“Agile / Lean or Common Sense and Permission To Change?” is an interesting article that examines agile ideas in comparison to Ricardo Semler’s principles.

I have most recently been reading a couple of books by Ricardo Semler, who runs his company in a completely democratic way – doing away with all top down authoritarian management principles and allowing the employees to make decisions on dress, salaries, where they work, when they work, and most importantly, how they work…

It struck me how most of the things that are characterized by “lean” are just common sense principles explained in such a way that they sound like a “process” that manager types can “buy into”. But really, they work because they make sense – and people have the permission to standardize and then change their work rather than having things written down and subsequently treating these processes like they are set in stone. You can’t change them unless you go through an agonizing approval process up the management chain…

In most of the process agile / lean related books that I’ve read there seem to be a few common themes:

  • Trust people to do the right thing for the company
  • Give them freedom and authority to work the way they want to
  • Push decisions down the chain as far as possible
  • Work in small batches and change things that aren’t working
  • Allow those who are capable of leading to lead, no matter what their title or position is
  • Put quality checks in place – whether it be test-driven development, or quality checks at each step in an assembly
  • Fix problems at the core and stop the line as quickly as possible – in development this would be TDD and automated builds. Once a problem is found, find the root cause and put a test or quality check in place to ensure it doesn’t happen again
  • and finally, Trust people to do the right thing for the company

One more principle that I would add would be “tolerate mistakes”. Many of the issues that I’ve come across with other groups is that if they make a mistake they feel they will be punished. I’ve had great success with my team in articulating that I know mistakes will be made, but I want them to be made once, a lesson learned, and things put in place (usually automated) to ensure they won’t happen again. I’ve found that if people know it is expected that mistakes will be made, and everything doesn’t have to be perfect, they are more receptive to trying something new.

But I digress.

What Semler’s story shows me is that if people are given the freedom to work the way that is most effective, they will. More than that, if you invest in them with trust, they will want to do these things as their commitment to the company will obviously go up based on how they feel they are treated.

Semler uses a key phrase throughout his books that is repeated over and over. “Treat people like adults”. Semco, Toyota, Amazon and Google seem to do a really good job at this, as I’m sure most high functioning companies do. Read this article called The Google Way: Give Engineers Room and you will see the same concepts outlined in the excerpts on Semco that I have just written about. It seems to be a common theme.

Here’s a quick interview with Ricardo Semler:

And here’s another video, a 13min video look at Semco, his company.