Executives and Transparency

One of the cornerstones of scaled agile is transparency. This is particularly true for executive transparency. Unfortunately transparency is a double edged sword and executives involved in transformations normally avoid it like the plague.


Transparency allows executive running a transformation to demonstrate that they are a success.

on the flip side…

Transparency shows when transformations are failing.

If you are an executive and you intend to succeed, the first thing you will do is establish transparency. That way, when you are a success, it can be demonstrated rather than a matter of opinion. Furthermore, if you do not have transparency into the transformation, you cannot identify the things that need your focus to improve. As Jabe Bloom says in his 2017 Lean Agile Conference talk, data should provide an invitation to executives to “Go to the Gemba” (Go and see where the work is done). In other words, the data shows you where to go, and then the executive should go there so that they have total transparency into what is going on, not a view of the world filtered through management updates, excel and powerpoint.

The exemplar of this behaviour is Mark Gillett. I worked for Mark helping to build a dashboard that showed the state of the business. Our top three metrics were “Number of customers”, “Activity” and “Revenue”. Mark invested heavily into the accuracy and coverage of these metrics. What he wanted was not available “off the shelf” so he build a world class group of developers who could deliver what he needed. He could drill down from the number of customers into the customers per product, or drill down into “New Customers” and “Churn”. Overall we had about four hundred metrics. Once these core business basics were in place, Mark worked on the operational metrics to give a better understanding of how effective the business invested in the products… lead time, bugs, performance. The key thing is that these were not executive metrics, they were the metrics that everyone in the business looked at. And this is the key point, everyone in the organisation knew that Mark looked at these metrics regularly, and they behaved accordingly. They cared about the results because they knew Mark could see if they needed help.

Jira is a tool developed to help teams manage their development. It is not a tool to manage across teams or at an enterprise level. In order to create transparency for executives, you need an expert who can extract the data you need to create the views they need. One of the graduates working with us created an app to extract data from Jira into an SQL based database. Once the data was in the SQL database it took a couple of days to create an excel report that gave an executive view of lead time using weighted lead time.

Recently a couple of colleagues and I created the first version of a report that allows executives to drill down to a deliverable and then see view the value stream for the deliverable with colour coding for the different teams. It is possible to drill down from the value stream to a cumulative flow diagram for each team. This was all in a couple of weeks part time. The numbers ain’t great but they are better than nothing and they provide the executives with “invitations to the Gemba” as Jabe would call them. (I will shortly be creating an open source product to give executives transparency into lead time and the value stream.)

If executives want to be successful with a transformation, they will demand transparency.

Executive who do not believe they can deliver a transformation avoid creating transparency like the plague. The problem with transparency is that it no longer the responsibility of the team to deliver, but everyone in the organisation, especially executives. Executives who do not “Go to the Gemba” can be held accountable when there is transparency.

So how do executives avoid transparency? Easy, they do not demand it. Everyone in their risk averse organisations will happily avoid looking at the metrics, especially if the executives can prove that they do not care about the metrics.

The benefits of not having transparency include the following:

  • Employees do not need to improve.
  • Employees (especially the executives) do not need to learn new techniques or approaches and can continue using the “same old” methods.
  • Executives can manage using their opinion rather than using metrics to reveal reality.
  • Executives can ignore problems they do not feel comfortable with.
  • No one can be blamed when the transformation fails to generate any improvement.
  • Good people who wanted to achieve results will leave.

So if you want to be part of a successful transformation, look for an executive who is demanding transparency and has strong (but weakly held) opinions on how they will get it. When you go for the interview, ask the executive to tell you when they have “Gone to the Gemba” based on the transparency they have in their metrics dashboard.

If you want a long term coaching engagement with no expectation of delivery of improvement, look for one where the executives do not care about transparency, especially around lead time.

Why I’m going to create an open source lead time tool.

From my experience, if executives do not have transparency into the lead time of deliverables, they do not care about improvement. If they do not care about the improvements, then neither will most of the people that work for them. This makes it hell for Agile Coaches who are bought in to help people adopt new approaches.

Building an executive lead time dashboard requires specialist experience. Without the dashboard, it is hard to create that transparency. The one thing management controls absolutely is spending money which makes it hard to bring in products you have to pay for. Therefore to help my fellow Agile coaches, I intend to create an open source (free) product to visualise lead time and value streams.

More details to follow.

About theitriskmanager

Currently an “engineering performance coach” because “transformation” and “Agile” are now toxic. In the past, “Transformation lead”, “Agile Coach”, “Programme Manager”, “Project Manager”, “Business Analyst”, and “Developer”. Did some stuff with the Agile Community. Put the “Given” into “Given-When-Then”. Discovered “Real Options” View all posts by theitriskmanager

7 responses to “Executives and Transparency

  • Barnaby Golden

    Weighted lead time is great, but you need a value metric to compliment it. To my mind measuring value is the base driver that all the other metrics feed off.

  • kennygrant993

    Great article Chris 🙂 if you’re in need of beta testers for the metric to value stream tool then I have the perfect scenario with my client

  • Richard Cornelius

    Good on you Chris.
    Totally agree that transparency (especially queues and constraints, which can be highlights by the lead time) is one of the keys for any transformation (and continual improvement).

    Thanks for the idea of the open source tool and keep us updated. I got one will be looking closely.

  • Scott T Waters

    Great article Chris. I especially liked how you listed the advantages to not having transparency because depending on the perspective, there are many. The biggest hurdle I have found in making this cultural shift in organizations that do not embrace and demand transparency, is the idea of who owns the transparency communication. I think you nailed it. It is the responsibility of everyone including the executives.

  • Mark Kennedy

    Great article Chris. I would certainly be interested in getting involved with developing and testing the open source tool you mention.

  • Top 10 favourite digital blogs - Bradley Howard's Blog

    […] updates his blog with practical advice for technology teams and senior managers such as “executives and transparency”, and he focusses his agile transformation articles on business managers rather than technology […]

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