Optimisation of departmental management through the use of agile working methods

In large corporations, managing and orchestrating the numerous departments and teams is a particular challenge, and it is not uncommon for information on the workload or efficiency of individual departments and teams to remain fuzzy and not very meaningful. Too many factors seem to influence what happens at this operational level, so that it is not possible to achieve full transparency here and sustainably increase efficiency. In addition, tools for self-optimisation of these departments and teams are often missing. The board member responsible for the worldwide development of the truck powertrain at a well-known vehicle manufacturer did not want to accept this situation any longer. Therefore, key figure boards were introduced at the levels of division management, main division management and department management, which connected the management levels in the sense of a common orientation. Subsequently, an efficient shop floor management was implemented at the team level. This roll-out was supported by CO Improve, the management consultancy specialising in the introduction of agile working methods.

Complex tasks and complex structures often lead to transparency falling by the wayside. This vehicle manufacturer therefore decided at an early stage to use shop floor management to ensure transparency and thus efficiency in the work of divisions, departments and ultimately also of more than one hundred teams. This goal was to be achieved at team level with the help of Kanban boards. The special feature was that this agile instrument was not to be used in this case, as is often the case, for the management of an agilely processed project, but was to be implemented for the long-term control of departments and teams.

Change needs persuasion

Even though the introduction of the new shop floor management was top-down and thus there were clear guidelines from the top management, it was clear from the beginning that the introduction at team level would require a great deal of persuasion. This was one of the reasons why those responsible chose the experts from CO Improve. In the tender and bid presentation, the consultants were able to score points not only with their experience and expertise, but above all with their personal appearance and their social and cooperative competence.

Structured concept plus flexible implementation

Once this decision was made, the new project team, consisting of three CO Improve consultants and two internal consultants, immediately got to work. First, they worked together to develop a standard approach for introducing the Kanban boards to the teams. The next step was to get the managers of the main departments and divisions on board. Because it was clear that the introduction would not be manageable without their support. Here, too, the CO Improve experts primarily relied on persuasion, which meant taking the reservations and concerns of the managers seriously and taking them into account during the implementation.

Roll-out with patience and tact

The goal of converting more than 100 teams to the new working method in four waves of two months each was quite ambitious. In order to increase the willingness of the employees to change to the new way of organising work, the team of consultants first focused on raising awareness of the problems. When asked, it quickly became apparent that there were definitely areas for development in most teams: for example, team members did not always know exactly what was pending today and what the priorities of the tasks were. Or they noticed that things were not running optimally, but could not explain why. High stress levels and delays caused by others were also cited as problems. And many teams quickly set themselves positive goals in the preliminary discussions, such as learning more from each other in order to be able to stand in for someone else at times, or to live more personal responsibility and problem solving in the team.

On this basis, the consultants were able to clearly present the advantages that the new boards mean for the team and thus significantly increase the motivation to deal with them. With the help of Kanban boards, every team member can see at any time which tasks need to be completed and who is responsible for what. Typical Kanban elements such as the regular 15-minute stand-ups, in which a team meets to make its own progress transparent on the board or to identify difficulties, were adapted to the needs of the individual teams. This resulted in cycles between twice a day and every two days. The decisive factor was that the team meetings are actually exciting for those involved because visible progress has been made since the last meeting.

Training creates the basis

The actual Kanban training of the teams, including a first draft of the team-specific Kanban board, was usually done in three hours, as the Kanban method is a very easy procedure to understand. It proved to be more difficult for many employees to realistically estimate the size of the individual work packages and thus take on the right number of tasks. This is crucial because multitasking and overloading the teams with tasks are forbidden in Kanban. The goal of this agile method is to cap the theoretical workload of the team at about 70 percent of the availability with the so-called "work-in-progress limit" (WIP limit). In this way, blockages in the workflow and unnecessary queues in task processing can be avoided. The effectiveness of this approach has been scientifically proven. However, it contradicts the traditional view of many managers that a team will deliver more results if only enough pressure, i.e. more tasks, are put into the team. Dealing with problems and deviations also had to be trained at the beginning. In most teams, supported by regular improvement workshops, so-called retrospectives, a very good culture of communication and cooperation developed very quickly, in which ideas for solutions were exchanged among each other. The team leaders also had to rethink. As the interface to other teams and internal customers, it was their responsibility to provide all the necessary information and requirements for solving a task before a job appeared on the board. In special team leader meetings, it was possible to make interdisciplinary cooperation considerably more efficient and smoother.

Transparency and haptics

In line with the objectives, the consultant team also had the task of informing the management level regularly, in detail and clearly about the progress of the introduction. This included a two-part self-assessment (team perspective and consultant perspective) on the implementation intensity and effectiveness of the boards and regular on-site meetings with the managers. Fortunately, the vast majority of teams accepted the method with motivation, so that it was lived and implemented very quickly. One reason for this was the use of physical Kanban boards, which were installed in almost every team. Although there are corresponding digital tools, especially the experienced CO Improve consultants advocated the haptic solution in most cases. And indeed, physically taking over a task by writing a card oneself and moving it across the board oneself seems to anchor taking responsibility more strongly in the consciousness. Accordingly, progress is also felt intensely when task cards can be hung in the "done" box.

"Mission accomplished, deadlines met" - this is how the managers and the team of consultants finally felt after the extensive task had been implemented effectively and on time.