Joshua L. Roberts

Agile / Lean Enterprise Transformation Coach

Week Ten – It Takes Courage to Improve

By Josh Roberts | August 10, 2014 | 0 Comment

The first 4 teams have been running their Kanban System for a month now. Having tackled the basics of Kanban, they held their first “real” Retrospective and will do so every two weeks. Until now, we have been using the Retrospectives to fine-tune our Kanban system. Going forward, the teams will use their Retrospective to continuously improve the their ability to deliver value.

“At regular intervals, the team reflects on how 
to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts 
its behavior accordingly.” – Agile Manifesto, Principle #12

For the Retrospective, we met around the Kanban board and pulled down all the yellow cards. Remember, we were using yellow sticky notes to capture “unplanned” work. We defined unplanned work as any activity that pulled the team away from delivering planned work. More generally, anything they wanted to talk about at their next Retrospective that would improve their productivity.

We put all the cards on the table and organized them around common themes. What was pulling the team away from planned work? Here’s what we found:

  • Work Requests NOT Originating from the Backlog
  • Constantly Changing Work Priorities
  • Unplanned Job/Administrative Duties
  • Escalated Emergencies
  • Non-Project Meetings

improvement cards

Nothing on the list was particularly surprising to the team. But, if not surprising, why did these distractions still exist? In a Command & Control culture, it’s not uncommon for teams to become accepting of problems. After all, these are issues that management needs to solve. In an Agile/Lean culture, everyone participates in solving problems. See principle #7 below.

Our Ten Principles (Kaizen)

  1. Say no to status quo, implement new methods and assume they will work
  2. If something is wrong, correct it
  3. Accept no excuses and make things happen
  4. Improve everything continuously
  5. Abolish old, traditional concepts
  6. Don’t wait for perfection. 50% improvement now is fine
  7. Empower everyone to take part in problems’ solving
  8. Before making decisions, ask “why” five times to get to the root cause
  9. Better the wisdom of 5 people than the expertise of 1
  10. Remember that improvement has no limits. Never stop trying to improve.

As our value statement reads, “Together, we can do better”. As an organization, we must all work together to improve. And, as reminded by Terry Moore’s Ted Talk on “How to tie your shoes”, there’s always a better way.


After building a sort of mind map with the cards, we performed a dot vote to prioritize the improvement opportunities. The team decided their first priority, for the next two weeks, would be to focus on improving “work not originating from backlog”. Next up would be “constantly changing work priorities”. We then fashioned our Gemba Board as a simple Kanban System (To Do, In Progress, Done) with a WIP Limit of 1. It is hanging below the team’s Kanban System as daily reminder for both the teams and management.

gemba board

As we start our Gemba Walk with management next week, I am reminded that owning problems takes courage from both the teams and leadership. We must make a commitment to each other to be transparent and challenge the behaviors that are counter to our new values. This will require healthy dialogue and courage from all.


Josh Roberts

Agile / Lean Transformation Coach - Passionate About Delivering Value!


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