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Agile at Scale with Hoshin Kanri

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When organizations decide to scale agile they can be looking for agile ways to define strategies, manage direction and sustain alignment. Deploying and stay aligned, is today's challenge said Pierre Neis. At the Lean Kanban France 2014 conference Pierre showed how using Hoshin Kanri has helped global players in their lean agile transition. The slides are available on his website: It's not lean, it's agile at scale... the Hoshin Kanri way.

InfoQ interviewed Pierre about managing strategy and direction with Hoshin Kanri, agile planning, deploying agile and lean practices with Hoshin Kanri, accountability, and the benefits of using Hoshin Kanri.

InfoQ: Can you mention some of the problems that you have seen when organizations try to scale agile?

Pierre: One of the main problems is accepting to change the paradigms, transitioning from a silo matrix to a flat one where the whole organization in on the front. Biggest challenge is to find a solution for middle management who understands roughly that they do not have a role to play anymore.

InfoQ: With Hoshin Kanri you want people to focus on a shared goals and look for ways to realize it. How did you use this to scale agile?

Pierre: Exact. With the use of Hoshin Kanri we can link all the people on a single purpose: the company strategy. In Lean, it’s the « see the whole ». This is the corner stone, the main lever to reduce the influences of sub-baronies including IT Department.

In scale agile, focus is given to the organization’s nature and the reciprocal commitment on the shared goal. Methods and Framework are in this case only tools supporting the delivery of this common goal: the organization’s.

On my side, I try to keep Agile HK (Agile Hoshin Kanri) at the highest level possible like a flexible tight boundary where all people kinds find it’s place. This soft approach fosters Continuous Improvement (Kaizen, PDCA) without harming the structure. To be honest, I play the « partition » on a scrum like sprint dynamic beat.

InfoQ: Planning is a central theme in Hoshin Kanri. The agile manifesto suggests to respond to change over following a plan. I see potential conflicts here, maybe even people resisting to Hoshin Kanri?

Pierre: Yes and no. In Agile, I guess, we say that we prefer planning than following a plan and in other hand, the « P » of PDCA is also a part of agile? Try Agile Manufacturing without a plan. This can be weird.

Our challenge, here, is to bring sense in planning. If you consume 80% of your budget/resources in planning you didn’t delivered value to your customer, except if the plan was the expected outcome.

HK resistance. Yes, can be. It depends how you handle it. Like agile, if you define it like a silver bullet and deliver it in a push manner be sure that you will start a fight with resistance. If you use HK as simple communication point, the formalization of « readiness » build at team level (board team!) and not in the ivory tower and where consensus is the « go », then it’s a beat different. I agree when you see the documentation on the web or the book, HK sounds a piece-of-cake. In other hands, when you discuss with coaches implementing agile in organization or in teams, they use similar techniques described in my conference. True North like the Vision, A3 or Agile Strategy Map, « catch-ball » workshops for alignment, and Retrospectives for Kaizen. The plan is the outcome, not the process.

InfoQ: Can you give some examples how you used concepts from Hoshin Kanri to deploy agile and lean practices and to align their usage in organizations?

Pierre: I got 2 examples for you:

  • One is a trading company where the new CEO wanted to have commitment of his managers to build the future of the organization. Here Agile HK or Agile or any methods were useless, only the engagement and the solutions were the goal. We start workshops with the managers to define the true north according to their experience and then we measured the gap with the CEO all together to have a immediately implementable solution. When we got it, we start to design the new organization in a Service Jam manner and tested it with operations who challenged it again. This took 2 days in the first shot and since then a monthly one-to-two hours retrospective is performed. HK here is part of the Change Documentation and only used for synchronicity.
  • A second example, very similar to the first, is still running. The initial HK workshops helped the organization to remember that the IT Department’s purpose is to facilitate the communication between the organization and their customers. Each department worked for 4 hours to deliver their True North and A3 model and all the departments, including managers and employees had a voice to consolidate and challenge their systems. My team and I needed two times to find an agreement and to fix the value stream of the organization. The outcome was a complete reorganization of the organization based on Product Delivery and not on Cost-Centre.

InfoQ: Hoshin Kanri talks about holding people accountable for achieving their part of the plan. Doesn't this conflict with self-organization?

Pierre: I think no. We are all sometimes responsible and accountable. As an agile coach, I’ve been accountable for the word I’ve been writing down. Do I have a conflict of interest regarding agile? Guess not!

In my understanding of self-organization I believe to summarize it as « treating people as adults ». If doing what I say is being accountable then I have a good corner stone for agility.

Remember the Pigs and Chicken story. An agile organization is like a pig-pen, everybody is putting its bacon on the table. Regarding self-organization, yes we are responsible, yes we are consulted, yes we are informed and we are all accountable. The HK way explains that « servant leaders » are accountable for having the HK as an alignment « device » for the organization.

InfoQ: What are the benefits that organizations can get from using a Hoshin Kanri approach when scaling agile?

Pierre: HK is very simple and organizations without an IT or Development mindset can easily understand the purpose of the approach. It’s a cool tool to challenge current Business Cases or time-consuming budgeting rounds.

Gemba or Shopfloor walking is a good test for organizations. I like to ask the housekeeper on the organization’s purpose. If (s)he don’t know, we have a governance problem.

The big help for agile scaling is that HK has the systemic DNA in common with agile.

InfoQ: If people want to learn more about Hoshin Kanri, where can they go?

Pierre: I would recommend them to take a look at these resources:

  • Getting the Right Things Done by Pascal Dennis (topic: Lean Thinking, System Thinking, Changing Paradigms, A3)
  • Implementing Beyond Budgeting by Bjarte Bogsnes (topic: System Thinking, Changing Paradigms, Agile)
  • Hoshin Kanri for the Lean Enterprise by Thomas L. Jackson (topic: TQM, Kaizen, PDCA, A3)

This order represents the way how I intent to explain the approach of HK: mindset and not toolset.

If InfoQ readers are interested to learn even more about Hoshin Kanri then they can use the list of references at the end of my blog post It's not lean, it's agile at scale... the Hoshin Kanri way.

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