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Book Review – Response Ability: The Language, Structure, and Culture of the Agile Enterprise – Kate Bogh

by on November 12, 2007

Rick Dove is one, of only a very few authors, who sincerely believes in the vision of an agile enterprise and its ability to adapt and respond to change quickly and efficiently. The true value of Dove’s book is the step by step documentation that leads organizations toward agility. His book, Response Ability: The Language, Structure, and Culture of the Agile Enterprise, written in 2001, are still considered to be at the forefront of developing agile concepts.

While the book refers mostly to manufacturing examples, stories and scenarios, Dove has spent almost equal time in engineering, manufacturing and software development before moving into change management where he works now as a Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology in the School of Systems and Enterprises. His courses cover engineering and design of agile systems and enterprise systems. Dove focuses on resilient response, innovative response, agile secure, system interoperability and self organization. (Dove, Bio).

Responsibility is still not understood completely in the software development world where as in the manufacturing field, most all organizations implement some form of agility and some have enterprise level agility. For many organizations, agility is considered an abstract notion that promises incredible benefits but is likely unattainable. There are a couple reasons for this. First, software development is still a relatively new field that has grown of its momentum until very recently. Secondly, software development is a very technical field. There are numerous organizations implementing agility at the team level and growing from there. But virtually none of them are reaching the level of organizational agility. Organizations reap the benefits of agile development teams but do not know how to duplicate the results in other departments or at the executive level. Unlike most authors who focus on the abstract theories and concepts behind agility, Dove is unique in that he provides the business arguments for agility while identifying the down to earth changes necessary to implement them.

For most organizations, the drive to become agile comes from a desperate desire adapt to market demands and requirements quickly, efficiently, smoothly and without giving up so much that the effort has more cost than it brings in. The field of manufacturing has taken off in terms of agility; there are a number of organizations that can now be considered agile enterprises. The software development world is slowly catching up.

Most organizations strive for proficiency of change in different ways. Whether through efficiency programs or transformation programs, if an organization is proficient at change, it can and will adapt to unpredictable opportunities and will avoid unpredictable threats. “Being agile means being proficient at change. Agility allows an organization…to continue to succeed when constant innovation becomes the dominant competitive strategy.” (pg. 5). Agility is a business strategy and when implemented appropriately can make the organization work more smoothly and significantly more profitably.

Throughout the book there are three overriding themes that are used repeatedly. The first is the concept of Response situation analysis (RS analysis) which involves product, process, practice and people. The second is reusable, reconfigurable and scalable (RSS) frameworks. And the third is a set of metrics for measuring organizational change efficiency. Also used throughout the book, is a case study on Remmele Engineering and its incorporation of agility. Below is a look at each in more detail.

The response situation analysis provides a way for organizations to define problems and opportunities using the analysis of eight change domains. The domains are divided into proactive and reactive elements. The proactive domains are creation, improvement, migration and modification. The reactive domains are correction, variation, expansion and reconfiguration. Four examples are given, from different organizations, each one addressing product, process, practice or people.

To assist in the domain analysis, Dove offers 10 steps including compiling an appropriate evaluation team, working within constraints, defining issues and brainstorming. The response situation analysis can be used within any organizational department or specialty by simply dividing the issue or opportunity into the appropriate category of product, process, practice or people.

Another common theme throughout the book is the importance of developing and maintaining systems that are reusable, reconfigurable and scalable (RSS). Change proficiency + RSS = Response ability. (pg.11). While change proficiency is markedly more difficult to implement, RSS relies on design principles. Dove argues that anyone in an organization can implement RSS principles and practices whether they are an HR employee or on the floor of a manufacturing chain. This is a very valuable point. When most people discuss agility, it is in regards to a respective specialty whether software development, manufacturing or product development. What makes enterprise agility work is the ability to adapt the concepts to every aspect of the organization. Dove encourages everyone to take the concepts and apply them to where the workplace and to modify them as necessary to fit the need. He suggests that developing the information to fit into a particular example is what teaches us what works and what does not. Adapting the information makes it our own and more likely to be successful.

Dove also offers a metrics for measuring change proficiency within an organization. In fact, this is what really attracted me to Dove’s work. Agility feels like a touchy feely idea that no organization is ever really able to implement…unless it is measureable. Measurability proves the potential. While there is still no concrete information about measuring agility, change proficiency is a strong step in the right direction. If an organization can prove change proficiency and the benefits afforded from it, it could potentially justify the cost and effort of implementing agility.

The change proficiency maturity model is the tool for measuring change proficiency within an organization. The model contains twenty four characteristic or metrics, each evaluating a different aspect of an organization from strategic planning, business justification, innovation management, knowledge management and performance metrics. All twenty four characteristics are given a rating from 0 to 4. 0 is accidental. 1 is repeatable. 2 is defined. 3 is managed and 4 is mastered. The scores are plotted on a chart and the deficiencies are clearly shown and can be addressed directly. This is the model my organization uses to view software development team maturity however the scope is significantly smaller and fewer metrics are used.

The change proficiency maturity model is a tool developed over 10 years ago and still very prevalent today. Still, the model could use an update. First the organizational relationship management section encompasses too much and should be broken into two separate topics. It currently includes all internal and external relationships. Internal relationships should be moved out into a separate category that includes information system unit relationships, employee relationships and business unit relationships while customer, supplier and partner relationships are considered separately. I would also consider added an employee evaluation metric to the performance metric. Right now it only includes metrics based upon product, process and practice and ignores the people aspect.

The book goes on to explain how to design systems for adaptability and responsibility. A very prominent case study on Remmele Engineering is used as a reference point. Remmele Engineering is a machined-metal parts and custom automation business that had a little over $100 million in 1999 and sustained 12 percent growth rate per year while comparatively sized competing organizations experienced slow or no growth. Machining is not a very high-growth market and it is far from stable. Remmele focuses is on customer satisfaction first, then employee satisfaction, growth, community service and profits. Profits are the last item on the list of organizational guiding principles while employee satisfaction is very near to the top. Everyone involved in implementing a plan is a part of the development and evaluation from the beginning to the end. For employees, Remmele offers an active collaborative network, cross-divisional meetings and opportunities for learning. Organizational culture also plays a large role (there is more on this in the next section).The lessons Remmele has learned in an effort at implemented agility are easily transferred to other companies in different industries. Remmele has mastered response ability. In 1976 Remmele grossed $8 million in sales. After leaving traditional sales systems and setting up a national sales rep organization, revenues exceeded $46 million within six years. In 1989 sales exceed $60 mill and by 1996 Remmele had 475 employees and annual revenues of about $90 million. Their customer base includes computer and automotive companies, medical device manufacturers, and the aircraft/space industry. Remmele had the strategy, mission, values, adaptable people and the culture to support change.
Organizational culture is one of the most important aspects for encouraging innovation and increased knowledge. In one study, sited in the book, David Upton, of Harvard, studied why it is so hard for companies to become more flexible even when they knew and agreed flexibility brings about competitive advantage. He studied 61 factories and found that there was no relationship between flexibility and the size of the plant or flexibility and workforce experience but that flexibility was largely a factor of the people and their desire for a flexible operation. “Plants whose managers had not flexibility as a clearly understood goal were much less flexible than those whose managers had.” (pg. 60). Corporate culture provides a link between employees and the organization. The book goes on to explain ways of improving and/or adjusting corporate culture.

Overall the book offered a lot of models, processes, support and guidance for becoming more agile or response able. The tools and metrics are also valuable and backed up with numerous case studies and examples that are just too numerous to describe. The amount of information was overwhelming and after having read the book once, I want to go back and read it again. In this book there is value in every page which makes it a good read.

Still there are significant challenges to Dove’s model for response ability that can easily make or break organizational change efforts. At one point in the book Dove mentioned that application of recommended practices does not guarantee success. It takes more than just implementation of principles for success and in many ways, Dove explains, it is an art form. It takes soft skills alongside the concrete ones to ensure success. Aligning all the ducks in a row is a challenge and this really touches on why so many organizations are afraid to take the leap into implementation. Sometimes employees just cannot embrace the change or the organization cannot make the drastic changes necessary for change. It has to be a concerted effort. If I were the CEO, CIO or president of an organization I would hire one or two people whose sole responsibility it would be to align the business, strategy side of the organization with the culture. There is certainly risk involved. Dove makes it seem as though it is easy if only appropriate steps are followed but the real world is more complicated as not as predictable as Dove would have us believe.

I wish Dove had expressed more about the experiential requirements of high level change makers within an organization. He claims that anyone can implement changes at any level or place within the organization but it takes very specific management and business skills to be able to look at the whole picture of the organization and systematically change components to lead towards agility. The steps need to be completed in the right sequence and Dove does not go into the specifics.

Overall the book does a very good job of explaining and justifying response ability, what it is, why it works and what needs to happen to make an organization more adaptable and flexible to change. In reality, any step and organization takes toward agility, using Dove’s suggestions is likely to have a positive impact.

Resources:
Dove, Rick. Personal Bio. Paradigm Shift International. URL: http://www.parshift.com/BioDove.htm
Dove, Rick. Response Ability: The Language, Structure and Culture of the Agile Enterprise. John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2001.
Dove, Rick, Hartman, Sue, Benson, Steve. “An Agile Enterprise Reference Model with a Case Study of Remmele Engineering”. Agility Forum Report, 1996. URL: http://www.parshift.com/docs/aermodA0.htm
Upton, David. “What Really Makes Factories Flexible?” 1995.

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