Andrew McCune
April 03, 2017

Agile Agility


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Agile and agility are two words that can get confusing when used in the pursuit of operational excellence and timely software development efforts as identified in the survey for Operational Excellence Final Insights, 2016 BTOES Insights Report.

What do these two words mean? A quick check in on the definition of these words.

agile, adjective, English: 1. marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace <an agile dancer> 2. having a quick resourceful and adaptable character, <an agile mind>

agility, noun, English: 1. the quality or state of being agile, nimbleness, dexterity. <A gymnast whose agility on the parallel bars has won several medals>

This is part of why the words are potentially confusing as “agile” is a word describing a noun (the adjective), and “agility” is a noun that is the state of being “agile.” These words are in use with different references in Software Development and Operational Excellence.

How does this apply in Software Development? Agile is an approach to Software Development that defines product and requirements as a story to create and deliver value to the customer. What makes this unique is that the product requirements are organized, prioritized, grouped into achievable amounts of workload to be completed across designated time frames or sprints (i.e. a sprint of development). Agile utilizes a scrum framework for a team of developers to build the product across these sprints where at the end of each sprint the product is reviewed with the customer. This regular review of developed product cycles feedback between the scrum team, product owner, and customer. This enables feedback, quality, timely delivery as well as fostering the creativity and flexibility to deliver value to the customer.

How does this apply in Operations Excellence? In Lean Manufacturing, the Toyota Production System has a set of guiding principles under which to apply all the tools of Lean to satisfy customers and fulfill the company’s primary mission. Those principles are:

  •  Stable, simple processes with less waste yield higher quality and shorter cycle time
  •  Balance load & capacity to meet demand
  •  Move mixed work to focused “lanes”
  •  Move mass push to small “bin/lot” pull
  •  Flexible change (over) of lanes to balance and meet demand
  •  Synchronized activity to the pulse of the customer 

Operating this way in a manufacturing, transactional, or commercial process certainly is very agile by definition. Further, Agile Software Development reflects common Lean principles. The founders of Agile applied Lean principles, and translated them into the software world.

  •  Eliminate waste
  •  Build quality in (not test it in)
  •  Deliver quality fast and get feedback fast
  •  Optimize the whole system (do not sub-optimize)
  •  Keep getting better and continuously improve

Make no mistake, these domains are similar, but still very different, and the common ground revolves around the overlapping principles. 

What are the trends in their use? Agile, as a Software Development approach, clearly has references to the quality, maturity, or state of being “Agile Software Development.” Hence, this would be “agility” in word use. “The current trajectory of ‘agility’ across development is yielding improved releases.” We might hear this much like, “the ‘latency’ of the screens for the users is too long” or “the ‘currency’ of your software is hurting the interface.” Similar word use with our IT colleagues should become recognizable. 

For the Lean Manufacturing world, there is a role in operations for a person who ensures all the work stations are supplied, the “water spider”. The water spider ensures continual flow in process, across lines, changes to schedule, and changeover. The role requires a knowledge of requirements and flexibility to execute. The “water spider” moves with speed and grace to supply only what is needed when it is needed. Again, this level of nimbleness or dexterity of the water spider is a highly desired “agility” on the manufacturing floor. Ultimately, the water spider is the analogy for the whole organization’s agility to adapt, supply, and fulfill customer demand. A success criteria for any company for sure.

In the project management world, because Agile Software Development fosters collaboration and creativity in the scrum, project teams are embracing sprint and scrum based teams to combine innovation and delivery at milestone. You may hear something like “the Field Service Implementation team is using an “Agile” approach to their project plan in order to hit milestones for the new operating model”. This will mean something different than “our service teams are more agile at meeting customer change orders because of our new Lean fulfillment model.”

Word use in its context is very important! As a savvy leader, recognize manufacturing processes that are agile to meet customer demand. This goes along with Agile Software Development that delivers value to the business using sprints and scrum. Surely, the IT team’s agility is increasing. After all we want the entire organization to possess the agility of the water spider.


Read more from Andrew 

Andrew S. McCune
Senior Process Consultant, Engagement Director
Strategy Deployment, Operational Excellence, Change Management

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