Marginal: Agility

There are few people who combine a zeal for organizational/cultural change/improvement with an understanding of both technology (especially in the information arena) and how to make stuff.

There are few people who combine a zeal for organizational/cultural change/improvement with an understanding of both technology (especially in the information arena) and how to make stuff. Ordinarily, there is more of a binary approach, where you can get a consultant who has one of those characteristics but not the other. And so when efforts are made at organizational change, that person’s initiative may not take into account the fact that things actually need to be made (not only for an ROI, but to pay for the consulting) or the proposal may be a pure technology fix which, as is well documented in cases where that has been tried, is not a fix at all, because an organization consists of people who have to work with the technology.

The rare individual in this case is Rick Dove, a man we’ve known, admired and worked with for several years. (Take that admission as a grain of salt of whatever size as you assess what follows.)

Unless you’ve been in a cave for the past decade, you’ve heard the term “agile” bandied about with varying degrees of accuracy and recklessness. Dove is one of the three individuals who is responsible for having that word enter the discourse of organizations—though it should be noted that he is not responsible for the bastardization of the term.

For years Dove has been talking about the ability to make anything, anytime, anywhere (A3). That’s agility. Perhaps it is also something unachievable. But nonetheless, industries including auto, where there are limits to what a given facility can produce, long changeover times, and an inability to respond rapidly to localized demands, that A3 is something that ought to be worked toward.

Dove has recently written Response Ability: The Language, Structure, and Culture of the Agile Enterprise (John Wiley & Sons; 347 pp.; $55). Like everything Dove does, this book is provocative yet demanding. This is not one of those books with a handful of nostrums about dairy products that is meant to be read in an evening and applied the next day. Perhaps if there is a downside to the book it’s that it does take serious consideration and not a small amount of work to get through. Of course, if achieving agility was easy...

What is notable about what Dove has done is to clearly delineate the fact that agility has two parts to it: the cultural and the physical. As he puts it, “We look at agility as deriving from both the physical ability to act (response ability) and the intellectual ability to find appropriate things to act on (knowledge management).” It is folly to try to create an agile organization by either buying a whole lot of equipment that allows quick changeover or running a few training classes and sticking up posters declaring a New Age of Responsiveness. The agile organization requires something deeper, something that is predicated on understanding where one’s organization (technically and culturally) is, what the competitive landscape is, what tools and techniques are available for a transformation, and, perhaps most of all, a commitment to making a transformation, a commitment that has depth and breadth.

Although Dove maintains, “Agility does not come in a can. One size does not fit all. There are no five common steps to achievement,” he does provide some tools that can be employed by organizations in order to make assessments and to drive change. Still, in order to use these tools, there must be acommitment—yes, that word again—to actually face up to the need for change and the willingness to see it through. In an industry like auto, one that’s beset by pressures from an increasingly indifferent (or unemployed) market, by challenges from a variety of new competitors, by needs to become more efficient, and one that’s in many ways hobbled by its past, commitment is something more easily talked about than lived. It isn’t easy to become or to remain response-able.