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Pull x Push systems in Organizations

Updated: May 6

Are you usually choosing what you will work on or does top management dictates what to do? Are you being able to participate in hiring or the new colleagues are just joining and you have to ‘deal’ with it?

What do these questions above have to do with Pull and Push systems from Lean? In Lean manufacturing, these are very strong concepts that make a big difference in a company's culture and way of working.

A Push system in Lean manufacturing, production dictates how much of a product will be pushed to the market. In a Pull system, current demand will dictate how much should be produced, which can save a lot in stock costs.

There are also translations of these systems to the Waterfall and Agile approaches. Waterfall is more focused on the Push system, where project managers assign preplanned work. While Agile, especially in Kanban, focuses on the pull system, where team members grab their next work once they are done with their current one.

What if we translate the Pull and Push system from Lean to the whole organization and its ‘Agile’ teams? Maybe we are able to find a couple of dysfunctions that are slowing things down. Let’s try out:

Objectives definition

Pull System: Are teams (or team leads) part of the Objectives definition for at least their department, domain, or team?

Push System: Or are they just receiving pre-defined Objectives without any or almost no context?

Excluding from strategy and decision making the people that will actually work on it, can create disengagement and lack of commitment. Of course, it is almost impossible to involve everyone in Objectives definitions, but when we go to Department, Domains, or Teams level, it is a different story.

Product Teams initiatives

Pull System: Are teams defining initiatives that they are going to work on based on a Strategy / Goal?

Push System: Or are they being told what is the next feature that they should develop?

Initiatives are the actual work that the team will focus on, usually derived from strategic objectives. An initiative is usually a solution to a problem, a feature, or a new product. Not having the team be part of this decision-making can create huge negative effects.

Task assignment

Pull System: Are the team members in most cases able to grab their own tasks after having the right context?

Push System: Or are they being told what to do?

Task assignment is the most classical of the Pull x Push system discussions. It is similar to the previous two points, but more on a team day to day work. Here Product Managers, Team Leads, and Scrum Masters have a big responsibility to guarantee this behavior, creating a contextual and trustworthy environment.


Pull System: Are teams involved in the hiring of their own colleagues?

Push System: Or they are just receiving new team members that they need to ‘deal’ with?

Not involving team members in the hiring process of their own colleagues can create resistance to accepting new people that are coming in.

Building up teams

Pull System: Are teams (or at least team leads) part of new teams setup and overall team topology definition?

Push System: Or are team members just assigned to projects or teams according to the latest top management need?

This behavior can create disengagement. Most, if not every team member, will have a different view on how their team should be set up and work together. Not involving the teams (or at least the team lead) in how they are supposed to be set up and work also is a receipt for disaster.

That is my take on the Pull and Push system and how we can translate it to many organizational dysfunctions. For many reasons companies are not able to involve people in decision-making, but it is important to be aware of the potential damages that it can cause. What is your take on it?


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