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Lessons Learned Championing Continuous Improvement

For over one year now I have been championing continuous improvement across multiple teams. I have seen and struggled with various problems, some of which I have seen reoccur time and time again, and I have identified successful strategies for dealing with some of these issues. In this article I present my lessons learned in the context of my framework of continuous improvement.

This article is organized into a set of common problems, many of which loosely correspond to the stages of my framework. For each problem I identify various causes that lead to the problem, and then present a solution to resolve or mitigate each cause.

Continuous improvement not being done

This first problem is generic, covering any or all stages of my continuous improvement framework. A team might be holding retrospectives and discussing issues and ideas, but not taking action. Management might be taking action to address issues but not following up. There are some common, general causes responsible for this.

Cause Solution
People are too busy. People need to work at a maintainable pace (this is Agile principle #8) with sufficient slack to allow time for continuous improvement.
No room in project budget / schedule. Continuous improvement should be included as a regular activity in every project.
People do not strongly believe in the benefits that continuous improvement brings. This is the root cause behind the two prior causes: people will find the time (personally and in projects) if they believe strongly enough in continuous improvement. I have no real solution other than trying to educate and sell others on the benefits of continuous improvement. Unfortunately logical arguments are not enough - you must persuade people emotionally in order to see a lasting change in behavior. Probably the best way to do this is by having people experience successful improvements.
People’s primary duties or more urgent activities consume their attention and time, leaving little to none for continuous improvement. Each team needs to have a champion of continuous improvement who is responsible for scheduling and facilitating retrospectives and ensuring that actions and follow-up happen afterwards. This is not a full-time role. Most commonly it is part of the duties of the person leading the team (team lead, manager, project manager) or coaching the team (scrum master, agile coach).

People need to understand and prioritize non-urgent important activities over urgent, non-important activities, which is a key message of the book First Things First by Steven Covey.

Retrospectives and reflection not being done

Retrospectives for the team and reflection for the individual needs to happen in order to become aware of how the team or individual is doing and identify opportunities for improvement. Yet far too often I have seen teams fail to hold retrospectives despite much encouragement and coaching.

Cause Solution
Forget to hold retrospective meeting or do reflection. Regularly schedule these sessions so a pattern is established and they are not forgotten. For retrospectives, hold them either at the end of each iteration or at a minimum frequency of once a month. For personal reflection, I like doing this once a week, as part of my weekly review process.

Ideas not being discussed - only issues

An extremely common pattern I have seen is that when a group first starts holding retrospectives, almost all of the discussion and points raised revolve around issues – essentially complaints about how things are, rather than ideas for how to improve. While this does improve as time passes, subsequent meetings still tend to focus more on the issues rather than ideas. While it is important to be aware of your current state and what your issues are, at some point the discussion must move on to ideas for improvements.

Cause Solution
Typical behavior pattern. People tend to vent, given an outlet. It is harder to think of ideas for how to solve issues than to identify the issues. Dedicate a portion of the retrospective to discussing issues and a separate portion to discussing ideas for improvement. One format I like is to first solicit issues, then prioritize them, then for the highest priority issues brainstorm or do root cause analysis to come up with ideas on how to resolve them. It helps to have a strong facilitator to keep the discussion focused.
Root causes of issues are external to the team and/or beyond the team’s capability to resolve. Management support must be in place so that these types of issues can be escalated to them to be dealt with at the appropriate level. Each management level should actively be doing continuous improvement and ensuring that continuous improvement happens in the level(s) below them.

Ideas not being put into action

Too often I have seen teams discuss issues and ideas during a retrospective, but seen nothing happen afterwards as a result.

Cause Solution
Lack of clarity regarding what to do next after the retrospective is finished. Determine the next steps to take regarding the key issues / ideas before leaving the retrospective. As part of the meeting identify and write down action items or an action plan for implementing at least one of the ideas.
Lack of follow-through on completing identified actions. For each issue / idea, have a clearly identified champion who will own the issue or idea. This person needs to be self-starter who is passionate and motivated to get the idea implemented and the issue resolved.
Lack of focus: team has too many issues / ideas being worked on. Have the team prioritize the issues and select the top few to focus on. One suggestion I have seen in the lean literature is for the team in each retrospective to pick just one idea to implement, but to then have the team commit to achieving the improvement (or at least make progress) by the next retrospective. I personally like to have as many improvements happen concurrently as the team can handle, which depends on the team and on the ideas being implemented. It is probably best to have each person on the team actively involved with only one improvement at a time.

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One Comment on “Lessons Learned Championing Continuous Improvement”

  1. Richard says:

    I have found that if I take the approach of using Lessons Learned to drive Continuous Improvement I get easier buy-in. At the end of each project a lessons learned is prepared by the project manager and the team. answering these four questions:
    o What was expected to happen?
    o What actually occurred?
    o What went well, and why?
    o What can be improved, and how?

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