Ensuring Continuous Improvement in Agile Through Retrospectives

“That’s just how we’ve always done things here” is one of the worst things a business leader can say to an employee who comes up with an idea to improve an ineffective process. 

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by Margarita Peluffo


We get it, change can be a hassle, but when you build a culture that embraces change as the way to grow, you learn to see the beauty in them. 

Agile continuous improvement is a structured way of identifying those areas that need to be optimized and working alongside your team to come up with ideas for improving any part—big or small—of a workflow.

The continuous improvement method works by asking a series of questions, coming up with an action plan, and sounding out ideas during Scrum sprint retrospective meetings. However, it doesn’t matter which framework you follow, the ethos behind continuous improvement is a crucial part of Agile. 

So, we’ve compiled everything you need to know to successfully implement a culture of continuous improvement at your organization. Let’s get started.

Table of contents

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What is continuous improvement in Agile?

People usually go to therapy to work on their personal issues, understand their emotions, and become better versions of themselves. Agile software development teams have retrospective meetings to continuously improve the work they do and the way they interact with each other to achieve those goals. 

You could say, retrospectives are weekly therapy sessions for Agile projects.

Agile continuous improvement comes from the Japanese word Kaizen which translates into “change for the better.” This method seeks to make the process and overall work leaner by spotting areas of opportunity. 

There are different approaches to work on continuous improvement, two of the most common are: 

  1. Plan-do-check-act (PDCA)

  2. 5 Whys or root cause analysis (RCA) 

Plan-do-check-act (PDCA)

This is the most common Agile method to use for continuous improvement. It’s a step-by-step approach that explains how to identify and address areas of opportunity. Here’s what to do at each stage: 

  • Plan. Set goals and define the expected outcome of the sprint or story so that you can review the results against your original goals later. During this stage, you can delimit the work process scope, target goals, and desired outcome.

  • Do. Follow the previously defined plan, run a pilot, experiment with changes, or test new ideas. It’s important that you document the work process and gather feedback from it. 

  • Check. Review the feedback gathered in the previous stage, compare it against the expected results, and list what the team should continue, stop, and/or start doing. 

  • Act. Act upon the findings in the previous step and start the process all over again.

The PDCA model is a cycle that starts again sprint after sprint.

Five whys or root cause analysis (RCA) 

This methodology is usually used when following the Lean Agile framework, and it aims to find the root cause of an issue. 

The way to get there is by asking the question “why” five times until you get to the root cause, and once you do, you can build a plan to work upon its improvement. The best place to identify those opportunities and areas of improvement is during a retrospective meeting.

For example, let’s say you keep losing clients from Fresno, but you don’t know why. You can get to the root cause by asking “why?” five times, just like the diagram below.

The 5 Whys or the RCA methodology helps you reach the root cause of ineffective processes by asking why 5 times.

Process improvement through sprint retrospectives

Retrospectives meetings are usually held by the end of each sprint or story. These meetings are led by the Scrum master and allow all project team members to share their thoughts on the team’s way of working. 

This way, startups, and Agile development companies can ensure teams are consistently reviewing their processes and working toward improving them. Continuous improvement is the goal and retrospectives are the way to fulfill that goal.

If your team doesn’t have the ability to review the way they worked in the past, it’s going to be harder for them to spot their areas of improvement. They’ll just carry on a bad practice for a longer time.

How to plan, run, and follow up on a sprint retrospective

Spot ineffective workflows, learn from mistakes, and discuss best practices in Scrum sprint retrospectives. Follow these steps to plan a good retrospective meeting: 

  1. Set a 60-minute recurring meeting at the end of each sprint. Make sure everyone can join.

  2. Create a collaborative board in your preferred Agile software development tool. At NaNLABS, we use Mural’s whiteboard. Ask your team to come up with feedback on what the team should stop, start, or continue doing. 

  3. Start the meeting by defining the scope of the meeting. Determine whether you’re reviewing the complete sprint, a particular task, or the communication with the client.

  4. Follow up on previous retrospective agreements. Review previous improvement agreements, document the learnings and revisit the topic if it needs more input to ensure incremental improvements.

  5. Review the feedback shared on Mural or your preferred visual board. You can choose to begin with the areas of opportunity or the team wins, the order is irrelevant. 

  6. Set actions and define the person responsible for each task. Allow all project team members to participate and brainstorm to reach the best possible solution. 

  7. Take note of agreements. If those represent an increment in workload, make sure to add them to the next sprint estimation backlog.

Following these steps is going to help you stick to the Agile software development lifecycle and make continuous incremental improvements until you reach your overarching goals.

Pro tip: Retrospectives are all about learning from your mistakes in order to grow. Foster transparent, supportive conversations and avoid finger-pointing or blame (or else you may end up with a culture of resentment and fear in your team).  

The benefits of continuous improvement 

Continuous improvement is what makes Agile, agile. By consistently iterating and reviewing completed and ongoing work, it allows teams to find alternatives to ineffective workflows. But that’s not the only benefit of following a continuous improvement mindset. Here are some more advantages: 

Improved efficiency and cost control 

Continuous improvement allows Agile teams to identify gaps, bottlenecks, and inefficiencies, and work on improving those workflows. That way, Agile teams always improve their productivity and, therefore, become more cost-efficient. 

More engaged team members 

Since ownership is a huge part of Agile culture, everyone’s opinion is valued, and individuals are expected to provide their insights on how to improve ineffective work processes. 

Being included and working in a team that aims to be better every day keeps your team members engaged. In a way, they become responsible for the work environment that they want to be part of. The increased morale is also an overall Agile software development benefit.

Better outcomes for customers

Agile values customer satisfaction at every stage of software development. That’s why measuring deliverables against goals and Agile software development metrics like net promoter score (NPS) is a crucial part of developing a software solution. Centering the customer and getting their feedback will naturally result in better products.

A culture of pro-active learning  

Since Agile encourages teams to be self-organizing and accountable, individuals get to proactively learn the skills they need to make improvements. 

That doesn’t mean your organization should skip training or the onboarding process. But every team member should be empowered to come up with solutions to the problems they identify, and be supported to learn the necessary skills.

How to create a culture of continuous improvement

Implementing a culture of continuous improvement will take time. Here are some steps that you can follow:

  1. Get leaders and clients engaged. Project and product owners should be on board with this implementation. Even if they’re not necessarily leading retrospective meetings, they can intervene and show they’re eager to make it happen. 

  2. Set realistic goals. Getting everyone to adopt a perfect continuous improvement mindset when you’ve never done it before isn’t realistic. Aim for achievable goals like “having a monthly retrospective meeting where team members are participative” instead of “having weekly retrospective meetings where everyone participates, and improve the efficiency of all projects by 20% by the end of the quarter”.

  3. Clearly communicate the decision and goals. Make sure everyone is aware that you’re working towards continuous improvement and explain the reasons why. Then, share the goals, implementation plan, and immediate next steps.

  4. Start small. You can start encouraging this culture just by asking managers to add questions like “what went well?”, “what didn’t go well?”, “what should you be doing more of/differently?” in their 1:1s or regular team meetings. 

  5. Be patient. It takes time to implement any cultural changes, make sure you set a realistic timeline and measure results against those goals. Run a retrospective on this implementation.

  6. Celebrate wins. Make it public when someone embodies the mindset that you want to implement and shout them out when they are doing it or making an effort to do it right. 

  7. Don’t give up. Keep iterating on your plan until you find a way that works for your team. Keep reviewing outcomes and improving them. 

How we encourage continuous improvement at NaNLABS 

At NaNLABS we take continuous improvement seriously. We may skip other meetings, but our retrospective meetings are sacred.

 At our Agile pod retros, we make sure everyone who wants to participate has the time, and we value everyone’s comments. So, we get the pod and the client together, and answer the following questions: 

  • What went well? We should continue to do it.

  • What went extraordinarily well? We should share with other teams to reapply learnings.

  • What didn’t go well? We should work on a plan to improve it.

  • What would be good to do? We should look at starting this soon.

Retros are a powerful way of improving work relationships and ensuring a culture of continuous improvement for each pod. We can roll that culture out to the rest of the company too, by taking insights from retros and sharing them at  the NaNLABS company-wide learning meeting.

Is Agile continuous improvement worth it?

Agile continuous improvement is definitely worth it if you want to

  • become more productive and cost-efficient, 

  • have highly engaged team members,

  • increase customer satisfaction,

  • and encourage self-organized and proactive team members.

If implementing it in your organization sounds too overwhelming, NaNLABS can offer consultation services to get you started. Or you can partner up with one of our Agile teams to see how a culture of continuous improvement works firsthand.

Ready to build your own custom software with a team that cares about you and your processes? We’re not code monkeys, we care about you.

Frequently asked questions about Agile continuous improvement

What is Agile process improvement?

Agile continuous improvement comes from the Japanese word Kaizen which translates into “change for the better.” The goal is to create a culture of gathering constant feedback from team members to improve ineffective workflows.

There are different approaches to continuous improvement like 

  • Plan-do-check-act (PDCA)

  • Root cause analysis

  • Lean Kanban

  • Gemba walk 

Is Agile a framework or a methodology?

Agile is neither a framework nor a methodology, and both at the same time: it’s a way to approach software development and project management. 

While Agile is usually adopted and referred to as a methodology, since Agile’s approach is to be modifiable, and adaptable to different types of projects it never looks the same across companies and that’s why it’s not truly a methodology. 

There are different Agile frameworks that help you organize work, and are used as different ways to adopt the Agile “methodology.” The most common ones are:

  • Kanban

  • Lean

  • Scrum

What are the six principles of continuous improvement in Agile?

Agile continuous improvement has six different principles that explain:

  1. Merit small changes as improvements rather than big or new inventions

  2. Value team member ideas

  3. Implement gradual, inexpensive incremental changes

  4. Encourage employees to take ownership and to be in improvement

  5. Reflect improvement

  6. Measure and reapply improvements

What is an example of continuous improvement?

A good example of continuous improvement is Agile sprint retrospective meetings. These allow teams to review what went well, and what didn’t go so well, and brainstorm together possible solutions or areas of improvement. Then, they can review the progress in the next sprint retrospective.

How do Agile projects support continuous improvement culture?

Since Agile projects have an iterative and incremental approach to work, it contains the perfect opportunities to perform a timely revision of the tasks completed in a sprint and make timely changes to solve issues in the next one.

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