Make Improvement Continuous, not Periodic

August 9, 2011

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how
to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts
its behavior accordingly.”

Agile development seeks to change the working world of development teams for the better, and it does. When it comes to making improvements, the retrospective approach used by a framework such as Scrum is a great start, but it still smacks of being a periodic improvement tactic versus one of continuous improvement.

It’s a difference between being process-driven versus mindset-driven.

The distinction is important because a great many Agile enthusiasts (including me) point out that Agile development is not a process. And while multiple Agile frameworks exist, they all rely on a change in mindset. After all, being Agile means more than “doing Agile” by adopting the rituals, terminology, and artifacts of a particular framework, right?

If you believe that being Agile translates to living by the values and principles of the Agile Manifesto (although I am advocating modifying this one principle), shouldn’t your improvement efforts be driven by more than a scheduled event? Furthermore, won’t teams reach a point where it is increasingly difficult for them to understand what else can be improved? What will they do then?

Agile retrospectives shorten the improvement window, but they don't make improvement truly continuous. If continuous improvement is a part of your organizational mindset, then it should be embodied in the thoughts and actions of everyone, a part of the culture that is represented in the behavior of everyone.

And by that I mean a culture that emphasizes systematic improvement, concentrating on the details of a process and techniques used to reach a desired state. This isn’t just for Agile development. Joe Montana talks about Bill Walsh’s “standard of performance” in the foreword of the book, The Score Takes Care of Itself, outlining three ways that Walsh taught people how to think and play a higher level:
  1. Sharing his tremendous knowledge of the game. (And encouraging others to develop their knowledge.)
  2. Assembling a highly competent staff of coaches who knew how to coach.
  3. Developing a hatred of mistakes.
The same goes for the New England Patriots football organization – does anyone doubt that Bill Belichick has a tremendous grasp of the game? Or that he and Tom Brady share a hatred of mistakes? (I'm a U.S. football fan who lives in New England; I couldn't stop myself from mentioning the Patriots...)

Successful organizations focus plenty on execution. (For the purposes of this post, assume that the business has identified a viable opportunity and execution is what stands between the company and success.) As the title of the book mentioned above suggests, focusing attention on great execution allows you to win games – and you don’t win by simply demanding people to “be better.” There has to be an approach.

Deep knowledge, continuous learning, competent coaches and the desire to execute well – without making mistakes – are all factors. I discussed learning and improving in my last post, You Can’t Cut and Paste Your Way to Improvement. But what about coaching? How do people and teams approach continuous improvement?

Toyota has a great method. They teach people to change only one thing at a time, and then check the actual result against the expected result. The goal is for people to see and understand cause and effect, developing a deeper understanding of the work processes. Toyota utilizes what they call a PDCA (Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycle:
  1. Plan. Define what you expect to do and to happen. This is the hypothesis or prediction.
  2. Do (try out). Test the hypothesis, that is, try to run the process according to plan. Observe closely.
  3. Check (study). Compare the actual outcome with the expected outcome.
  4. Act (What’s next?). Standardize and stabilize what works, or begin the PDCA cycle again.
My belief is that we should strive to make improvement systematic, continuous and a part of everyone's behavior, not periodic and random.

(Mistakes as they relate to business versus sports is a topic in its own right that I'll cover in a future post.)