A series for self-managed agile delivery teams wanting to continuously improve and stay ahead.
Continuous improvement is synonymous with agile software delivery practices. It’s also the primary driver for measuring agile performance, ultimately enabling us to maximise our team success and grow into the best version of ourselves.
Before jumping into the continuous improvement feedback loop (see next post), I think it’s pretty powerful to regroup on why we feel the need to improve in the first place. After-all, can’t we just cruise once in a while, perhaps accept the status quo and own our complacency and mediocrity? It’s all a bit exhausting staying ahead isn’t it?
The Human centred movement to continuously improve.
‘Necessity is the mother of invention’
The small-step work improvement approach was initially developed in the US in response to limited access to time and resources in the production of war equipment during WWII. The essence of the approach came down to improving existing workforce and technologies. Rather than large radical changes to achieve desired goals, the Training Within Industry program recommended small improvements that could ideally be implemented on the same day.
“Changing something for the better”
The Japanese word kaizen means “change for better”. Affiliated with the movement above, Kaizen was also based on the idea that small, ongoing positive changes can reap major improvements. It was popularised through the lean manufacturing movement, or The Toyota Way in Masaaki Imai’s book published in 1986 titled ‘Kaizen: the Key to Japan’s Competitive Success’.
The 4 step cycle of implementing kaizen be defined as the “Plan > Do > Check > Act Cycle, as defined by the American Society for Quality.
‘Tuning and adjusting’
Move forward 15 years to 2001 when the twelve principles for agile software development ‘Agile Manifesto’ was created to advocate for a decentralised, empowered and self-managing way of working for software teams. This manifesto also marked a major shift between a project mindset and a product mindset. A Project mentality is characterised as having an end deliverable where one iteration is all that’s required. A Product mentality however calls for continuous iterations throughout its lifecycle, incorporating feedback at regular intervals that would generate refinements, new releases and a constant process of learning. Specifically, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behaviour accordingly.”
Other informative references when thinking about continuous improvement also include the work of Ray Dalio and the application of data-driven adaptation in professional sports.
‘Evolve or Die’
In his book titled Principles, Dalio illustrates the key to staying ahead and continuously evolving is to fail, learn, and improve quickly. In a continuous loop of learning and improving, a team’s evolutionary process will look like the one that’s ascending as you see below on the right. Do it poorly and it will look like what you see on the left, or worse. As a human species, Dalio believes we instinctively want to get better at things and have created and evolved technology to help us. Dalio’s radical approach to applying radical transparency through building a culture of “learning how to learn well” makes his thinking a key asset in rebooting your team or company’s operating system. Learning is the product of a continuous real-time feedback loop in which we make decisions, see their outcomes, and improve our understanding of reality as a result. Our ultimate choice in life is to evolve or die. “History has shown that all species will either go extinct or evolve into other species” based on our preparedness to adapt through learning.
Britain’s Olympic Cyclists call it ‘marginal gains’. In preparation for the 2012 Olympic Games, where they won 7 out of 10 gold medals, they put their success down to the idea that if you broke down everything that goes into riding a bike, and improve each of them by 1%, you build a winning margin when you put them together.
James Kerr nails it on the head when he writes about the NZ All Blacks national Rugby Union team’s culture in Legacy*: “Sustainable competitive advantage is achieved through the development of a continuously self-adjusting culture. Adaptation is not a recreation, but continual action, so plan and respond.”
Continuous Improvement (CI) is proven to impact software delivery.
The benefits of well implemented Continuous Improvement programmes in software organisations have been well documented, and include:
- 10%+ velocity improvement
- 10%+ improvements in flow efficiency
- 15%+ reduction in return rates and time spent reworking tickets (returned from QA)
- 30%+ improvement in sprint completion accuracy (Scrum Agile)
- Greatly improved team collaboration and team wellness.
Across Umano’s customers, we have also captured significant benefits for software development teams aiming to continuously improve:
- For an average team of 8 costing $1m per annum, real-time data-driven insights can improve efficiency and effectiveness by 20%, or $200k per team per annum.
As a leader of an agile product team, working in an iterative way has been the key to not only surviving but thriving. It’s not always easy to absorb evidence that undermines your relevance. But only by understanding the consequences can we as a team align to taking the action required to strip back what’s not productive, not necessary or not valued by our customers. I find an attitude of service to our customers, team and mission coupled with a discipline of applying agile metrics to our regular reflective practice always guides us through whatever is in the way. Continuously improving becomes a truly freeing way of delivering value to customers, and is the only way to stay ahead.
Umano is on a mission to help self-directed teams succeed by providing real-time feedback with data-driven insights that help agile teams to continually improve and stay ahead.
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