How to “restart” your Improvement Journey – A facilitation guide

Previously on “The Agile Journey”…

So some time ago – maybe months or years – you decided to go for Lean/Agile. You went ahead and started to use Scrum/Kanban to break the waterfall and achieve a more agile operation. These were exciting times. First, that time of making sure you understand what you are trying to achieve, checking out all the options, building the plan. Maybe forming new teams, maybe not. Maybe you went for an evolutionary change or a big revolution. Then, training people and helping them start doing things differently. You probably had some help from consultants along the way or maybe you had enough experienced/process-curious people on staff to get through this on your own. You spent some months stabilizing things – taking care of all the impediments that surfaced to us the “Scrum speak”.

And then, after all this excitement, it seemed like things were actually working. Everyone felt that. It seemed like the journey was finally over. Maybe you even took a look at the goals you set to yourself and saw you achieved at least a major improvement. Maybe things just felt ok. Slowly (in some cases not so slowly…) everyone’s focus moved elsewhere. The retrospectives started to feel routine. The stabilization board started to grow rust. You reached a new plateau of performance. And it was ok.

(As external consultants we used to be frustrated by this plateau. It felt like there was a lot of value we could still provide the organization and nobody was listening. I talked about it back in 2012 in both the Scrum Gathering in Atlanta and the LSSC12 Lean/Kanban conference in Boston. When we defined our AgileSparks way we called this the “Recharge” phase – it comes after you finish “Stabilizing”. Naming it helped us deal with it – starting with the understanding it is natural)

At some point, you decided you want to get back to the journey. (Yes, you might notice there is a big question here of what are the triggers to get back to the journey and can we do anything as internal/external change agents to help organizations decide to get back to the journey at the right time – not too early but not stay stuck in this plateau too long? maybe in another post…). And you are wondering what are some effective ways to do that.

How to move from Recharge to Improve

(First, there are probably countless ways to do this. I’ve done it several ways over the years, I’m sure you have too. If you have a way you would like to share or already shared, please let me know in the comments, I’m really looking for practices people find useful for this stage of the journey. I just decided to share one of my favorites I’ve been using frequently lately)

ReStart with Why

One important step before doing anything is making sure you understand why you are doing it and what you are trying to achieve. This is especially important in the case of moving from recharge to improve because you are trying to nudge a system that is stable so you must understand the importance of moving it. A classic short movie that makes sense to see in this context is “Overcoming Resistance to Change – Isn’t it Obvious” (This is based on Dr. Eli Goldratt’s work in Isn’t it Obvious). You can show the movie to your team and follow it up by a discussion of how it applies to your current context. This is VERY similar to running a SWOT (Strengths Weaknesses Opportunities Threats) exercise, so you can do that instead.

An even more structured way I found useful in the lean/agile context is to give people concrete options for the Strengths – Reasons not to change/Weaknesses – Pains of not changing quadrants in the SWOT/resistance to change analysis. These options are based on the “Starting with Why – Goals for Lean/Agile Journeys” slide deck which we often use at AgileSparks.

If you are co-located you can do this by showing the slide and asking people to dot-vote on 2-3 goals they would like to focus on. If you have more time, start with scoring on all of the aspects to set a baseline for the future. If you used this to kickoff your agile journey you have the benefit of continuing the same language and getting the benefit of seeing the differences from the baseline you took when starting the journey. Even if you didn’t, setting a baseline now can be a good idea – you can get back to it a couple of months into your Improve journey and check where you are and what you should focus on next. In any case, the point is to look at where you are and choose areas you want to focus on improving – at the level of
Goals, not Means (That is important! As a facilitation tip – try to keep the discussion at the level of purpose/goal rather than means at this point.)

improvement goals sim2

If you are distributed or want people to prepare beforehand you can do this with the facilitator marking colored circles on a powerpoint slide (as can be seen above), work together on a google spreadsheet, use an online survey like the one here (I made the google spreadsheet used to generate this publicly available here) to get people to think about it either online during the session or beforehand, or use your favorite collaboration tool/approach.


1-Goals Survey - Mozilla Firefox 20062014 162340goals survey

In any case, at this point you should have 2-3 clear goals to focus on. Maybe these are the goals you originally decided to start your lean/agile journey for. Maybe they are different. The group from the first example above started the journey to improve flexibility, reached a good enough level and then moved to other goals.

Assess where you are (with regards to the fitness Goals you chose)

The next step is to assess your current reality and gaps that affect your performance in the aspects you chose to focus on. One way to do that is to simply run a focused retrospective with that goal as the theme. You can do it as a “World Cafe” (or your favorite subgroup based meeting design method) – in essence working in subgroups on the different goals and sharing notes and outcomes. If you are distributed or want to do this part as preparation to meeting face-to-face you can run this as well online as surveys using something like asking what is our current level, what are we doing well, what can improve our performance.

Another more structured way to handle this phase is to run a depth assessment. I like to use our own Lean/Agile Depth Assessment but feel free to use whatever you like.

Here you see a group that took our assessment. You can see their scores in each of the aspects of the assessment. After taking the assessment people understand more what each of the assessment areas mean and are able to map how relevant they are to the improvement goals they chose. In this case you can see for example that the “Empowered Teams and Individuals” assessment area was mapped to the “Engaged People” and “Sustainability” goals. After this mapping they could now choose assessment areas to focus on. We can see here “Empowered Teams and Individuals” was one of these areas. (You can ask “Isn’t this something they should have started with?” and my answer is that it depends. In many cases people don’t really understand what it really means when they start the journey so even if they try to do something they don’t get far. And others focus on goals that are lower in “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs” and then realize this is an area that they need to work on more. )

Now, within each assessment areas, look at the specific gaps you have and choose a few that are the most relevant for the goal you are trying to work towards. Take these gaps and add them to your improvement backlog.

Another approach is to look at something like the AgileSparks Way which has a catalog of options for the improvement stage and choose options that you feel as a team are most relevant to your choice of goals. This can be things like running the assessment, examining team formation, going on a WIP diet, going on a frequent releases exercise regime, etc.


From here on it is a matter of executing improvement/change. But you have strong forces on your side. You engaged people as part of this fair process (maybe it was your management team, maybe everyone). You started with why. You set concrete improvement goals that are mapped to concrete action items.

One last thing you might want to do is to run a vote of confidence with everyone who participated in the process to see whether they think the plan makes sense and is worth pursuing. And if not, iterate and fine-tune until it does.

As an interactive session I would recommend setting aside about half a day to a day for this activity. Ideally offsite as an opportunity to open your mind and think creatively. “Doing Food” never hurts as well.







“We are already Lean/Agile” – Really?

These days more and more organizations think they are Agile

A couple of years ago when you talked to people about agile a common response “why should we”, “it won’t work here”, or “so this is the new fad? What will come next?”

Times have changed. And a sign of the fact that agile is becoming more mainstream is that it being diluted and a common response these days is “but we are already agile!”. I want to share a couple of questions to see if you are indeed agile.

What does it mean to be Lean/Agile

At a very high level what does it mean to be agile ? At a first level agile is an approach to development that embraces the complexity and uncertainty in both demand, specification and implementation implications by working in short cycles on small batches of work, constantly seeking fast feedback, and empowering people to work together focused on clear business goals, at a sustainable pace.

A second level of lean/agile is about embracing the complexity of the systems/processes used to take software from idea to realized value and using an inspect and adapt approach to let better approaches emerge. This is a much more pervasive aspect of lean/agile. Organizations fail to realize the real power and improvements are as a result of multiple iterations thru process experiments, always aiming to achieve goals of better delivery capabilities.

Are you delivering in an Agile way?

When you hear someone talking about being agile ask them:

  • Do your users/business stakeholders consider your delivery cycle fast enough?
  • Are you developing the Right things? Do you use your agility to drive small features to production to validate the value of a certain direction and then continue to deliver a pipeline of more small features while constantly evaluating feedback?
  • Are you doing things the right way? How much rework is there in your work? How much of the demand is generated by not doing things right the first time?

Are you improving in a Lean/Agile way?

And then ask some more questions that will dive deeper into the improvement aspects of lean/agile:

  • How often do you stop to reflect on our performance/capabilities?
  • Do you have a capabilities goal/condition you are striving for? How many people are aware of it?
  • How do u know your current state compared to that goal?
  • Do you run process experiments aimed at improvement towards a target condition we are focusing on?
  • How many of these process experiments do you try in a month?
  • What is the cycle time from deciding to work on a process improvement to finishing an iteration of the experiment on it?
  • What are the current main obstacles to improving towards your goal? How long have you known about them?

What it means

You might find that you have an “agile” organization that is not so agile when considering the service provided to the business.
In many of those cases when you dive deeper you will find a weak, unfocused or even nonexistent improvement engine/culture and a static process/system.

Doing scrum sprints, user stories, or kanban boards is just the starting point of the agile journey.

The main event is improving. Practices such us limiting work in process or focusing on a single sprint help with that.
There is a whole set of approaches beyond that – A3, five whys, retrospectives, operation reviews, statistical process control, the Toyota improvement kata, solutions focus, theory of constraints and many more – all used to improve.

Are you ready for the real world of lean/agile?

You might find this recent prezi useful to look at these multiple layers of improvement and the various approaches used.