Around The Space-19.jpg

Designing an Agile Organization – Can Dr. Deming Shed Any Light?

"If you can't describe what you are doing as a process, then you don't know what you are doing." – Dr. W. Edwards Deming, Father of Quality Evolution. Dr. Deming's ideas of product quality largely inspired Japan's post-WWII economic boom in manufacturing. His celebrated 14 points for management have also stood as a standard for transforming business effectiveness since the 1980s. In this guest blog post, Wilma Paxton Doherty, a Senior Consultant at ON THE MARK, talks about how organizations can apply Agile thinking by using Dr. Deming's philosophies.


Guest Author: Wilma Paxton Doherty, Senior Consultant, ON THE MARK

I am a fan of the late Dr. W Edwards Deming. Most people who know me, know this. They will attest to my claim that reading and applying his philosophy in practice has ‘ruined my life’! They have heard me say, “once you know this, you can’t go back to how you thought before.” Students of Deming will also know that Agile is steeped in the philosophy and theory of his work. It would be interesting to find out whether advocates and adopters of this approach know this.

Over its life, Agile has moved out of software development into different business sectors – just like Lean and Six Sigma (also borne out of Deming) moved out of manufacturing into the service and government sectors. The Manifesto for Agile software design was developed in 2001 and sets out the following principles:

  • Individuals and interactions over processes and tools.

  • Working software over comprehensive documentation.

  • Customer collaboration over contract negotiation.

  • Responding to change over following a plan.

Today, Agile has clear, transferable benefits to organization design outside of software design:

  • Faster delivery times by reducing hand-offs, mistakes and rework and communication delays.

  • Consistent ownership of the work – quality built in with pride in that ownership and quality.

  • Rapid and flexible response to issues as they arise.

  • Improved information sharing across the organization.

  • Customer integration in the team will significantly improve quality and customer engagement.

How do you implement Agile in an Organization?

...with the establishment of cross functional teams that are self-organizing and self-managing.

In the application of Agile, it is critical that teams contain all of the key skills required to deliver to the needs of their customers end to end – from design to completion. The customer or customer representative is integrated within the team. They have the responsibility and authority to create a functional internal team structure by replacing, retraining or reorganizing team members as required. This is most evident when the customer demands exceed the team’s current capabilities. The customer’s requirements drive the structure of the team.

It's important to keep in mind that teams should not require input or hand off to other teams at pre-determined stages.

In an agile organization, teams need the accountability and authority to engage with and deliver to their customers without undue interference and within the bounds set by the customer’s requirements.

Trust is the most important factor in developing empowered teams. Staff must trust management and management must trust staff – customers must trust the organization and the organization must trust their customers. Trust comes from communication and respect and the consistent delivery of value, in customer terms.

At the level of the team or the business unit – agile practices might be achievable. In fact, they are, or we would not be talking about it. But according to McKinsey’s recent quarterly survey report of over 2,500 business leaders, few companies have achieved organization-wide agility, but many have started pursuing it in business units. However, this still only accounts for less than 10% of the organizations surveyed who have attempted an agile transformation – at any level.

There are very few truly agile organizations – why?

For an organization to be completely agile, it requires such a mindset shift that very few have attempted it. For it to be successful in a sustainable way, the organization has to be designed to support it. Just like Deming’s systems thinking philosophy – Agile requires a paradigm shift in thinking about organizations and the ability to see them as systems – and design them accordingly. This cuts across the existing and dominant paradigm where organizations are designed to ‘control’, through rigid structures, strong contracts and the centralization of authority.

Proponents of Agile talk about the concept of a ‘beehive’ as the design required for successful operating model for agility in organizations. This means common understanding of purpose, true interdependence with empowerment, interrelatedness, working together collaboratively, communicating effectively with a fixation on the customer. The customer is the fulcrum of the system and part of every element of design and decision making.

If applied – I’m sure the late Dr. Deming would be proud. As Deming’s view of a system clearly set out, he designed the customer into the system as does Agile and lean systems thinking.

To resurrect this thinking may require our millennial generation to rediscover Dr. Deming, as it seems to have alluded significant aspects of western economies' generations, except during crisis. We have chosen to cherry pick the tools and elements of the thinking that fit with our own beliefs and thinking – not to make life too uncomfortable for us. The results discredit the real thinking, value and potential. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen to Agile, and it becomes another passing fad.

Agile thinking has to be done or not done, not dabbled with and then discarded with the claim that it didn’t work, just as Deming argued about his systems thinking philosophy throughout his life and life’s work.

The opinions expressed here by 1871 guest writers are their own, not those of 1871. To learn more about ON THE MARK, follow this link. 

Topics: Insights

Read the 1871 Blog for news about the Chicago technology and entrepreneurship community, as well as helpful tips, guides, and insights into the startup and investment world.

Subscribe to Email Updates

Recent Posts

1871 On Instagram