanban as preparation ground, even before management attention surfaces as the constraint. OTOH we might be working on a non-issue. If managers are not the constraint in a specific situation, should we still start with their personal agility? I can go either way on this, and would love to hear what other Kanban practitioners/consultants think.

Bottom line

There’s a good chance management attention is the constraint of your system. Identify if that is the case. Exploit it by offering managers “Personal Kanban” as an approach that can help them free scarce capacity. Subordinate to this constraint by Decentralizing Control intelligently while aligning using strong Intent. Leverage the cool side effect of having managers use similar approaches to take control of their work that their group is using to take control of its work.

TODO in a future post: How can we reliably identify if management attention IS the constraint? I have several thoughts on this, but will leave them to a future post.

Your turn

What do you think? Is management attention a typical system constraint? Is personal agility a good way to deal with it? Have you found other ways that worked for you?


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2 Responses to Who would have thought Personal Kanban would end up being the counter-measure to stalled Kaizen / Continuous Improvement?

  1. Hi Yuval

    Thank you for a very thought-provoking post!

    You hit on some key points here. But I think the need for Personal Agility goes beyond managers in the organization. It’s something we need at all levels, and for a while now, I’ve been of the opinion that many agile adoptions fail because the individuals within the teams are not agile within themselves, and therefore incapable of embracing the culture and mindset that an organizational implementation of agile brings.

    If we take your idea of having managers explore Personal Kanban in parallel to the wider organizational improvement, then wouldn’t it have even more of a positive reinforcing effect if all individuals in the team explored it, too?

    And to take this idea another step further back (which is why I’ve now moved to education, from software development), wouldn’t we have more success with changing the way people work, if they were introduced to agile thinking during their formative years? To do this, we have to disrupt the fundamentally flawed industrial system of education that most of the world employs.

    And if I take this one final step further back – I think we get to Kidzban! ;-)

    Regards,
    Maritza

    • yuvalyeret says:

      No argument … I think you nailed it.

      Just a question of balance and positioning and where each of us wants to focus and feels he can make the biggest difference while feeling fulfillment.

      Thanks,
      Yuval

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