The Agile Counterfeiters on Their Way to Cargo Cult Hell

Anyone who imi­tates Spo­ti­fy or intro­duces SAFe or obtains imi­tat­ed or fal­si­fied agile frame­works and dis­sem­i­nates them as best prac­tice will be pun­ished with futile rit­u­al prac­tices of not less than 20 hours per week and employ­ee. The way into the agile car­go cult hell is well paved with best prac­tices, blue­prints and frame­works and is bor­dered by bill­boards say­ing: “Don’t invent the wheel again!” Agili­ty, how­ev­er, is less a ques­tion of meth­ods than of prin­ci­ples and stance.

Essen­tial­ly, all mod­els are wrong, but some are useful.

George Box

Let’s get this straight: All frame­works and mod­els have their jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and are use­ful in some way and in the right con­text (yes, even heavy­weight frame­works like SAFe have use­ful aspects). The prob­lem is not the meth­ods, but blind belief in meth­ods. And on the oth­er hand, all mod­els are wrong if they are intro­duced and rolled out from above with­out the nec­es­sary under­stand­ing of the prin­ci­ples behind them and with­out the right attitude.

Yoshi­hi­to Waka­mat­su reports an inter­est­ing anec­dote about Tai­ichi Ohno, who sig­nif­i­cant­ly influ­enced and fur­ther devel­oped the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem, in his book “The Toy­ota Mind­set, The Ten Com­mand­ments of Tai­ichi Ohno”. Dur­ing a vis­it to a Toy­ota plant, Ohno was accom­pa­nied by anoth­er man­ag­er. This man­ag­er noticed the appar­ent flaws in the imple­men­ta­tion of the Toy­ota pro­duc­tion sys­tem and asked Ohno why he had not cor­rect­ed them imme­di­ate­ly. His answer:

I am being patient. I can­not use my author­i­ty to force them to do what I want them to do. It would not lead to good qual­i­ty prod­ucts. What we must do is to per­sis­tent­ly seek under­stand­ing from the shop floor work­ers by per­suad­ing them of the true virtues of the Toy­ota Sys­tem. After all, man­u­fac­tur­ing is essen­tial­ly a human devel­op­ment that depends heav­i­ly on how we teach our workers.

Tai­ichi Ohno

Need­less to say, Ohno could have demand­ed com­pli­ance with the Toy­ota pro­duc­tion sys­tem by virtue of his author­i­ty. But he had under­stood that the result­ing blind obe­di­ence would cre­ate more prob­lems in the long run than this short-term cure would solve. Instead, he relied on teach­ing the work­ers bet­ter in the prin­ci­ples behind his model.

For the mere imple­men­ta­tion of a frame­work this is clear­ly a very tedious and time-con­sum­ing pro­ce­dure. How­ev­er, Tai­ichi Ohno aimed for more. For him, the empow­er­ment and enable­ment of the peo­ple affect­ed was an inte­gral part of this change. And that not only for the mere appli­ca­tion of a few meth­ods, but also and espe­cial­ly for the con­tin­u­ous fur­ther devel­op­ment and adap­ta­tion of the Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem along its under­ly­ing principles. 

Some­thing is wrong if work­ers do not look around each day, find things that are tedious or bor­ing, and then rewrite the pro­ce­dures. Even last month’s man­u­al should be out of date.

Tai­ichi Ohno

It is pre­cise­ly this empow­er­ment that makes the deci­sive dif­fer­ence between beau­ti­ful­ly cel­e­brat­ed car­go cult and real change. So there’s no rea­son why the agile trans­for­ma­tion should­n’t be inspired by good exam­ples like Spo­ti­fy or based on (seem­ing­ly) ready-made frame­works like SAFe, but please not only super­fi­cial­ly! As with the often imi­tat­ed and rarely reached Toy­ota Pro­duc­tion Sys­tem by Tai­ichi Ohno, this means pro­mot­ing the self-orga­ni­za­tion of those affect­ed on the basis of prin­ci­ples and there­by enabling and empow­er­ing them to fur­ther devel­op these meth­ods. This way is more stony, but it is worth it.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less trav­eled by,
And that has made all the difference

Robert Frost. The Road Not Tak­en.

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By Marcus Raitner

Hi, I'm Marcus. I'm convinced that elephants can dance. Therefore, I accompany organizations on their way towards a more agile way of working. Since 2010 I regularly write about leadership, digitization, new work, agility, and much more in this blog. More about me.

1 Comment

Thanks for the good arti­cle and the inspir­ing quote of Mr. Ohno. Now, put this in con­trast to ISO audit hell. There, you work fran­ti­cal­ly on ful­fill­ing what­ev­er stan­dard pro­ce­dure and doc­u­men­ta­tion struc­ture has been put in place by the cen­tral agile group, help­ful or not

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