Continuous Improvement

Does your organization care more about the process or the final outcome in completing projects?

Trick question! The answer, of course, should be both – but some lean-agile marketing approaches can sometimes focus more on one or the other.

For instance, the Continuous Improvement process uses a long-term, disciplined approach to overall improvement of an organization, with the goal of employees constantly seeking ways to improve inefficiencies and solve problems. Continuous Improvement in a corporate culture can reduce waste and improve production cycles.  

But sometimes, in Scrum environments, greater emphasis may be placed on the sprint, including assigning firm responsibilities and timelines, and eliminating bottlenecks by any means necessary, even if it means everybody jumping in to ensure everything keeps moving forward. In a busy organization with multiple projects and multiple timelines, the goal might be more to keep things moving and less on methods and intentions to make future projects stronger, let alone seek larger institutional changes.  

This is certainly generalizing and each ScrumMaster may vary on his or her skills and priorities. But balanced properly, the Continuous Improvement process can actually dovetail nicely within the Scrum process.

Gilbert Villaneuva Jr., from Scrum Alliance, is a firm believer that Continuous Improvement needs to be part of a Scrum process, and recommends that the best place to do so is during the Retrospective, something that should consistently be part of the post-sprint process. Taking time to figure out what went right and what could have been improved on any given project is useful, especially when the ScrumMaster seeks specific suggestions from everyone involved about possible fixes and what worked and didn’t work from their perspective.


WIP limits

Another area where the principles of Continuous Improvement can benefit agile efforts is by setting and maintaining clear limits for Work In Progress, better known as WIP.

WIP can provide structure and boundaries to any project but also identifies possible bottlenecks and workflow blockages by individual projects or collectively. When these are removed or corrected, people on the team will see the workflow speed up and the goal reached sooner.

Assessing WIP for each project can also identify how much work everyone has on their plates. If someone is working on multiple projects at once, they may need advice prioritizing which one to work on first, or hand a task off to a colleague. Or, if someone has fewer projects assigned to them, they may be able to lend a hand to keep others from feeling overloaded or getting behind schedule.

When you create workflow for a new project, the ScrumMaster can ask everyone who will be part of it for recommendations on WIP limits for their role at each step in the process. Or they can also estimate limits based on the average length and complexity of past sprints at key points and the abilities of team members to hit them.


Establishing goals

Getting from “We need to focus more on Continuous Improvement in what we’re already doing” to actually incorporating it into your regular project workflow isn’t something that happens automatically. It will take buy-in at all levels and getting people comfortable, something that isn’t always guaranteed at organizations that are regularly rolling out new processes.

But the following efforts can help create an environment that gets people eager to help also keeps a firm focus on WIP limits.

  • Keep project sizes and details consistent. Even though every project will be unique, it can help the greater organization if similar numbers of people, similar skill types, similar timelines and similar WIP levels are offered, much like a template. The more similar projects that are completed, the more people will know what to expect and how much work typically will be required. It will also help their planning and time management if they are aware something is coming that they might be part of.
  • Communicate. While it’s easy to invite everyone to jump in if they’re ahead, people may not feel comfortable doing this at first unless they’re invited or there’s a process to seek/provide assistance. This type of dialogue will help reduce idleness, improve flow and also build team cohesion on all projects. People who complete their tasks early should also express to the ScrumMaster how WIP limits could be lower for similar projects, something useful info for future project planning.
  • Avoid ‘creep.’ Any project is going to have possibly changing parameters. But once WIP limits are set and a sprint has begun, it can be distracting, even disappointing, to add new work into it. This should have an asterisk – if team members collectively request extra needs, such as a forgotten task or an important piece of code, then the team can approve it being added to the overall sprint.