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All agile processes are, by their very nature, cyclical, with the outcomes of the previous iteration feeding into the next. With very little additional effort, this continuous feedback can become ongoing improvement, and provide the mechanism for organisations to adapt to changing circumstances. This process of continuous improvement, or Kaizen[1], leads to a culture of continuous improvement.

All processes and business functions within your organisation, are candidates for kaizen, and are everyone’s responsibility, from the CEO to the newest team Member. In addition to productivity improvement, kaizen needs to address efficiencies in other areas, such as organisational culture, staff morale, communication and management, as a form of total quality management[2].

There are five main elements to kaizen:

  1. Teamwork: All staff, regardless of rank or status, work together towards the common goals of your organisation. By extension, all staff, across every team, need to understand the implications of their work for the rest of the organisation, and share the responsibility for your organisation’s success.
  2. Personal discipline: Staff should be accountable for their actions. Not only for their core responsibilities, but for all aspects of their work, including quality control, time management, financial management, and their professional relationships with colleagues and customers. There is a corresponding requirement for organisations to set reasonable standards, and challenge staff to meet them.
  3. Improved morale: As an agile leader, you are responsible for creating a supportive environment where staff feel empowered, secure, and have a sense of ownership. An organisation with low morale, or conflict between managers and staff, will suffer from high absenteeism, poor engagement, and reduced productivity.
  4. Quality circles / retrospective workshop: The retrospective workshops are the primary forum for teams to suggest improvements to your corporate culture, delivery processes and management arrangements. You should also encourage cross-team retrospectives, as a means to share ideas, skills and technology improvements. You need to ensure teams have the authority to experiment with, and implement, local changes, while your organisation should be quick to respond to any large-scale suggestions that have implications beyond the team.
  5. Suggestions for improvement: All business functions are candidates for kaizen, and, as such, each team Member has an obligation to participate in the continuous improvement process. Learning, observing, and putting forward new ideas, especially in relation to their core responsibilities, will help remove any impediments, and increase work efficiency. As an agile manager, you are responsible for creating a culture in which your staff feel empowered to make these suggestions.  

Kaizen is a truly continuous process, where teams should be seeking new ways of improving the business every day. Staff should be encouraged to experiment with different process changes, to drive continuous improvement. However, you should teach your staff the scientific method, to ensure effective and low-risk experimentation. The five steps to this method are; create a hypothesis, design an experiment, run the experiment, draw conclusions, and communicate the results.

The regular, retrospective workshop, provides a forum for each of your teams for introspection, and reflection on the management processes that support the day-to-day operation. 

Each team holds a regular (weekly, biweekly, or at the end of each iteration), retrospective workshop, to discuss the management and delivery processes. The goal of this workshop is to suggest improvements, and the focus should be, in order of importance, people, relationships, process, and tools. The full team should be present for each retrospective, as they are responsible, and accountable, for driving process improvements in the organisation, and their team.

Remember agile principle #12: At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes, and adjusts, its behaviour accordingly.

Teams should be free to discuss any relevant topic. During this short meeting, between an hour to half a day, the team should reflect on the processes since the last retrospective. This may include:

  • Discuss the processes that worked well, and were effective, or improved, since the last retrospective. By reflecting on the positive outcomes, the team can identify their strengths, and use those to overcome specific weaknesses. It is also important, as a mechanism, to provide positive feedback to the team.
  • Discuss the processes that did not work as well as expected and need improvement. By reflecting on the negative outcomes, the team can focus their effort on improving in that area or make modifications to the process to better play to their strengths.
  • Suggest any specific improvements to the processes used within the team. As mentioned, continuous improvement (kaizen) is a core concept to agile and Business agility, and the team is responsible for driving most of this change. It is important to ensure that each improvement is actionable and assigned an owner.

As the presence of managers can sometimes stifle free and unfettered conversation, you may want to provide opportunities for your teams to run some retrospectives without you.

Topics available for consideration include; team structure, communication, meeting arrangements, tools and automation, process definitions, as well as the delivery mechanisms. At the end of the retrospective, the team should have a list of ‘assigned’ and ‘actionable’ improvements to the management processes.

Each retrospective provides the team with the opportunity to reflect on the time since the last retrospective and drive continuous process improvement out of any learning’s since then. Through this process of kaizen, the delivery of each requirement should be more effective, and enjoyable, than the last.
  1. Kaizen (Ky'zen), The Key to Japan’s Competitive Success, Imai (1986).
  2. BS 7850-1: Total Quality Management. Guide to Management Principles, British Standards Institution (1992).