Adopting Agile at Scale doesn’t only change how you conduct business at the strategy and process levels — it also transforms your corporate culture. You’ll do away with a top-down organizational structure, adjusting roles and responsibilities to create autonomous project teams, and also implement an ethos of ongoing experimentation and adaptation.
Incorporating agile’s continuous improvement as the foundation of scaling efforts goes beyond adapting practices to generate constant feedback. You need to overcome the business-as-usual mindset and establish a disciplined environment that embraces the knowledge and innovation that comes from pushing boundaries and making mistakes.
What’s continuous improvement?
Agile’s approach to continuous improvement is a structured, collaborative practice of identifying opportunities to optimize any aspect of a team or organization’s process and workflow to deliver greater value. Based on the Japanese concept of “Kaizen,” which translates to “change for the better,” the process was introduced to the West by Japanese organizational theorist Masaaki Imai and American engineer William Edwards Deming in the mid-1980s. Since then, industries spanning from software development and manufacturing have incorporated Kaizen into their practices with great success.
Kaizen requires analyzing performance using the appropriate agile metrics, identifying areas of improvement, and making incremental changes to processes, products, and personnel. You can apply a continuous improvement process to any of the agile project management frameworks you implement, including:
- Kanban: Designed to quickly uncover roadblocks, Kanban’s flexible development process provides the agility to prioritize improvements without affecting team members' workflow.
- Scrum: Scrum practices focus on incremental improvements and rapid integration of customer feedback. A team’s existing agile practices, like sprint reviews and project retrospectives, can adjust easily to include continuous improvement methodologies.
- Lean: Lean’s focus on refining the customer experience and value stream through increased efficiency and waste reduction sync naturally with the agile adaptations necessary for continuous improvement.
Feedback and inspection
Setting an organization up for consistent improvement may seem like a simple concept, but it’s a rather rigorous discipline. Becoming a better version of itself requires an agile business to establish an ongoing evaluation and feedback system.
There are three agile methodologies to choose from:
1. Plan-do-check-act (PDCA)
PDCA is the most common form of continuous improvement management. It’s a four-step cyclical process to identify and address areas of improvement.
Plan: Begin by understanding the problem and establishing the available resources to address it. Ask yourself:
- What’s the objective?
- What’s the possibility we’re exploring?
- What’s the best way to achieve the desired result?
Then, set team goals and define the expected outcome using the appropriate metrics. For example, if you’re measuring efficiency improvements, use indicators like sprint velocity, lead, and cycle times as your standards.
- Do: Implement your complete strategy or execute the solutions on a small scale. Be sure to gather feedback throughout the experimental process and document results for analysis upon completion.
Check: Review the outcome and feedback to compare it against the expected results.
- Did you see the desired outcomes?
- Did the experiment work according to plan?
- What aspects were successful/unsuccessful?
Based on the analysis, create a plan defining actions the team should stop, continue, or begin doing. If your pilot project isn’t successful, return to square one and try again.
- Act: Broadly implement changes based on your findings and communicate them to other leadership teams to adopt based on their preference. Your improvements are now the new benchmark for future enhancements, and it’s time to start the process for the next iteration.
2. The 5 whys
The “5 whys” of root cause analysis unleash a team’s inner three-year-old to identify and analyze a challenge.
This process is most commonly used in the Lean project management methodology but can apply to any framework. When confronting an issue, the team asks why a situation has occurred at least five times until they can go no further. This process unearths the underlying reasons for a problem instead of focusing on the symptoms. Once the team identifies the source of a challenge, they can build a remediation action plan to improve outcomes.
Here’s an example:
Problem: We lost two clients this month.
- Why? Because they said they couldn’t count on us.
- Why? Because multiple product deliveries arrived late.
- Why? Because the delivery company failed to ship the products on time.
- Why? Because they received the products late from our manufacturer.
- Why? Because the manufacturer received the necessary order paperwork after closing for the weekend.
Root cause: The team lead is manually reviewing all orders, creating a bottleneck in the supply chain.
Led by the Scrum master, retrospectives usually occur at the end of a sprint (although they can happen on a one-off basis to address a specific event). Teams come together in a collaborative, non-judgmental environment to discuss their successes, best practices, or learnings from that period. The more the working group shares, the better they become at spotting inefficient workflows, optimization opportunities, and potential improvements to both product and process. It’s also the ideal time to conduct a “5 why” analysis or the “check” phase of the PDCA process.
A retrospective is most common in Scrum-based frameworks. Still, it provides valuable feedback in other contexts and you can easily adjust and incorporate it into other practices, taking place at specific milestones or the end of a project based on organizational needs.
Adapting processes and practices
Creating a culture of ongoing learning and continuous improvement takes effort and patience. You need to create an environment where personnel and teams are empowered to take ownership of their growth — and that doesn’t happen overnight.
Here are a few best practices to help foster the agile development mindset across an organization:
- Engage leadership and clients: Every level of the organization and its clients should get on board with your agile transformation.
- Adjust focus: Instead of putting all your energy and resources into perfection, prioritize the early and continuous delivery of an outcome, then leverage customer feedback to refine and improve it.
- Think value first: Search for incremental steps and strategies you can use to create valuable change right now.
- Prioritize communication: Ensure each employee understands the organization is establishing a mindset that encourages everyone to improve continuously and why. Share goals, implementation plans, and next steps, and provide channels where personnel can share their insights.
- Value collaboration: Innovation and problem-solving are made possible through teamwork and input from diverse voices. Establish cross-functional teams to source expertise from as many perspectives as possible.
- Be realistic: Changing corporate culture takes time and patience. Start small, implementing incremental changes over doable timelines to keep from discouraging the team. Begin by asking, “What went well?” and “What should you do more of, and what should you do differently?” and take it from there.
- Evaluate regularly: Along with other aspects of implementing Agile at Scale, continuous improvement principles must become a core part of your business strategy. Incorporate review and reflection as part of your team’s processes so everyone can come together and look back on how far they’ve come — and map the path forward.
Tools for your agile team
Tracking your progress as you begin fostering agile’s continuous improvement mindset across your organization requires a sophisticated toolbox of applications. Start with Custom Charts for JIRA from Tempo to track improvement metrics and visualize your progress. Add Structure’s portfolio management and Roadmunk’s project road-mapping capabilities, and together, you’ll have everything you need to organize, manage, and review your organization’s improvement initiatives.