The Complexity and Power of Agility

May 24, 2019 12:12:55 PM / by John Cockburn-Evans

As lean experts and professionals we are always talking about agility based on lean thinking. The majority of people in industry and commerce are aware of the term VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex Ambiguous), its importance and resonance. What does this really mean to business and what can we do about it, without acting like rabbits in the headlights?  One of the key factors in dealing with this climate is the ability to be agile. 

Agility traditionally has meant the ability for a business to react in the market place. This of course is multi-faceted, and could have a multitude of dimensions. It could mean the ability to speed up the supply chain, change product features or reduce pricing. The capability to drive these facets will be underpinned by your internal capabilities, both human and process. These in turn will be linked to very distinct elements and related to operating cost, or variable cost in the case of pricing. Leaning out your operation at every level will aid your agility. We can imagine this like a pyramid. Each sub-element will support the element above it. 


The overall agility of a factory of an organisation to respond to the market place is a combination of human agility, process agility and design agility.  Each one of these can be further broken down into subsections.  The process element can comprise of physical manufacturing, supply chain, energy optimisation, logistical, administrative and management processes. If we look at the design process element, this can include R&D, design, piloting and testing.  All of these elements can be optimised for speed. The way we look at the inefficiencies is as "Lean" wastes. 

If we look at the human agility element, we can break this down in a similar way.  Human agility can include speed of thought, ability to process multiple inputs, ability to asses risk effectively and the ability to engage with others. The first elements are arguably person specific but it is possible to improve mental agility through self-development and awareness.  There is also an experiential element which will improve personal agility. With regard to employee engagement, training will have a significant benefit along with behavioural coaching.

To summarise without getting to deep into the detail, the key point is that agility is more sophisticated than one may imagine. There are multiple sub-elements which are symbiotic. It won't be possible to work on all the constituent parts simultaneously, but it highlights the importance of seeing agility optimisation as a journey, like other lean concepts. Being more agile is not about spending money in the long term, it is about saving it. 

Tags: Lean, Operations, Process, Productivity, waste

John Cockburn-Evans

Written by John Cockburn-Evans