Overcoming Monkey Business

January 10, 2012

In the self-managed environment of Agile development, managers can come away feeling like they have a lot less to do. After all, management no longer directly assigns and monitors the work, right? A natural follow-up question might be: with autonomous teams, why do we even need managers?

Autonomy should never mean hands-off. Even autonomous teams need a helping hand every now and then. Remember the old saying reminding us that someone, “Can’t see the forest for the trees”? We all can get so involved with the details that we lose sight of the bigger picture. Managers happen to be in a great position to provide a broader perspective to teams that can contribute to more effective day-to-day decision making of the team.

I came across another piece of information to consider in Mike Rother's book, Toyota Kata. In it, Rother cited a research paper on continuous improvement at Toyota written by Professor Koichi Shimizu of Okayama University, which contrasted improvements carried out by production operators (via quality circles, suggestion systems, etc.) and improvements carried out by team leaders or supervisory staff.

Only 10 percent of productivity and costs improvements were realized by those carried out by production operators. 90 percent, on the other hand, were realized by those carried out by team leaders and supervisory staff. Why isn’t the situation reversed, where people closest to the work able to make more—and better—changes?

As Rother says, “It is physically impossible for production operators to work fully loaded to the planned cycle time in a 1×1 production flow and simultaneously make process improvements. Furthermore, many operators are just beginning to develop their understanding of the improvement kata and their problem-solving skills.”

For any of us who have been developers, the experience of not being able to find a bug in our code—after staring at the screen for too many hours—can be frustrating. Even more so when someone else stops by and noticing that you are deep in concentration, looks over your shoulder for a minute and then asks, “How come you are doing that?” and pointing directly to the very problem that you’ve failed to see all along.

Need a stronger example? Watch the following video before continuing:

I read about the original “gorilla experiment” in Great by Choice, and David :^{)} Koontz recently referenced this same Monkey Business Illusion a post where he made the case that, Yes – You Need a Full Time Scrum Master.

Someone needs to be looking out for the bigger picture, and that picture can be the flow of the team or the flow of the business. There are complex interrelationships between the actions we all take that lead to the customer, and it helps to have a mix of people who are handling the details of execution and the oversight of our processes as a whole so that we don’t overlook important observations that will make us more effective. Managers are in an excellent position to identify issues that those directly involved with the work might be missing.

In fact, Scrum masters, Product Owners and managers can all contribute valuable perspectives to team members working hard on the important details. For team members, this means that you shouldn’t box everyone out your day. For managers, this means that you should discover how to contribute to your teams without distracting them from their work. It’s not easy, but it is possible.