Principle: Optimize Flow

Optimize Flow

One of the seven principles behind the Disciplined Agile (DA) framework is Optimize Flow.  Your organization is a complex adaptive system (CAS) of interacting teams and groups that individually evolve continuously and affect each other as they do. The challenge that we face is how do we ensure that these collaborating teams do so in such a way as to effectively implement our organization’s value streams? How do we ensure that these teams are well aligned, remained well aligned, and better yet improve their alignment over time?

The implication is that as an organization we need to optimize our overall workflow. The DA framework supports a large number of strategies to do so:

  1. Deliver continuously at a sustainable pace. The Disciplined Agile Manifesto advises teams to deliver consumable solutions frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter time scale. This philosophy is one of four, in this case Deliver, promoted by the Heart of Agile. Similarly it is one of four philosophies of Modern Agile, in this case Deliver Value Continuously, and it is a fundamental strategy of Disciplined DevOps. Since 2001 agilists have shown that it is possible to deliver high-quality systems quickly. By limiting the work of a team to its capacity, which is reflected by the team’s velocity (this is the number of “points” of functionality which a team delivers each iteration), you can establish a reliable and repeatable flow of work. An effective organization doesn’t demand teams do more than they are capable of, but instead asks them to self-organize and determine what they can accomplish. Enabling these teams to delivering potentially shippable solutions on demand motivates them to stay focused on continuously adding value.
  2. Optimize the whole. Disciplined agilists work in an “enterprise aware” manner – they realize that their team is one of many teams within their organization and as a result they should work in such a way as to do what is best for the overall organization and not just what is convenient for them. More importantly they strive to streamline the overall process, to optimize the whole as the lean canon advises us to do. This includes finding ways to reduce the overall cycle time, the total time from the beginning to the end of the process to provide value to a customer, is a key part of doing so.
  3. Make work flow. The 14th principle of the DA Manifesto is to visualize work to produce a smooth delivery flow and keep work-in-progress (WIP) to a minimum. This strategy enables teams to identify and then remove bottlenecks quickly and is adopted straight out of Kanban.
  4. Eliminate waste. Lean thinking advocates regard any activity that does not directly add value to the finished product as waste. Waste includes time waiting for others to get something done, creation of unnecessary work artifacts or product features, and collaboration churn resulting from crossing organizational boundaries. To reduce waste it is critical that teams be allowed to self organize and operate in a manner that reflects the work they’re trying to accomplish.
  5. Improve continuously. As a leader you want to promote a culture of continuous improvement, including the sharing of skills and knowledge between people and teams, within your organization. This is seen as a fundamental philosophy of agile – The 12th principle behind the Agile Manifesto is “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly” and both Improve and Reflect are principles of the Heart of Agile. A key technique that supports continuous improvement is “double-loop learning” that promotes the idea that you modify your approach based on what you learn from your experiences.
  6. Experiment to learn. Probably the most significant impact of Eric Ries’ work in Lean Startup is the popularization of the experimentation mindset, the application of fundamental concepts of the scientific method to business. This mindset can be applied to process improvement following what Ries calls a validated learning strategy. From a process point of view, the strategy is to first identify an improvement hypothesis along the lines of “We think doing X will improve Y”. Second, run a short experiment by trying it out in a controlled manner, with measurements in place to see the effect of the change. Third, observe what happens to determine the efficacy of X and whether you need to evolve X and run a follow up experiment (double-loop learning). An experimentation mindset reinforces and often speeds up the strategy of continuous learning. As we pointed out earlier, to enable an experimentation mindset within your organization as a leader you must establish a safe environment where experimentation is encouraged and rewarded.
  7. Measure what counts. When it comes to measurement, context counts. What are you hoping to improve? Quality? Time to market? Staff morale? Customer satisfaction? Combinations thereof? Every person, team, and organization has their own improvement priorities, and their own ways of working, so they will have their own set of measures that they gather to provide insight into how their doing and more importantly how to proceed. And these measures evolve over time as their situation and priorities evolve. The implication is that your measurement strategy must be flexible and fit for purpose, and it will vary across teams.
  8. Prefer long-lived stable teams. A very common trend in the agile community is the movement away from projects, and the project management mindset in general, to long-lived teams. Such teams evolve over time, people occasionally join the team and people occasionally leave the team, but the team itself may run for years. For example, Microsoft has had a team developing and sustaining Microsoft Word since 1981 with no end in sight.  It’s important to note that this move away from project management in the agile community is not a move away from management but instead from the inherent risks and overhead of projects.


This article is excerpted from Chapter 2 of the book An Executive’s Guide to Disciplined Agile: Winning the Race to Business Agility.

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