Joshua L. Roberts

Agile / Lean Enterprise Transformation Coach

Week Eight – Take a Gemba Walk

By Josh Roberts | July 28, 2014 | 0 Comment

This week we held an Agile/Scrum learning exercise with the Transformation Team and here’s a few key takeaways:

1)    Fail fast and learn quickly as a team

2)    Making small changes can lead to significant improvements

Continuous improvement, or Kaizen, is a key component of Agile/Lean thinking. Teams must continually inspect and adapt. In the words of the Agile Manifesto “… at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective…” This reflection is accomplished through Retrospectives.

plan do check act

Teams use Retrospectives to identify improvement actions needed to increase quality, throughput, and reliability. Teams must continually inspect themselves in order to “tune” the human system they are. Retrospectives are especially important for new teams that are learning Agile/Lean practices and/or have just been formed.

Retrospectives can help teams move through Tuckman’s Stages of Team Development more effectively; 1) Forming, 2) Storming, 3) Norming, and 4) Performing. Per Wikipedia, “Tuckman maintained that these phases are all necessary and inevitable in order for a team to grow, to face up to challenges, to tackle problems, to find solutions, to plan work, and to deliver results.”


What’s great about Retrospectives is that they occur frequently, allowing teams to learn and adjust when it matters most; during a project, not afterwards. With traditional project management practices, “inspection” happens at the end of the project, leaving the team no opportunity to “adapt”.

Most of us are familiar with the practice of holding a Post Mortem, Post Implementation Review, After Action Review, or Lessons Learned meeting. As their names suggest, these practices occur after the project has concluded. In the case of a Post Mortem, the project is dead. While these meetings can make for great therapy sessions through the telling of war stories (long hours, weekends lost, personal heroics, sacrifice, etc), they rarely result in meaningful improvement. The results get filed away in a project folder, never to see daylight again.


In Scrum, Retrospectives are done at the end of each Sprint (every 2 – 4 weeks). With our Kanban Systems, the goal is to take actions that optimize the delivery of value across the board (i.e. shorten Lead Times). We started by identifying all Work in Progress (WIP), then setting/adjusting WIP, and now we must take actions to better manage “unplanned” work.

We have been capturing “unplanned” work with yellow sticky notes. Like User Stories, we are calling them “A promise to have a conversation”. In our case, it is a promise to have a conversation at the next Retrospective.

Will we take action on all of the items in the first Retrospective? No, remember, Kaizen is about incremental improvement. By now, you have all heard me use the following phrases.

  • Take baby steps
  • Don’t wait for perfection. 50% improvement now is fine
  • Paralysis by analysis
  • It’s a cinch by the inch
  • Minimal Viable Change (MVC)

The idea behind Kaizen is that improvement is a “continuous” journey that never ends. We will start by taking actions on unplanned work, learn from those actions, and subsequently take more actions. And, if we ever do run out of Retrospective actions (i.e. looking backward), we will start looking forward. We can hold future-spectives (we’ll discuss this concept later) and start running small experiments focused on improvement.

So, what are we waiting for? When are we going to do something with all our yellow sticky notes?

kanban wall

The answer is NOW!! This week we will be scheduling 30 min team Retrospectives to occur every two weeks. These sessions will occur separate from the Daily Standups. We’ll use the time to organize our yellow sticky notes around common themes (phone calls, meetings, system outages, and other interruptions). We will prioritize the items in a backlog and pick 1 – 2 improvement actions on which to focus the next 2 weeks. The goal will be for the team to take action (self-manage), but we will also need help from upper management.

Ready for your Japanese word of the week? Gemba means “the real place”. Using Lean practices, the idea is to make the problems faced by the team visible and for management to go see “the real place”. A “Gemba Walk” is when management goes to the front lines to look for waste and opportunities to help the organization improve. In this spirit, we will build our Gemba Boards at our first Retrospectives and prepare for management to Take a Gemba Walk.



Josh Roberts

Agile / Lean Transformation Coach - Passionate About Delivering Value!


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