Clark Aldrich uses a framework [1] for addressing larger scale competencies in learning simulations. Clark also wrote an excellent book in which he also discusses big skills, called The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games. His scalar distinguishes between:

  1. Big Skills (highest value)

  2. Middle Skills

  3. Actions (doing at the tactical level)

We propose that Aldrich’s framework also applies to Lean-Agile. We posit that the big skills he identifies, like leadership and relationship management, also include Lean-Agile.

Big skills require what Aldrich calls bundles of middle skills. His framework description aptly restates what most people have learned from their own life experiences, that knowing is insufficient, and that big skills have to be practiced to provide their full potential value. Learning to lead others requires a necessary knowledge base, but it also requires much practice to become effective. Note that ensigns, second lieutenants, and first-time supervisors of many job titles are often portrayed poorly in many books and movies. Consider such people in your own experience. Surely there is truth in the idea that practice is required to hone big skills.

We propose that Lean-Agile is a big skill made up of at least the following middle skills:

  • Application of Agile principles

  • Application of Lean principles

  • Application of Queuing Theory

  • Application of the Theory of Constraints

  • Systems thinking within complex adaptive systems

  • Identifying and using leverage points and feedback loops

  • Plan, Do, Check, Adjust (PDCA)

  • Negotiation

  • Expectation management

  • Change management

It also requires other big skills that Clark identified, like:

  • Organizational, Team, and Self Leadership

  • Relationship management

This is why learning to apply it well may seem as difficult as learning leadership. There are many middle skills and actions that make up the big skill. Trying to learn all of the big skill’s applicable middle skills and actions at once can be just as overwhelming as trying to learn leadership in a single session. Note that most leadership development programs do not attempt a one-shot approach either.

That Lean-Agile is a big skill is why we also suggest that simply bringing in an Lean-Agile consultant for a short duration will not result in an organization that performs Lean-Agile well as soon as the consultant completes the engagement and departs. Because Lean-Agile is a big skill, we suggest having a Lean-Agile coach on staff for a significant period of time as your organization learns to apply Lean-Agile to buying or making training products.

According to Aldrich, we have to build up capabilities with actions and middle skills before we will gain repeatable success with the big skills.

Unfortunately, much of the literature about Agile, Lean, the Theory of Constraints, systems thinking, complex adaptive systems, and PDCA focuses on the actions and middle skills, presenting long lists of knowledge, skills, and attitudes with little focus on how to combine these middle skills and actions into bundles and wield them well together. Some of that comes with practice. We attempt to describe some of that to the degree that a book can transfer such things.

However, knowledge is necessary and insufficient. We have to gain the wisdom to wield Lean-Agile with the appropriate timing and magnitude through our own experiences.

So this book will, of necessity, list Lean-Agile middle skills, and some actions, but the key to using Lean-Agile well is to practice it enough to learn to use bundles of this middle layer of knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Like learning leadership, or skills in the psycho-motor domain such as golf or the piano, knowledge, skills, and attitudes grow through accretion rather than suddenly from reading a single book. We have to pay the price to gain any valuable competency, and this human pattern holds for Lean-Agile too.

Learning and practicing is within your control. Even if you need to start on personal projects as a small practice environment rather than organizational projects/programs for your employer. Set some modest goals (PLAN). Start with the least change required (DO). Agile Kanban requires little change to existing processes. Begin with it to gradually build experience in Agile. See what the impact is (CHECK) and improve how you go about it (ADJUST). Some degree of improvisation can help as you better discover what works for you.

We do not mean Kanban as described and used in manufacturing, but Kanban as David Andersen developed it for software teams at Microsoft and describes it in his written works for knowledge workers.

For a future iteration, add a Lean-Agile Coach and begin to expand Lean-Agile expertise to other people in your organization. In another iteration, continue to practice and apply by adding to your efforts with Scrum or another Agile method you prefer. Use Lean initially by removing wastes, but don’t stop applying Lean only with waste reduction when it can help you increase value. Combine Lean with the Theory of Constraints to focus improvement efforts on increasing value.

Apply the scientific method with the PDCA cycle to learn from cycles of forming testable hypotheses, testing them, and gathering data for what worked and what did not go as expected. Use that data to drive your improvements in regular intervals. But, like in golf, if you focus too much on all those little things while in mid-swing, you may not put the ball where you intend. Lean-Agile initiatives require effective leadership to succeed. Clark Aldrich identifies leadership as one of those "big skills" that requires using bundles of these middle skills to perform effectively. Based on Aldrich’s criteria for big skills, we suggest that Lean-Agile is also a big skill.

Developing big skills requires participants to experience cycles of frustration and resolution.[2]
— Clark Aldrich

This empirical approach tends to yield results more fit-to-purpose than simply adopting someone else’s tenets that tend to be bundled with their specific context, constraints and assumptions. Using the theories of others can be a good way to help jump start your own efforts. Because it is easy to visualize, let’s go back to the children’s game of red-light, green-light. Start your Lean-Agile efforts with red-light, pausing to reduce your risks by treating what anyone else postulates as your beginning hypotheses, then design your own experiments to test whether these predictions hold up for your specific context, constraints and assumptions. If the data indicate it fits your purposes, then signal green-light for your organization’s next steps in allocating effort and resources to implement Lean-Agile.


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