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Management. The speed of change, they say, will never be as slow as it is today. Companies would have to increase the pace and allow more flexibility. The way there is described by management consultants with the magic word agility - self-organized cooperation. How the method works, what it really can do and in which areas it does not provide added value.

Welcome to the world of VUKA. Everything used to be - no, not better, but maybe easier. The environment of a company was predictable, clear, often regional. Today there is volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. "That's why everyone is looking for methods to get a grip on this new world," explains Tobias Burkhardt, owner of the Academy for Digital Transformation - Shiftschool.

The method of the hour is agility. "This means creating an environment in which every employee can act freely and flexibly. This enables the company to react quickly to market changes. But agility does not mean anarchy - clear rules and structures are a prerequisite for success."

In principle, agility is about a special kind of leadership. And about employees with new qualities. It's about curiosity, error tolerance, trying out, more responsibility for everyone. "That sounds familiar, of course. What's new is that now clear rules have been developed to help with introduction and implementation."

The differences between agile corporate management and the classical approach can be shown by examples: For marketing, the management traditionally prepares a budget plan. Subdivisions then have to make do with the respective amount. In the agile process, these specifications from above do not exist. The employees themselves decide and justify how much money they need for their job.

If a company wants to implement new software, a requirement specification is first created that defines exactly what is to be done when and how. Relevant changes in the market during the implementation phase are not taken into account. The manager controls the achievement of the defined goals. As part of the agile approach, the project participants create a target list whose points are prioritized. In short cycles of two to four weeks - so-called sprints - they sit down together, check the intermediate results and define the next goal.

The role of the manager is to communicate changes in the project within the company and to provide the project participants with budget and the necessary contacts. "It is a radical cultural change - it needs time, it needs to be settled, wanted and exemplified at board level. Leadership in agile companies is more a service for empowering the people involved than a control task," explains Tobias Burkhardt.

That's exactly the problem.

The self-image of managers and employees today is often still different: superiority, status, privileges on the one hand, instruction recipients on the other. Self-organization therefore has to struggle with many prejudices: Das leads to chaos. Everybody does what they want, nobody does what they want. Alle are looking for the comfortable way, no one is trying hard. And above all: One must decide nevertheless and carry the responsibility.

"Everyone must first learn to understand that the dismantling of hierarchies is necessary in order to accelerate processes. And that thinking ahead is necessary in order to be able to react to market changes. They have to change in order to enable change in the company," Tobias Burkhardt promotes a new way of thinking.

He says to the managers: "Unlike what you think, you don't really know more than your employees. Enables your team to optimize their own performance, becomes coach and mentor." He advises employees: "Not everyone has to be there from the beginning, but be open to change." It is the task of managers to identify who enjoys this type of work. "These employees must be brought together as a team on a project-related basis and enabled to find solutions to a problem."

And if the employees are insecure? "Whoever wants to see first, may do so. The change only begins with a small part of the company anyway," says Burkhardt. However, he advises less patience for people who sit in decisive positions in the company and sabotage change. "There can be no compromise. You need to get away from these places."

At Continental AG, agile management methods are used under the label of change management. Agile management comes to complicated and complex tasks zum Einsatz. "We, at Continental, have always been agile. We shift decisions to the lowest possible level and ensure that employees have the freedom to optimize their own areas," says Thomas Gallner, Head of Corporate Innovation Management at the automotive supplier, which today has 220000 employees worldwide and generates sales of almost 45 billion euros. This was the only way Conti could write its 147-year company history. And so it will remain in the future: "Digitization, automation and industry 4.0 are just around the corner as a challenge. We want to shape development."

It's not always easy. For Thomas Gallner, there are also certainly company divisions that benefit from agile management and those that do not: "For activities and processes that are already strongly optimized and where high reproducibility is the focus, classic management makes sense. When dealing with complex topics, however, I always consciously look for a solution. Repeating what I've learned so far won't get me anywhere. Here I need the knowledge of many and a lot of market proximity in order to achieve optimal results. Then agile methods are displayed. It's about allowing freedom to arrive at an optimal solution."

That is why it is Continental's claim to lead in an organizational ambiguity, "with the ability to be efficient and flexible at the same time. We're a big company, we need both."

The balancing lies with the manager himself: "A good manager has always led according to the situation and knew when which method should be used. It must decide when it is important to give a clear answer and clear instructions, and when it is better to give space."

To provide support, Continental offers method coaches in every business unit who work with managers to determine whether agile or classic leadership methods should be applied. "It is also good to start with a small subsegment," Tobias Burkhardt analyses.

The areas of innovation, IT and R&D are just as suitable for this as completely new services or products. Less promising would be to start with the conversion of established processes. "Find a small island, ask employees if they would like to participate, and then you will learn. If you have gained experience and the positive effect on the company is visible, you can start with the next project."

Joachim Stelzer has experienced that this start into the world of agility can actually mean a quantum leap. Since a management buy-out in 2003, he and two other owners have owned the company Brandad Systems from Fürth. It offers marketing portals for corporations that use them for their sales.

In 2009, Stelzer noticed that the technical challenges in the structure of traditional departments, which he had previously laboriously built up, could no longer be solved. "That was complex, the customers' requirements were high, and our hierarchical structure stood in our way," he sums up the situation at the time.

Stelzer had already read a lot about new management methods. Now is the time to introduce them. He discusses with the head of software development, they sit down with the 20 or so employees from this area and come to the conclusion that agile working is the only way to become faster and more efficient and to stay close to the customer's wishes in the development process. "Today you can no longer make a plan for two years - every market, every product is so intensively changing that you have to coordinate more frequently and define new intermediate goals again and again.

There was only one moment when the entrepreneur hesitated: "The complexity of software development in an agile system required that two professionals work on one task, so called pair programming. We had to redistribute the scarce resource of developers - that was a challenge."

Stelzer nevertheless opts for agility: "We were in a growth phase and at the same time had quality and speed problems, too few product finishes, were too inflexible overall. There was not even regular customer feedback on our developments. When I think about it today, it's unimaginable that we worked like this."

The first step was to engage a consulting firm. The second: to introduce the new working method - in this case it was SCRUM (box on the right) - moderated, to form competence teams and to abolish the manager functions. The third: to train the role of the SCRUM master. Stelzer's conclusion: "Unbelievable how self-evident this is today."

The agile work makes all employees more satisfied, they contribute their ideas to Brandad Systems, the quality of the work is higher, and his company is now also faster. "We didn't get a customer order because we were missing a module. That was a year and a half ago. One year later, we developed a module for another customer in the same agile way and completed it faster than the competitor who was awarded the contract."

Stelzer has been rolling out the process throughout the company since 2013. From the end of 2017, there will no longer be any classic managers. "My awareness of the benefits of the process has grown. Now I'm sure: the greatest ideas come from the base. Once they are passed through the authorities, as is customary in corporate groups, and personal vanities of superiors decide whether or not to go to the relevant positions, I deprive my company of its potential for growth and competitiveness."

Joachim Stelzer is the only executive at Brandad Systems today. "Actually, I'm mostly responsible for compliance and I'm a facilitator." The responsibility lies with the teams. And that feels right for everyone involved. "Replacing the hierarchy of power with a hierarchy of competence is the key to working successfully in changing times." One does not only give the responsibility to the teams, but also the control - "that must be, however not by a higher authority, but by transparency".

Stelzer uses an example to illustrate how this control mechanism works. "Everyone can enter their desired vacation themselves, this is visible for the entire team. If an employee claims all bridge days for himself, the team has to discuss it and find a solution." The distribution of the budget also functions through transparency, and "if I consistently think it through to the end," Stelzer weighs up, "then the salary discussions also belong in the team. Equal pay for equal work was a matter of course for him anyway. He hopes to be able to develop his company further in the direction of transparency over the next five years. However, he does not yet know whether this will become reality with the salary negotiations in the team. "This is probably the highest level of maturity an organization can achieve."

Continental also wants to make more intensive use of its employees' knowledge and has even set up a worldwide ideas platform where every employee can post their suggestions and suggestions. "It skips hierarchies - here board members often get involved as sponsors for campaigns. This motivates many employees to think about the optimization potential in their area."

Recently, for example, the Continental Chief Financial Officer initiated an ideas challenge - employees were able to place their ideas directly at Executive Board level. A team ranks the ideas and the board then decides which idea will be implemented. "Here comes the okay from above, but everything else is decided at the lowest level at which it can be decided."

Of course, there are also critical remarks from the employees. According to Gallner, this is the intention: "Openness is the breeding ground for diversity and helps us to dismantle barriers".

Tobias Burkhardt has experienced many times that agility challenges the top management. On the one hand, it was understood that the Management Board had to set an example in what the employees were to implement. And that this includes the courage to make decisions in an uncertain environment without having the right to immediately be able to fall back on the optimal solution.

"On the other hand, a large company cannot be agile as a whole, because the complexity of its tasks and the challenges of a global player require clear decisions and structures that cannot be discussed," says Gallner, adding: "But the Management Board can always be permeable to the suggestions of the employees.

Agile methods, Thomas Gallner concludes after 14 years of experience, would only be successful if the entire system had receptors for them. It does not make sense to work agilely at one point if the adjacent and integrated next unit is strongly hierarchically organised.

"I already know," Tobias Burkhardt analyses, "the path to agility can be exhausting. And of course there will also be setbacks. But you can be sure: Tomorrow this method will also help you to attract new employees. For Generation Y - the 20- to 35-year-olds - success in the matter is often more important than power and status. They're looking for one thing above all else: a great place to work."

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Method case - the tool of agility.

Agile methods are both iterative and incremental. Iteration is the gradual implementation of improvements. Incremental means that tasks are broken down into individual parts and solved step by step. Each of these parts - increments - represents its own and complete functionality. In practice, four main methods are taught: SCRUM, Kanban, Stand-up Meetings and Design Thinking.

01 SCRUM is a method from project management. Projects are often complex, neither requirements nor solutions are clear. Therefore, intermediate goals are used to empirically approach the optimal solution. The progress of the project, the requirements and the obstacles are regularly recorded, reviewed and adjusted in a way that is visible to all participants.

At Continental, for example, the SCRUM method is used in the development of software for instrument clusters such as the speed display directly behind the steering wheel. "The SCRUM master takes over the big task and cuts it into small pieces for different teams. They agree on what they want to achieve in the next 14-day period. In regular meetings they compare their progress. The SCRUM master holds the project together, is embedded in the overall organisation of the company, removes obstacles and guides the reviews. "The advantage of SCRUM is that participants receive feedback much earlier on what works. They can adjust their goals regularly and thus become faster and better in the process," adds Tobias Burkhardt.

// 02 Kanban aims at a flexible, decentralized production process control. It is the Japanese term for card and describes a control procedure that is known in this country as the get, call or pull principle: If a production part is consumed, the kanban serves as an order card that triggers the production of the part again at the upstream production stage.

The control system is therefore based exclusively on the actual consumption of materials at the point of material staging and consumption. The aim is to manage the value chain at every stage of a multi-stage integration chain in a cost-optimized manner and to reduce local stocks of intermediate products in and near production. The method was developed and used for the first time by Toyota.

03 Stand-up meeting describes the short information comparison of the project participants with review of the goals for the next day. Meetings should not last longer than 15 minutes, details will be discussed bilaterally. If the meeting takes place while standing, this is more efficient. Targets are divided into smaller and smaller units until they can be completed in one working day - the technical term for this is task splitting. The use of a moderator helps to focus on the goals and avoid inefficient meetings;

04 Design Thinking is a systematic approach to complex problems. So it is an approach that should lead to solving problems and developing new ideas. The aim is to find solutions in multidisciplinary teams that are convincing from the user's or user's point of view. The solution is therefore first seen through the user's eyes, and then, as it were, a backward consideration is given to how this solution can be brought about in a technologically feasible and economically viable way.

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Author: Yvonne Döbler

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