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Agile and a continuous improvement mindset

Amy Noe


February 8th, 2019

Continuous improvement is a method to make sure that your processes, methods, and practices are as efficient and effective as possible. Typically we think of this as the process of analyzing the efficiency and effectiveness of current business workflows. Experts then identify the processes with waste, and refine them by identifying gaps. For example, during a call center process analysis, the finding might be, that agents take 15 minutes per call, but can’t always provide the exact answer the customer is looking for. The goal would be the improvement of the attention time and providing better client service.

With regard to Agile, the Agile manifesto has the concept of continuous improvement as one of its core principles:

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how 
to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts 
its behavior accordingly.”
Agile Manifesto

But what happens to people? How can we continuously improve and deliver more value? This is what I want to examine in the rest of this article.

The challenge of improving amid our day-to-day activities

I often wonder to myself, how much are we really able to improve our development cycles without improving ourselves? Even when retrospectives are part of agile, we are all used to being incredibly busy, having tight timelines, or dealing with scope changes – with all this going on, it can easily limit our focus on continuous improvement.

In a similar way, Agile environments are constantly evolving, delivering new techniques and tools. These allow continuous development, continuous integration, and constant and timely value deliveries. However, despite them, successful agile teams are not easy to create. That’s why we are constantly looking for models, success stories, or the secret formula of those who have built successful products. We tend to forget that, if instead of focusing on how success was achieved in terms of processes and tools and trying to imitate it, we focused on what people do within those teams and organizations, the direction of our initiatives would be more effective and deliver better results. This would also guide our process for continuous improvement.

Mindset is the key to continuous improvement in the digital age

We’re witnessing huge waves of digital transformation at the moment.

“Digital transformation is the integration of digital technology
into all areas of business, fundamentally changing how
you operate and deliver value to customers.
It’s also a cultural change that requires organizations
to continually challenge the status quo, experiment,
and get comfortable with failure”.
The Enterprises Project

Within this environment of change and innovation, it’s critically important to have a management team that is committed to improving its people. Forward-thinking managers understand the importance of modernizing the company culture towards one that is tolerant and open to change. This will be a core part of any digital transformation initiative.

Involving the entire organization in building this culture and mindset, will become the real challenge. Indeed, it’s so important that scalable agile frameworks (such as SAFe and Large Scale Scrum) put mindset and values to change-orientation and continuous improvement, at the center of their practices.

Becoming agile involves creating a culture focused on quality, collaboration, continuous improvement, and delivering quality products. For those who do not find success in their efforts to become agile, it can quickly become a dream of delusions or a romantic idea – a myth created by dreamers. But in reality, agility practices are not a recipe, or strict formula, describing what you must follow or do. It is instead a manifesto with values and principles that, together with the corresponding technology support, lead to success. It is a framework focused on people and quality, to generate continuous and improving value.

How to deliver value effectively?

Ask yourself, what is value? There is a known example which Agile trainers often use, where it is presented as a metaphor related to building a car. It uses the example of a request to build and deliver a car. As a development team, what would be the result of the first iteration?

Delivering value is the promise and the commitment. The order of each component depends on the needs of the client, but each component must be a reliable proof that the car is on the way, with the best structure, the best materials, including necessary tests. The ideal scenario is to set a small change first, and move forward to the next step.

https://blog.crisp.se/2016/01/25/henrikkniberg/making-sense-of-mvp

Agile practices center on the effort to empower people to truly own their tasks and interactions. This leads them to understand and accomplish what they need to do in each iteration. For a traditional mindset this is a huge change of mentality.

Valuing the team effort as a “result-table” and expecting the delivery speed to improve with each iteration just because the pressure increases, or the timeline stretches, is far from an agile practice. For each role and task that needs to be done, the team needs space for continuous improvement – both individually and as a group. This will result in better performance and improved burndown of story points.

Sharing knowledge leads to excellence

Working and teaching within teams is something we can describe as an “exponential factor” – collaborating and sharing knowledge (both technical and also agile practices) is an effect that multiplies. Unfortunately too few people involved in agile really focus their efforts on continuously improving their agile practices. And there are even fewer who then share their knowledge, and give opportunity to others to find their own paths towards excellence.

Agile teams aim for technical excellence. But achieving this requires not just improving technical skills. It also requires soft skills and self-improvement practices. Mentoring and support from experienced individuals, will enable the whole team to grow and achieve a new mindset with better results.

Make sure to reflect, and evaluate yourself

I conclude this reflection with the following thought: Before considering management techniques, agile frameworks, new technologies, tools  and practices, I invite you to evaluate yourself, your personal practices, team practices, and communication skills. Think about the level of emotional intelligence that accompanies your daily tasks, and especially how you contribute to the development and growth of the people around you.

Finally, remember that processes and tools are not enough to deliver value. Each new framework or technology can be learned, but having people who use their voice to contribute and create an impact is what will make a difference. These are people who make timely decisions, get involved, and constantly seek to increase their capacity to produce value, fulfill commitments and focus on serving customers with excellence and quality.

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