Retrospectives vs PDCA

Retrospectives are good. We all agree on that. Scrum emphasizes retro as the main source of Continuous learning and improvement. Prime Directive on Retrospectives states:

“Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand.”

Is it all this good and beautiful? There are multiple books written on the subject so there must be something in it. On the other hand, I have seen also otherwise. Retrospectives (especially in Scrum context) might become just another ritual (or nice practice in a better case). If organization does not understand the values behind Agile manifesto and is not able to have a long learning strategy then we might face “Inspect and Adapt syndrome”. Small things are discussed, sometimes acted upon and even followed up. The whole and dependencies between cause-effect might disappear and thus organizational learning is not boosted. Team feels that they have done great job but hidden meanings and causal diagrams are not very often used. And this is dangerous. With the help of good coaching majority of these risks could be mitigated, but this luxury is seldom available for all teams.

Teams are also good. We all agree on that. Is team centrism then good? Why should teams be protected from management? Some new coaches take this literally and do what ever they can to avoid good dialogue between managers and teams happen. Management is the entity in the enterprise whose purpose is to enable and strengthen continuous learning and upkeep long and mid-term strategies to support that (there are other purposes as well). Retrospective results are even hidden from the management. How it is then possible for the management to fulfill this purpose? Teams should be protected from interruptions that risk their committed goals, not from the management.

Teams often focus on themselves (this is clear in Scrum) and we should trust them. How is then the enterprise taken into account? Basic I&A might not do the trick here. Scrum considers the teams more or less as a black box and it is up to the team to decide how to improve. In large-scale this is just not enough. Transparency and visibility would help but Scrum with pure I&A retrospectives does not help on this either. At minimum company needs to change Scrum and create some basic rules for visibility and enterprise level learning.

PDCA is a successive cycle which starts off small to test potential effects on processes, but then gradually leads to larger and more targeted change.

Plan, Do, Check, Act is one of the models that could and should be taken into account when considering bigger organizations and their usage of learning methods and models. All models are wrong but some of the are useful when applied to right context. This is again something Scrum is not saying but lean thinking is helping us. Individual teams are required to think a bit deeper, use causal diagrams and add more transparency and visibility on their process improvement. This helps teams to take more responsibility on their own process improvement and eventually whole organization is more empowered. This is something all good organizations should be aiming for, it is the basis for long-term organizational learning.

There is an excellent article on similar subject, written by Alan Shalloway. Please check it out.

The Difference Between “Inspect and Adapt” and Plan-Do-Check-Act (PDCA)

About Henri Kivioja

I believe in teams, personal development, humanity and good life.
This entry was posted in Agile Thinking, All, Framework, Scrum and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Retrospectives vs PDCA

  1. PDCA is a very nice idea. We often reach the point where we create plans. However most of the cases we just stuck in that phase.

    Sometimes I feel we stuck because we down prioritize improvements and focus on “the real work” instead. In agile there is a pressure on the team to deliver at the end of the sprint. If it looks like we will miss our commitment then we will drop something “less important” from the scope of the sprint. Most of the cases it is the improvement idea we created during the last retro.

    Sometimes I feel we stuck because we have something looks like a plan but it is just a dream. Scrum is team based but we are still individuals with individual dreams. On the retro we can synchronize our dreams with the team and form some common goal. However we are not alone as a team. We share environment with about 20 teams so we would need to synchronize our dreams with couple of other teams and lots of other individuals. Sometimes it is just too big challenge.

    Sometimes I feel we stuck because we don’t have leaders to take the lead and show the way. Different plans need different kind of leadership and often the team has limited amount of leadership skills.

    We need to Plan Do Check and Act to learn how to prioritize.
    We need to Plan Do Check and Act to learn how to communicate our ideas and make it accepted by other teams.
    We need to Plan Do Check and Act to grow leaders.
    But how can we avoid the same problems during these preliminary PDCAs? For me it sounds like an infinite recursion.

  2. Henri Kivioja says:

    Hi Balasz,

    thanks for your comments. What you are describing here sounds like a cultural thing to me. If a company has a culture that does not support innovation, improvements and learning, I feel that this kind of culture needs to be changed. How to change culture then? It needs collaboration from the teams, PO, ScrumMasters and Managers. Any of these entities can alone destroy a lot, yet alone not achieve much.

    Priority is what we together create. If we see something important that needs to be taken care of, we need to make sure it is visible and gets the attention that it needs. Easier said that done, I am afraid. What managers can help with is to create structure and visiblity which should help on the issues. But without teams things do not get done. Who then decides that teams time cannot be used to improve?


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