Right now, I’m watching a company try to improve itself.

It seems that management has recently learned that there is a thing called Lean, which even comes with some cookbook recipes called practices that you can do. There is lots of nifty new lingo, and it’s complex enough that you can interpret it nearly any way you choose

Shuhari - the stages of learning to mastery.

ShuHaRi - stages of learning that lead to mastery

This company has reason to believe that they have some understanding of this new animal because they feel that they’re already Agile, but as far as I’ve been able to determine there is nobody involved who has, lets say, an actual resume chock full of actual training and experience in Lean. The employees are pro Lean because (a) they always validate what management wants, (b) they want it, too, and (c) they think they understand it.

And I find myself thinking, “This is not right. You are doing these practices in ways that I have never seen discussed in any of the books or courses with which I am familiar, and I have put in some time studying this stuff. You are tossing ideas around like you really understand them, and I do not think that you do. Worse, you’re starting out with complex new ways of doing it rather than start at the rock bottom with the basics. This is bad!”

Then I have an opposite thought, which is something like, “Hey. What are they supposed to do, sit around reading books for five years before they try something? That’s just another form of analysis paralysis. Go for it!”

Then my coach brain kicks in (by now I can feel my brain cell overheating, but I persevere), asking me -  How may DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Agile implementations have you seen? (Answer: A lot) How many had great results? (Answer: Few) How many sucked? (Answer: Most) I am suspicious of DIY Agile and DIY Lean because I have seen too much badness there.

Enter Shu, Ha, Ri – a concept first introduced to the Agile world by Alistair Cockburn. The phrase is used to describe the three stages one goes through when pursuing the mastery of a complex art.

Shu, the beginner stage, is where you know nothing and you limit yourself to a rote application of very simple practices.

Eventually you reach the Ha stage, where you can stop concentrating on the simple application of techniques and graduate to the skillful execution of complex techniques that follow the known rules of your discipline while handling exceptions and even new situations.

Then, and only then, can you aspire to Ri, which is where you forget everything you know because you are beyond thinking about it. Here you transcend rules and blend techniques in artful and unpredictable, yet “correct” ways. (For me, this is the stage where “you can do it drunk”, though others may choose to describe it differently).

So returning to our story – here is the behavior I’d like to see from this company.

I want the company to reach and stretch, but I also want them to do it right. I want them to have a realistic understanding of who they are, and at the same time, not allow that understanding to deter or slow them down. How would that be possible? There’s only one answer that I can get to, and it is that you have to both act and study if you’re going to do either one effectively. Go ahead and leap right in, grab the marmoset by the tail and go for it, just don’t forget to do your homework too.

If I could talk to the management of that company, I’d urge them to get expert training for their people and to slowly, methodically, and gently yet firmly allow the company to move in the new direction. And I’d want them to make sure they are getting it right. It’s too easy to make this stuff up, and it’s too easy to bulldoze employees into following you down a path. Who’s going to argue with the CTO or the CIO or the CEO? Not many people will do that.

So I say, be humble. Bring in the consultants. Get the training. Keep trying new things. Be open to failure and to admitting wrong-headedness. You’ll make it. Just be balanced in the learning and the doing.

That’s what I think, anyway.

About the Author: Alan Atlas is a Musician, Certified Scrum Trainer, and Agile Coach at Rally Software Development. Subscribe today to get free updates by email or RSS.


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