Agile Work Uses Lean Thinking – Team Self-Organization

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This third and final installment of the “Agile Work Uses Lean Thinking” series introduces Team Self-Organization from a lean and agile prespective. Find out what lean practice relating to people is not commonly used in agile methods… (Previous installments are Empirical Process Control and Queuing Theory. A polished version of all three articles will appear soon as a downloadable PDF.


The people who actually do certain work on a day to day basis know that work intimately… more intimately than anyone else. Anyone else who knows the work either knows it historically or in theory, but not in the same intimate manner. This intimate knowledge carries a great deal of potential. In order to release that potential, people must accept individual responsibility and collective responsibility. Management and organizational culture must support that responsibility. Lean and agile have a very similar approach to supporting this self-organization.

The first aspect of this support is just a simple recognition of this intimate knowledge. The people doing the work must have their expertise acknowledged both individually and collectively. The second aspect of this support is to share with these people the strategic and tactical “why” of what they are doing. This can include sharing financial models, strategic assessments, etc. The third aspect of this support is in allowing individuals and teams to create and implement their own process improvements. In lean this focuses on “identifying and eliminating waste” and in agile this focuses on “identifying and removing obstacles”. The fourth aspect of this support, and perhaps the most important, is that of self-organization: teams and individuals organize themselves around the work. Managers no longer have the authority to tell people how to do their jobs.

In agile teams, this concept of self-organization is taken quite far. Team members collaborate to get work done. No one orders a team or an individual to do specific work. The team members volunteer for work that they see needs doing, even if it is not something that is in their area of expertise. An agile team is constantly promoting learning in its people. Agile teams are also cross-functional so that the team can get work done without relying on external services. The team therefore represents a complete work unit capable of taking a function valuable to customers from start to finish, from idea to deployment.

One aspect of lean systems that is not commonly practiced in an agile environment is the idea of stopping the production line when a flaw or defect or error is discovered. In lean manufacturing, every person working on the line has the authority to stop the whole line if they notice something wrong. Then, everyone works on correcting the defect all the way to the root cause of that defect before starting the line again. This is a very powerful mechanism for making certain that there is constant improvement in the production process. Giving people the power and authority to stop the line takes a great deal of trust.


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