What Does Lean, Agile or Scrum Really Mean?

A couple of years ago I posted about “process labels” and why I don’t think they matter. I suppose you could interpret “labels” as “brand” and you can call those brands Scrum, Kanban, Lean or what-have-you.  I had a light-bulb moment (re-affirming moment?) tonight when Benjamin Mitchell articulated this statement when describing his interpretation of “Lean”:

I have learned to think in my own context”  Of course he admitted that the marketing of that term isn’t so great when you’re a consultant, however, the heart of that statement is what really matters over trying to put a label on what process discipline you’re using.

What I’ve seemed to notice more is that people inside the “community” (whether that be agile, lean, scrum or whatever) spend a great deal of time trying to refine their brands and labels and I am wondering if people outside these communities really care about (or even understand) the brand or label.  We in the community make assumptions about how our customers feel about our brand and worry about language, marketing and other stuff that sounds an aweful lot like making product decisions from an ivory tower without getting fast feedback from our customers to me.

Let me  explain that a bit more.

Organizations may look to “Agile” to help them with a problem.  They might not understand the problem, but they know enough to know that they want or need something to change.  So people in the organization will talk to colleagues or friends or other industry people they know.  These people they talk to may say things like “hey, we started Agile-ing a couple of years ago and wow, the magic I tells ya! We started Scrumming our products and holy cow is it awesome!”  Ok, maybe that was not exactly how the conversation would go, but I think you get the idea.  The organization looking for help sees that a certain process worked in another company from a trusted source of information so naturally, it’ll work for them.

So this organization will start doing Scrum.  Then they’ll realize it didn’t work, or at least it didn’t get them the outcomes they thought it would.  Then they’ll wonder if they’re doing Scrum right.  Then they’ll find out they are doing Scrum-but.  Then they’ll be confused.  All the while the focus has shifted from trying to figure out why they needed to change something and the focus will be put on how to execute the process (in this case Scrum) the right way so it’ll work.

They may try Kanban and see how that goes or they may try Lean or Crystal or <insert process here> or they may chose to just give up and go back to the status quo or do nothing.

I am going to tell you the only guaranteed, sure-fire way to get better results within your business.

  1. Start trolling the Yahoo or Google message boards of various process disciplines.  Linked In is a good place to start too. Post thoughts about your problems and get some free advice.
  2. Filter that information and decide on which process discipline makes the most sense to start with
  3. Get involved in that process discipline’s community.  That means find local user groups, go to conferences and spend some time and effort to make a well-informed choice.  Of course balance how long it takes to make the choice.  Chances are you’ll get analysis paralysis if you spend too much time.
  4. Hire a consultant (and I’m not one anymore so I’m not plugging myself!)
  5. Give’er!  Get started while understanding that the focus is NOT on the process but instead the outcomes you expect to get.  Use what you learned in the first 3 steps to teach yourself and your organization how to learn within your context.

While I did use numbering for these steps, they’re not really linear.  My point is, educate yourself through the massive amounts of information and channels before you decide to make a change.  Understand what problems you think you’re trying to solve, understand there’s probably more problems than you originally imagined and gather information and feedback from various sources to help you make a more informed decision.

So for the amount of time and effort people within the community spend on defining brands and putting labels on processes, are our customers finding any value in that or are we just confusing them with a bunch of BS that doesn’t matter to them?  Are we the reason that focus seems to shift from solving business problems to following a process?

Seems simple to me, the organizations and people who are content with mediocrity will pursue quick fixes and focus on doing a <insert process discipline here> right.

The organizations and people that want to improve will actively seek out solutions and labels won’t matter to them.  They ‘ll look at multiple process disciplines and they’ll get actively involved in one or many communities and they’ll learn how to think in their own context for how best to apply the right practice(s).

Learn how to think in your own context” – It doesn’t get much simpler than that.