Is There a Disconnect Between Knowledge Workers and Business Leaders?

The past two weeks I’ve read a number of articles about the End of Agile and subsequent rebuttals. Yesterday I read an excellent article asking “Whatever Happened to Six Sigma?” Both of these articles are fascinating. The rebuttals to the first are incredibly enlightening. I don’t think these are the last of these sorts of articles. I expect to read “The End of Lean” down the road as well.

I think there are a few reasons, one of them is common between Six Sigma and Agile. Snake Oil Salespeople. Basically, what has happened with all methodologies (except for PMI’s Waterfall approach – which I’ll get to) there reaches a point in time where it becomes impossible to determine the quality of credentials for a given certification. At that point, the certification is valueless even if the training, like you dear reader received, was actually the top of the top. Because there’s no actual way to determine if the quality is any good or not.

I experienced this first hand while I was teaching Lean Six Sigma at AMD. I had some fantastic mentors when I was working there, that lived and breathed Six Sigma for their entire careers. They knew this stuff inside and out. Which made me gain a much deeper appreciation for the methodology. However, there was another small company in Austin that also taught Six Sigma to their employees, Dell. Whenever we hired people from Dell with a certification in Six Sigma, a Green Belt or even a Black Belt, we essentially had to retrain them. Many of them, did not truly internalize what they were taught, or the material was less rigorous. This was likely a trade off the Six Sigma training team had to make to ensure their team remained relevant to Dell.

However, whenever you cannot trust the training from an organization like Dell, it makes it a lot more difficult to trust training for any other organization. You just don’t know the standards. Agile’s currently experiencing the exact same issue. There’s been a huge influx of organizations giving certifications. Not all of them have the same level of quality.

I think as a reaction to this, the software development industry has created DevOps and DevSecOps. Which doesn’t have a certification process, but a general set of ideas, such as Trunk development, rigorous testing, continuous integration, and on the extreme continuous deployment.

I think all this goes back to a basic premise though. Knowledge workers, like engineers and software developers look at problems very differently than business leaders. I first experienced this while I was in college. I was studying Industrial Engineering (which pulls in elements from Six Sigma, Lean, Network Theory, Simulation, Human Factors, etc…) while a good friend was studying Business. We had a few conversations about how businesses should be run and it was very obvious to me, that we were talking about two completely different views of how a firm should be run.

I was arguing against (in 2003) off-shoring, because it decreased the efficiency of engineering and collaboration between manufacturing and engineering. Both Agile and Lean argue against off-shoring due to these reasons. Given the change in the approach, the salary savings, overall, didn’t make the effort worth it, because of the reasons I listed. My friend thought lowering cost was the right thing to do.

This isn’t just an anecdotal thing though. If you read books about Agile, Theory of Constraints, or Innovation, they all make the same arguments. The ideas taught in business school are causing business leaders to make bad ideas. Theory of Constraints was popularized in the book The Goal by Eliyahu Goldratt and came out in 1984. The ideas he espoused in that book were considered counter intuitive. If you read the Phoenix Project by Gene Kim which came out in 2013, which is written to model The Goal,¬†you’ll find the characters running into, literally, the exact same type of thinking by managers and other team members. To me, this means there are other cultural organizations that are pushing back against the approaches technical leaders find work best and what our business leaders find work best for their goals.

The two most obvious cases for this are Accounting (which The Goal sets up as something of an antagonist) and Executives. Accounting has the weight of Law on its side, which is problematic, because Accounting organizations has their own reason for maintaining a status quo. They have their own certification process to become a CPA. From the executives standpoint, in many cases these folks are presented as having an MBA and excellent business training.

Despite that, they are still making poor business decisions for the technical team, poor decisions about how to structure their organization, and poor decisions about how to run projects. Most projects are run using a Waterfall approach, because that is the defacto approach we’re all taught throughout school. We manage to dates and push to get things done. The Project Management Institute has managed to corner the market on this approach, because most people can “do waterfall” without needing a certification. You learn through osmosis, by doing. The certification certainly elevates some PMs in some organizations. However, I don’t really think that having a PMP matters to most hiring managers.

So, where does this leave us? It leaves us with Knowledge Workers using ideas like Six Sigma, Lean, DevOps, Agile, and more to dress up their structured problem solving approaches to add structure and credibility. They need structure to compete with the Date Managed Waterfall approach. They need credibility of a methodology to put their approach on the same level as a PMP certification. In the case of Six Sigma, I’d argue its biggest success was internalizing the cost saving analysis. This helped translated the output in terms of money, which executives understand.

Every other approach tries to create an alternative measure. Elimination of Waste or “Working Software is the Measure of Progress” are nice alternatives to reducing costs or meeting due dates.

However, most share holders don’t care about that. They only care about what’s going to make them more money. Ethics and approach be damned. Until that is resolved. We’ll continue to have more fads or business fashions, as Knowledge Workers push back against Business Leaders.