The Agile Executive

Making Agile Work

The House Jim Built

with 10 comments

Colleague Jim Highsmith uses an interesting metaphor in a Cutter Advisory published a few days ago:

Visualize a house structure with a roof, a foundation, and three pillars… The roof is business goals — the rationale for implementing agile methods and scaling to larger agile projects. The foundation is agile values or principles — principles that need careful interpretation as to how to apply them to larger teams. And finally, the three pillars: organization, product backlog, and process/practice.

The simplicity of the metaphor makes it quite effective in communicating what Agile is in a concise manner. The need to do a better job conveying the concepts (as distinct from the practices) of Agile was highlighted during Rally’s recent event in Los Angeles. Numerous participants in the event felt they have not managed to get the Agile premise across to their executives.

Jim’s metaphor is nicely supplemented by the following short characterization of Scrum by Cutter Consultant David Spann in a recent Report:

Scrum, as a management methodology, is elegant in its design, requiring only three roles (i.e., product owner, ScrumMaster, and self-organized team), three ceremonies (sprint/iteration planning, daily Scrum/debrief, and sprint review meetings), and three artifacts (product and sprint backlogs and the burndown chart) — just-enough practical advice so agile teams do not overcomplicate the development lifecycle with too much ceremony and documentation.

Between Jim and David, you should have no problem carrying the day in discussing Agile methods with an uninitiated executive.

[David’s Report is available in entirety here. You will need to subscribe to the Cutter service in order to get a copy of Jim’s Advisory. The excerpt cited above, taken from the public summary of the Advisory, is largely self-contained and should suffice for delivering the core message].

Written by israelgat

April 15, 2009 at 7:04 pm

10 Responses

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  1. Toyota has a house metaphor as well, I was recently shown “The Toyota House” from a colleague, Andrew Cahoon.

    Here is the link that Andrew sent me:

    A house with a foundation, two pillars, and a roof of the “goal”. Very similar to what you described, although I haven’t read the article you linked to.

    Here is a link to p33 of “The Toyota Way”, with I think more contextual narrative:


    John Heintz

    April 15, 2009 at 8:03 pm

  2. Fascinating! The power of the metaphor…

    Having said that, I have a major question about the Toyota Way in the context of the art of software. Best I understand, the Toyota Way is optimized to the economy of mass-production. IMHO this is quite different from the economy of knowledge that characterizes the era we live in. I have no doubt a lot of useful lessons can be learned from the Toyota Way, but I wonder where does the mapping from mass-production to computer programming break?!


    Israel Gat

    April 15, 2009 at 8:25 pm

  3. Applying the tools and practices of Toyota manufacturing to knowledge work, as you point out, won’t be very useful. Toyota works from a set of principles for both it’s manufacturing and it’s development processes – although the manufacturing has gotten much more exposure.

    The “house” is much more general than manufacturing – more focused on philosophy and principle. For example: one the right side is this partial layering:
    * Make problems visible
    * In-station quality control
    * Solve root cause of problems (5 why’s)
    * Visual Management

    Those bits can very directly be applied to knowledge work, and I’d say Agile already goes a long way to supporting these things. For examples: TDD and big-visible charts.

    The Poppendieck’s (book and more recently David Anderson and colleagues ( have been mapping the Toyota process to software for some years now.

    Most of my learning originally was through the Poppendieck’s work. I’ve recently broadened out to includes the A3 book from (the comments I made a few days ago to your blog – still owe you more followup… 🙂 and I will be attending the in a few weeks.

    I’m sure I’ll have more to say about these topics.


    John Heintz

    April 15, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    • 1. Please do! (“… say more about these topics.”)
      2. While I agree with everything that you write, John, I generally believe that a paradigm is effective for a certain set of cirumstances and only for a definite period of time. For example, the economical theory and policy tools that Keynes conceived in 1936 seem to have been very effective through the late 60’s. They do not seem to have been as effective during the 70’s and 80’s. His theories might again be much used by the Western democracies amidst the current macro-economic crisis, but I would contend that today’s circumstances are very different from the 70’s and 80’s. If you accept this premise, my questions is about the boundary conditions for the Toyota Way. Under what circumstances is the Toyota Way effective? Under what circumstances does it lose effectiveness?



      April 15, 2009 at 9:26 pm

  4. Cutter Consortium would be happy to send a copy of Jim’s E-Mail Advisor to anyone who wants to read it in-full. Just drop me a note at amullaney [at] cutter [dot] com.

    Anne Mullaney

    April 16, 2009 at 7:56 am

    • Thank you so much, Anne! This is VERY generous of you.




      April 16, 2009 at 8:44 am

  5. Israel, I too “believe that a paradigm is effective for a certain set of circumstances and only for a definite period of time”.

    My estimation of Lean is that it has a very broad set of circumstances and time that it will apply to. Here’s why:
    * Lean focuses on learning (like your most recent post highlights)
    * Lean develops people into “reflective problem solvers” as written in the A3 book, “Managing to Learn” by John Shook
    * Lean itself has evolved slowly over time (100 years!!) to include Taylor/Ford’s assembly line, TWI from US WWII, Demming’s Quality, and so on.

    Keynes economic theories definitely seem to be problematic right now, and call into question fiat currencies vs a gold standard. I would certainly agree that the practice of infinite credit is not working out very well for us!

    I did just here some commentary (no reference…) that stated Keynes theory was based (in principle) on a base-line balanced budget, with flexible money policy to deviate from that in some circumstances.

    Perhaps the Keynesian practices today (no balanced budget in sight) need to be reevaluated in terms of that principle. Times have indeed changed and the practices no longer make sense – perhaps the principles still do?


    John Heintz

    April 17, 2009 at 7:52 am

  6. 1. Keynes definitely advocated governments take strong anti-cyclical measures during crisis like the one we have been staring at for the past 8 months. How effective the current measures would be given the already existing leverage in the financial system, the overall demand profile and global disparities in income distribution is yet to be seen.

    2. Your good points on Lean, learning and evolution are well taken. Question is how will Lean evolve as we transition from the mass-production era to a period characterized by knowledge economy.

    3. My hunch is that the future of Agile, Lean included, will primarily depend on being low cost input in our system. It could, for example, have an effect similar to the one cheap oil had during the 50’s in the US. I will develop the idea in some depth in a future blog post.


    Israel Gat

    April 17, 2009 at 11:23 am

  7. […] being in it together is the executive’s accountability to follow Agile values and principles. The house metaphor Jim Highsmith proposed can be used very effectively in the context we are discussing . One starts building a house by […]

  8. […] reader is encouraged to take a look at the post entitled The House Jim Built. The two views of Agile given in this post by Cutter consultants Jim Highsmith and David Spann […]

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