Familiar Lessons from an Earlier Agile Forum

Drawing of a man running an industrial machineMore than a dozen managers get together to discuss what isn’t working in their industry, especially given rapid market and technology changes they all face, and come out with a set of principles around responding quickly to those changes.

No, I’m not talking about the Agile Manifesto of 2001. This was the “Agile Manufacturing Enterprise Forum” of 1991, with high-level executives from 13 companies including Chrysler, GE Aircraft Engines, IBM, and Motorola. The resulting 200-page report attracted attention quickly: Within a year more than 150 organizations had joined the Forum. Rick Dove, co-chair of the original meeting, wrote an article summarizing the report that year. Yet in my readings on agile manufacturing, it never came up. When I look at the concepts identified by the Agile Forum, I see a direct line from earlier works like 1970’s The Servant as Leader to software’s Agile Manifesto to current discussions about the state of agility.

For example, the Agile Forum identified four “driving forces… that will shape the characteristics of successful companies”:

  • Continuous Change” in everything from products to processes.
  • Rapid Response“the ability to respond quickly to competitive threat and to market opportunity,” for example through shorter cycle times.
  • An Evolving Definition of Qualitychanges in consumer expectations, as well as responses like platforms of products (think “Internet of Things”) and products whose features could be changed after purchase (think software in cars).
  • Environmental Responsibility” based not on government regulations, but on what we now call “corporate social responsibility” practiced for business reasons.

To meet these forces, the report embraced the term Agile Enterprise, which “thrives on continuous and rapid change” and exhibits agility, “the ability to move fast in all ways.” From the perspective of 30 years on, the Forum’s statement about resistance to these concepts is both striking and depressingly familiar:

The principal impediments to change are structural in nature, and generally form the architecture of such “systems” as the organizational hierarchy, corporate decision making process, customer-company relationship, MIS software, plant control software, process hardware flexibility, even business relationships and the process that develops them.

Familiar, too, is a key prescription: “to allow decisions at the point of knowledge, to encourage the flow of information, to foster concurrent cooperative activity, and to localize the side-effects of sub-system change.” Related to that first item, the Forum explicitly called for “empowerment”:

Whether decisions are made by people or programmed machines, one thing is true, they can only be made quickly and accurately if they are made at the point of maximum information. Consequently, where people are involved, truly agile enterprises will push most of the decision making process down to the lowest employee ranks, where the work is actually done.

In a section on “Plug Compatible Companies,” meaning partners that can be onboarded and exchanged rapidly, Dove adds, “Empowered work teams will be formed with employees from diverse parts of an organization (and) with employees from partnering organizations…” The report provides an unexpected definition of a predicted virtual corporation: an entity created quickly from internal and partner teams to address a specific market need, and disbanded just as quickly when the need wanes.

As for the source of those needs, Dove writes, “Recently we have seen manufacturing understandings move from a ‘push’ orientation, where product technology drives what the customer is offered, to one we now call ‘pull,’ where we ask the customer what he wants. The coming paradigm of agile response will accelerate pull to the point of ‘yank.’”

Shorter delivery times, cross-functional teams, trusting employees to make decisions, and acceptance of fast-changing customer needs should sound familiar to anyone who has read the Agile Manifesto. And yet I still hear again and again that agile management, having persisted for more than 30 years, is supposedly a dying concept invented for software.

Source: Dove, Rick, ‘The 21s Century Manufacturing Enterprise Strategy or What Is All This Talk About Agility?’, Paradigm Shift International, Translated and Re-Published in Prevision, 1993, Japan Management Association, 1992 <https://www.academia.edu/22249862/The_21s_Century_Manufacturing_Enterprise_Strategy_or_What_Is_All_This_Talk_About_Agility>.


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