Dec 8 – Skating to success, one bruise at a time


You will become clever through your mistakes. —German proverb

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Scattershot Improvement Lists or Behaviors for Continuous Improvement

It is the end of the sprint and time has come for the retrospective. Scrum Master Jane starts by explaining the objective of the meeting.

The retrospective meeting is our time as a team to reflect back on how the sprint went. We will map out what went well and what can be improved. We as a team will then vote on what improvements we will work on during the next sprint

Jane then starts the meeting by setting the stage with a simple exercise.

Jane then moves on to a formalized discovery exercise where the team members writes post-it notes with things that went well and what can be improved. After 10 minutes of everyone writing notes Jane starts going through the post-its and the author describe what they mean. Jane then starts grouping the post-its into groups of similar things. The team adds some more post-it notes as they get more ideas based on the wall.

Jane now asks the team to dot vote for the improvement they want to commit to in the next sprint. People vote and there are two improvements that get 80% of the votes.

Jane asks the team if they are willing to commit to these two improvements for the next sprint. The team says yes.

Jane now close the retrospective by asking everyone to give appreciation to each other for a work well done.

This may be something you recognize from a scrum team you have been part of. This is at least a typical retrospective from most team I have worked in. Is this really cultivating a culture of continuous improvements?


The common improvement list of most retrospectives is a ineffective and scattershot approach to process improvements.

Setting a target condition and purposely using PDCA(Plan-Do-Check-Act) cycles to get to that target condition in small focused steps every day is a much better approach.

In the book “Toyota Kata” Mike Rother writes the following about Action-Item Lists like the list the team produced in the above retrospective.

1. It doesn’t work very well. The underlying thinking with the list approach appears to be that the more action items we have, the more the process will be improved. … the list approach is an unscientific and ineffective method for process improvement. It is actually a scattershot approach: multiple action items are initiated in the hope of hitting something.

2. We are in the dark. Defining and introducing several action items simultaneously, and sometimes even voting to prioritize them, indicates that we don’t know what we need to do to improve. It would be better to simply stop and say we don’t yet know what exactly to do. “I don’t know” is a completely acceptable answer and much preferable to pretending we do know, but this seems to be one of the hardest things to say.

3. We are asking our self the wrong question. When we hunt for wasted opportunities to improve and make list of action items, we are focusing on the question, “What can we do to improve?” The question is actually too easy, and it automatically leads us to lists and a scattershot approach. The more focused question is, “What do we need to do to improve this process?” Admittedly, this is a more difficult question …

4. We are jumping to countermeasures too soon. A weakness in the list approach is a tendency to jump to countermeasures before we understand a situation. … People are rewarding people for fixing a problem, for firefighting, not for analyzing, even though the problem may recur later because it was not yet sufficiently understood.

5. We are not developing our people’s capabilities. The list approach does not harness or grow our problem solving and improvement capability in a very effective manner.

What he suggests in stead is to purposely go through a behavior pattern he calls an “improvement kata”.

In short an “improvement kata” is a behavior pattern where you move from your current condition through a number of intermediate goals towards a future vision using focused PDCA cycles.

With continuous improvement it is most important to know where you want to go. To have your “True North”. Without something to move towards how else do you know if you improve?

It is also very important to truly understand where you currently stand.

Now you can form a direction by setting the next intermediate goal – target condition – towards the vision.

You then ask your self what obstacles prevents you from reaching that target condition today. You choose one and only one of the obstacles. Now start go through PDCA cycles until you have eliminated that one and only one obstacle.

Then you go and see what you have learned.

Is your new current condition the same as your target condition? If not, choose the next obstacle and try to eliminate that one. If you are close to, or at the target condition, then it is time to set a new target condition on the direction towards the vision.

How could Jane do the “improvement kata” in her team? Let’s look at an example.

It is Tuesday morning at 09:00 and Jane the team leader opens todays Daily Standup Meeting.

Good morning everyone. Great job yesterday everyone! Lets go through the board and see how we stand today.

Jane goes through the kanban board starting at the end of the value stream. She focus on blocked work and work that are, or that potentially will not meet the target delivery dates. Jane then asks the team if the board shows all the work that they are working on. Everyone nods.

Jane now moves on too the second part of to the daily meeting.

What is your target condition here?

Mike, one of the business analysts, speaks up

At the Operations Review last week we agreed to set a target condition of a continuous flow of 4 stories ready for production every week.

Jane then asks:

What is the actual condition now? How does your throughput data look like?

Mike shows Jane the throughput measurement diagram posted on the board. The diagram shows that the throughput has been steadily been climbing for the last few months but are now starting to flat line just below 3.5 stories per week.

What obstacles are now preventing you from reaching the target condition of 4 stories every week?

Jane asks the team. Bob a tester in the team answers:

We think it is the how we deploy and how we set up our test environment.

Jane wants Bob to explain why he think that this is the case. It is not that Jane doesn’t trust Bob and the rest of the teams analysis but she wants them or explain how they formulated that hypothesis.

Bob and Mike points to the board and the “Ready for Test” queue. It contains six work items, two over the work in progress limit set by the team. They also show the Cumulative Flow Diagram that shows that the “Ready for Test” queue has slowly been growing over time. Bob also says that he and the other tester has to wait for hours when they want to start testing the next story. Bob explains that they have done a root cause analysis and have found two major root causes that they think would move them closer to the target condition. The root causes are:

  1. The deployment to the test environment is done manually
  2. The time to set up the reference database takes way too long

Which one are you addressing now?

Jane asks. Bob answers

We are looking at starting on both this week

Jane responds

Lets us take it one step at the time and see if the change we will make has the result we are expecting. If we do more than one thing at the time we can’t be sure of the cause and effect relationships. What root cause would you start with? The manual deployment?

The team agrees that that can be a good start. Jane now asks the team to start a new PDCA cycle testing the hypothesis. And ends the meeting by asking:

When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?

Give us a week and we will see where we stand

Bob answers. Jane is satisfied for today and ends the meeting.

Jane would one week later, or earlier, go through the five “improvement kata” questions again with the team:

  1. What is your target condition here?
  2. What is the actual condition now?
  3. What obstacles are now preventing you from reaching the target condition?
    Which one are you addressing now?
  4. What is your next step?
    (start of the next PDCA cycle)
  5. When can we go and see what we have learned from taking that step?
      When the target condition is reached, then a new target condition will be set that moves a small step towards the vision and

“True North”


Repeating this behavior pattern over and over and you can create an environment of continuous improvements. I will practice the “improvement kata” and learn for my self how this is done in practice. It will probably be a struggle but to quote Aristotle:

Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.

Will you join me in this learning journey? Read more about Toyota Kata here on my blog