Agility, a royal road to improve the quality of life at work?

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How to improve the quality of life at work? Can agility be an answer to improve the QWL (quality of life at work)?

The quality of life at work (QWL) is a concept that emerged as an extension of current thinking. It highlights the limits of Taylorism: notably demotivation and the feeling of alienation. And, in turn, their negative impact on quality and productivity.

The origins of agility are also in reaction to the Taylorist legacy. As early as the 1950s, William Edwards Deming opened up a way to counter the dominant Taylorism. Professor Deming highlighted concepts such as self-management and the positioning of the leader at the service of the teams. He also deals with the issues of team spirit, the development of relationships based on trust, learning and continuous improvement. It is about empowering employees to act, improve and take pride in their work.

Toyota: an example of Lean practices in the company

This innovative thinking inspired the Toyota practices at the same time. In 1990, Jones and Womack reconceptualized these practices, breaking with Taylorism, under the name Lean.

These Toyota practices and their Lean conceptualization will eventually develop in software production. Many experts experiment with alternative project management methods. This allows them to overcome the excesses of the division of labor and prediction, inherited from Taylorist thinking.

In 2001, 17 experts in IT development formalized the values and principles they share: this is the Agile Manifesto. It gave real visibility to these alternatives. Today, they are being massively adopted in software production. More or less well, but that's another story...

The origins of agility and quality of life at work are therefore based on a common foundation. However, they are approached from very different angles and with very different goals. The initial issue of quality of life at work is health and well-being at work. The challenge of the agile approach (and of Lean) is that of the efficiency of production and its adequacy with the need.

Team cohesion and collaboration, a guarantee of quality of life at work.

Is taking care of people good for business?

However, these different initial motivations lead to the same underlying foundation. The human potential of a company is a precious capital to be preserved and improved.

Thus, taking care of this potential confers many competitive advantages.

On the one hand, this allows for more efficient management, particularly through the involvement and loyalty of employees and the operational improvements that may result (quality, reduction of waste, etc.). On the other hand, valuing the human factor creates conditions favorable to innovation. That is, a human and organizational ecosystem within the company that is conducive to innovation.

One could legitimately want to put the Lean and Agile approaches on trial, as they take care of the employee for efficiency purposes. Wouldn't the approach be tainted by this vile capitalist motivation? And therefore likely not to be really virtuous for the human being?

Lean and Agile approaches, a real asset for the company?

If Toyota had had the means to do Fordism, it might have been able to apply the model that was dominant at the time. But the company finally invented a new path. In any case, when constraint forces innovation, sometimes new elements appear on the path created by innovation. These discoveries transform the initial experience and motivations.

To think in concreto, let's take a typical organization experiencing difficulties that manifest themselves in a variety of ways. For example, there could be production problems (responsiveness, quality, volume), internal tensions between departments or trades, or managerial lines. All these factors increase the pressure to achieve results.

I am taking bets (with a very low risk) that the quality of life at work is degraded. And that, without appropriate treatment, all these symptoms will worsen in a systemic spiral. This is what is known as the "vicious circle".

Beyond the initial impact on the psyche and well-being at work, the foreseeable future evolution of this organization will be one of economic degradation. Then it will certainly be financial (and with very little chance of being able to innovate to get out of this downward spiral).

Taking care of people through agility: a response to improve the quality of life at work?

So what would be the prospects for recovery at this early stage?

Let's imagine scenario A (*1). A serious approach to improving the quality of life at work is put in place. Organizational, relational and managerial drifts and dysfunctions will be identified as vectors or causes of deterioration in the quality of life at work. An organization's raison d'être is to create value for its customers or users. There is a frequent link between "feeling good at work" and having the means to "do a good job". In other words, to create value.

I hypothesize that the convergence between quality of life at work and efficiency can be verified at the level of each organization (*1). There may, of course, be an antagonism that is difficult to reduce to specific positions. For example, we can illustrate this with positions dedicated to managing dissatisfaction, such as a complaints department. In this case, it will be more difficult to achieve a level of quality of working life commensurate with the quality of complaints handling.

Let's take Scenario B. A serious agile approach is implemented. The same organizational, relational and managerial drifts and dysfunctions will be dealt with even more rapidly. This is because the approach is aimed first and foremost at creating the conditions for operational efficiency. Improving conditions for personal fulfillment in the workplace will be a natural consequence.

For example, with the implementation of agile rituals, which provide reference points. But also with the solution-oriented approach, learning and continuous improvement that restore confidence and serenity. Or again, with the real possibility of action and autonomy for everyone, restoring the degrees of freedom essential to well-being and efficiency.

Is it possible to say, then, that quality of working life and agility approaches are equivalent in terms of results?

This would be reductive, as quality of work life directly covers many other issues (health at work, equality, etc.). Issues that agility could at best address by a hypothetical ripple effect.

On the other hand, let's zoom in on the single dimension of quality of work life related to well-being at work (and to its more or less fulfilling organizational conditions). The question of comparison then makes more sense. 

The tools used to remedy organizational dysfunctions can be very diverse. There's nothing to stop a good QWL practitioner, who has also mastered agility, from mobilizing agile practices for a QWL approach. However, agility is still very much associated with the IT world. It's not certain that QWL practitioners have sufficient mastery of agile tools.

With different tools, the results in a given context may take specific forms that are difficult to compare. The question therefore remains open to feedback from QWL practitioners.

So, is agility a good way to implement a quality of work life approach?

The experience of agile coaching always confirms this and in any context. A good agile approach is first and foremost an approach that gives back to the operational teams the place they deserve to hold in the contribution to value creation. This revaluation of the team, through autonomy and trust, is a strong marker. It indicates that an agile approach is on track for success. And it reinforces the continuation of the approach thanks to this "positive energy" created within the organization.

From my point of view as an agilist, I have encountered very different situations and challenges. One of the first tasks, and often the first, is to get teams that have been "broken" back into operational condition. Then we have to recreate the conditions of trust, of hope even. This starts with the operational process. It quickly brings virtuous secondary benefits, such as regaining the ability to produce, to act, to express critical thinking, to be heard. And this allows for improved production. All this gives individuals and teams real power and professional pride.

Also, without having the reading grids for quality of life at work, it seems to me that agilists who are seriously committed to supporting their clients make a major contribution to certain components of quality of life at work. For a given company, these components can be central.

The complementarity between agility and quality of life at work

The QWL approach has the advantage of addressing all the components of quality of life at work. Many of them are not directly covered by an agile approach. For example, professional equality, health conditions or career management. 

It is therefore more relevant to articulate these two approaches in a complementary manner, depending on the needs and difficulties of a given company. And this, in order to maximize the benefits of these approaches.

This complementarity can be reinforced by the interaction between them, up to symbiotic services. For example, an agile approach can "pave the way" and put a production department back into operational condition. This provides the necessary support for a quality of work life approach that addresses difficulties in career management and training. Or vice versa, depending on the company's specific needs!

But don't the "business" motivations of agility taint the concerns of quality of life at work?

Beyond the strong association between the quality of life at work and the economic dynamism of an organization, the beautiful story (which ends well) of this lambda company illustrates that what counts is not so much where you start from, but where you go. And the quality of the journey.

A company could start an agile approach with a weak understanding of the central role of the "human factor". If it is sufficiently well guided and able to evolve, it can achieve excellent results. These results are expressed as much in the benefits of fulfillment at work as in the gains in efficiency and innovation.

Conversely, a company that launches an agile approach for more "virtuous" reasons* may fail if it lacks courage and foresight along the way.

*Understanding ofquality of life at work issues, willingness to make real changes, etc.

Experience shows us that what makes the difference in the end is, just as within the company, the quality of the commitment of those who accompany a business transformation process.

(1) As I am not a specialist in quality of life at work, I invite experts in the field to give their critical opinion on these assumptions.



"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is." Yogi Berra

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"In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But in practice, there is." Yogi Berra

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