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Continuous Improvement Beyond Retrospectives

If you want continuous improvement you can start with retrospectives, but you must go far beyond that with change management, culture change, and innovation, argued Angel Medinilla, an agile and lean coach, consultant and trainer. He spoke about continuous improvement far beyond retrospectives at the Agile Greece Summit 2016.

Retrospectives should help agile teams to improve. But sometimes retrospectives are broken and do not deliver the expected results, said Medinilla. For instance, when the same problems keep coming up in retrospectives, or when people are whining and complaining about things which are wrong in stead of coming up with solutions to solve them.

Medinilla further explained why retrospectives are failing and what can be done to improve them. According to him, problems often start at the beginning- for instance when people don’t prepare for the retrospective, fail to attend the meeting, or hijack the agenda to only talk about things they consider important. Other reasons retrospectives fail is due to too many actions, or when actions are not carried out. If people try to carry out an action and the problem is still not solved, his suggestion is to try another approach that might solve it.

Actions should have a plan which is concrete enough. He gave an example from a retrospective where the team discovered that they were often interrupted and unable to get things done. Defining the action that "the team should focus on" is not helpful, said Medinilla. Such an action is unclear; people don’t know what to do. A better action would be to buy colorful safety jackets which people can wear if they don’t want to be interrupted. To make the action even more specific you can state that you need six jackets when the team consists of eight- that way there will always be at least two persons who can handle interruptions while other team members are protected from being disturbed. You may want to define additional rules like disallowing people from wearing the jackets for more than a couple of days. Also, for example you can define an action that jackets are handed out at the stand up, so that the team can decide who should be the ones to wear them. Making actions specific increases the chances that they can and will be done, argued Medinilla.

Retrospectives are not the only approach to improve; there are many others. Medinilla mentioned some of them: diffusion of innovations, change patterns, lean change, Toyota kata and Kaizen. You have to understand change dynamics to make change happen. Medinilla suggested to read books like more fearless change, lean change, and how to change the world to learn about change.

You can use an impediment backlog to drive change, and design experiments for change which you can plan and track using the board. If the experiment fails, then you can learn from it to design a better experiment. Successful improvement experiments can be shared.

You have to understand the culture before you can change it. Storytelling is a very effective way to improve the culture in organizations, argued Medinilla. Telling stories from things that are going well, things that succeeded, help to spread the word and inspire others to try it. If you don’t have good stories in your company then Medinilla suggested to try to find them elsewhere, and tell stories about how other companies have changed.

He gave an example how people can be inspired by a story. There were three people who went to a conference in their personal time and paid for it with their own time money. They had asked their manager, but he had said that the company wouldn’t fund it. Based on things that they learned at the conference they started helping people to improve their way of working. As the management saw what happened and the benefits that this was bringing to the company, they realized their mistake and decided to refund the money that the employees had paid for the conference and change the days spent at the conference from holiday to working days. They spoke with the three people, who they learned were actually inspired by a story they heard a year ago about people going to conferences to start making change happen. After hearing the story they felt so strongly about it that they wanted to do the same, even if the company would not pay for it.

In order to make improvement happen you need to invest in your people. A way to do that is to structurally make time and space available for training, said Medinilla. Not only for training classes, but also for activities like labs, hackathons, people who pair up to learn new skills, explorations days, etc.

Bad processes have a lot of waste, argued Medinilla. You have to spot them and remove it. To do that you can use practices like the theory of constraints, value stream mapping or root cause analysis. Other suggestions to improve the process include empowering teams and making it easy to bring impediments to the surface, and by creating a learning environment.

You should prevent making the wrong product. A way to do this is by not focusing on the product; rather, focus on the customer. Approaches that can be used to improve products are design thinking, lean startup and experiment driven product development.

According to Medinilla the most important things to make change happen in organizations are creating new habits and changing your culture.

The second Agile Greece Summit was held on September 16 in Athens. InfoQ is covering this conference with Q&As, summaries and articles.

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