Do Best Practices Exist Under Agile?

by James Smith

Best practices come from mass production.  In a mass production process, a semi or unskilled worker performs a small portion of the process, under the close supervision of a manager.  Worker to manager ratio is often as low as three or four workers to a manager.  

The workers are not allowed to modify the process as it represents a 'best practice' as designed and put in place by some ivory tower engineer.  That engineer has not likely ever executed the 'best practice' on the floor.  It is a mental exercise for them only.  

In lean production/agile, the process is owned by those in it.  In lean manufacturing, they require significantly more training before being allowed to start work.  The average worker to manager ratio in the lean plant can be as high as 100 to one.  No way that manager is looking over 100 shoulders insuring adherence to a 'best practice.'  

Since they own the process, part of their commitment every day is to learn more about what they are doing today, so that tomorrow they can get a better result with less effort.  No credit for working harder, only working smarter.  

So every lean/agile worker's goal is to kaizen, or continuously improve, the process.  The spirit of kaizen is daily and forever.

Because of the goal of continuous improvement, last week's 'best technique' for a process may now be an obstacle to completing it more effectively and efficiently.  

In mass production you request permission to change and improve the process via a Suggestion Box, which is often linked directly to a shredder.  This deprives the worker of pride in their efforts.  The company suffers the loss of not having a continuously improving process from the knowledge and insights gained by those who work within it.  

As an organization, the ability to benefit from the daily goal of kaizen is not free.  It requires that the process owners have the ample training and the authority to continuously improve it, without management's permission.  They must fully understand the process standards that are in place and that their work must adhere to them.  Standards are critical.  You cannot kaizen a jello process.  

The benefit will be their ownership of the process allowing them to give their best efforts every day.  

I was once a ScrumMaster working with a group of agile newbies.  They were outside consultants with no previous agile development experience.  After receiving the engineering training and Scrum Team Member training required to provide the greatest opportunity for their success, they began Sprinting.  

I was co-located with them.  Using two-week Sprints, we were at the end of Week 1 of Sprint 2, so they had been a self managing, self organizing Team for three weeks.  

I overheard one consultant say to the other,

‘You know when this gig is up, they may send us some place where they still do it the old way.  I don’t ever want to do that again.  I am so tired of being told how to do something by someone who has not coded in five years and I know that I can do it better.  But I do it his way, cause he’s the boss.  Here no one stops me from bringing my A+ game every day.  So that’s what I do and I love it.”

Develop a culture that stays very close to your customers with an obsession over the quality of the solutions that you provide them and you will be a formidable competitor in your market space.  Give the people in the process ownership of it and every day you will get their A+ game.  

The above is the basis for my belief that under the agile umbrella the term 'Best Practice' has no place.  It is a construct from mass production and is irrelevant in an environment where the daily goal is to learn more about what you are doing today, so that tomorrow you can get a better result with less effort.

That’s my story and I’m sticking with it.  

James N. Smith