Kaizen and Agile: A Culture of Continuous Improvement

NOUN  /kaɪˈzen/

A long-term approach to work that systematically seeks to achieve small,
incremental changes in processes in order to improve efficiency and quality.
–Margaret Rouse, WhatIs.com

At regular intervals the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.
— Agile Manifesto

The Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) and other agile strategies all emphasize continuous improvement, and at Streamline Health we take scrum team retrospectives very seriously. But it’s useful to take a look at the root guiding principles of the agile strategy: Kaizen.

Western manufacturing concerns began adopting the principles of Kaizen back in the early 2000s when Jeffrey K. Liker published The Toyota Way. To software developers who had signed on to the principles of the agile manifesto, Kaizen’s principles of lean continuous improvement were a perfect fit.

Kaizen culture can be summarized in a few bullets:

  • All levels of the organization are involved in continuous improvement.
  • Participation by all levels is essential.
  • Draws upon varied talents and skills – the more diverse the better.
  • Peer-to-peer accountability.
  • Self-evaluation at the team level.
  • Self-evaluation at the event level.

It sounds simple, but for many organizations it represents a difficult release of managerial control. As recently as last month a director in our company, observing a team planning their sprint work, asked if I step in to resolve conflicts about how they will do the work. The observer was a little surprised when I said absolutely not, they have to work it out. Our teams are generally quite successful, so the observer couldn’t argue that this approach won’t work.

Software development sprints are a series of “Kaizen events.” Improvement goals are set at the beginning. At the end, the team reviews its success at improving from the previous sprint and develops plans for improvement in the next sprint. During the next sprint the team implements the improvements they agreed upon.

Iterative Development

In addition to being the root of agile’s process improvement principle, the Kaizen approach of continually making small improvements applies to agile iterative development. Each sprint contributes a few small, valuable, demonstrable changes to the application. If they’re good, they’re kept, if they aren’t, they’re modified in a future sprint.

Continuous Integration

Kaizen’s principle of peer-to-peer management governs our continuous integration strategy. Everyone is responsible for a clean build, for storing source code correctly, and for organizing test plans and automating testing. Everyone is responsible for maintaining automated build and deploy processes. Code reviews, design reviews, and test plan reviews all draw upon the diverse skills and experience of all team members to improve the quality of their code.

Nobody’s Perfect

The notion that your team members, teams, processes, and products are unlikely to ever be perfect might be difficult for some people to accept. Traditional managers like to expect perfection, even though they rarely see it. But accepting imperfection and making it an opportunity for collaboration and growth is the very essence of Kaizen. Organizations that focus on collaborative improvement tend to see that same collaboration across other work. Teams that accept responsibility for maintaining and improving their process tend to be more successful at regularly delivering working code.

How Are You Doing?

How are you doing at continuous improvement? Do your teams identify and work on process problems as part of their regular work cycle?


High Performance Commitment Culture, Start with Team Norms!

What do the following have in common?

They are manifestations of team norms throughout time, driving organizational culture towards better performing teams.

Team norms are important for establishing a shared belief that the team is safe from interpersonal risk taking. Teams norms express intentions of individual team members as a collective whole. They represent an opportunity for individuals to express what is important to them and to learn what’s important to their teammates. Team norms pre-empt unforeseen situations by providing a context to proactively discuss grievances about team behavior and prevent frustrations from festering. They ultimately help establish trust among team members and optimize team performance.

At Streamline Health, when we form a scrum team, their first sprint is a “Sprint 0” during which they define their team norms. The practice may be applied more broadly to other teams to discuss and agree to norms at the beginning of an engagement. Team norms may be used as a tool to reset anti-patterns in a non-confrontational way. If people sometimes forget the norms or unintentionally violate them, having agreed to be governed by them enables team members to remind each other of the ideal behavior.

5188116378_57e6c4be1d_qUsing an analogy found in nature, team norms are the visible surface of an iceberg.  They should be documented and posted somewhere for all to see and refer to in times of conflict. There is also a large portion that lurks beneath the surface, the surface does not move without the hidden mass below.

At a macro level, according to various sources on Scrum Alliance, good team norms empower the team to deliver value at the end of the iteration. They do not define a role for individuals as the team is more important than the individual. They empower the team to take ownership for the work and each other. Good team norms also save the team valuable time, forgoing discussing the things that are regulated by them, and focusing on the work instead.


Norms can be at any scale, ranging from agreement about how decisions get made to basic principles about how the team communicates on a daily basis. Maybe the earliest recognized manifestation of team norms for software development, the Agile Manifesto (c. 2001), emphasizes that while there is still value in the items on the right, the items on the left are valued more. At Streamline Health the Agile Manifesto is the genesis of many team norms.

At a recent lunch and learn associates across the organization came together to discuss team norms and how they contribute to a high performance commitment  culture. We discussed specific examples of team norms that can address any aspect of the team’s functioning, such as safety, expected work hours, communication response times, or meeting attendance. Norms that address a team’s operating rhythm, communication, decision-making informed by a definition of done, and accountability can have a big impact on team cohesiveness and performance. We also discussed examples of good team norms that address individual team member’s egos, such as avoiding hidden agendas, being open minded, and admitting it when you don’t know the right answer. These are some of my own personal favorites. Team norms should not be set in stone and may evolve over time as team culture changes. Streamline teams are encouraged  to review their norms early and often and to use the sprint retrospective as an organic cadence to review and refine them.

Back to our nature analogy. If team norms are the visible surface of the iceberg, what  is  the portion that lurks below the surface? Culture. Culture is the critical mass that is strong enough to puncture holes in titanic ships. It often lies beneath the surface. Culture is what team norms require to be sustained over time and space.

In 2013, Google made this discovery: Who is on a team matters less than how the team members interact, structure their work, and view their contributions. Instead of stocking the team with individual stars, it’s more important to have empathetic team members who listen to others and can make the team greater than the sum of its parts. High-performing teams, they found, displayed five characteristics.

  1. Psychological safety

Members feel they can be vulnerable. They know their ideas and opinions will be respected and considered, even when they conflict with those of the rest of the team.

  1. Dependability

Members are confident their coworkers will deliver what they are supposed to when they are supposed to.

  1. Structure and clarity

Members understand their roles and the roles of others, and the goals of the team overall.

  1. Meaning

Members feel that what they are working on is important to them personally.

  1. Impact

Members believe what they are doing will have a positive effect on the organization and the world.

Google sales teams with the highest level of psychological safety outperformed their revenue targets, on average, by 17%. Those with the lowest psychological safety underperformed, on average, by 19%.

Another takeaway: the effectiveness of teams that were very high in dependability was actually impeded by a lot of structure in terms of role definitions and goals. By contrast, the teams with low dependability benefitted greatly from structure and clarity. That’s a useful insight for new teams, where members don’t yet know whom they can depend on.

According to their research, by far the most important team dynamic is psychological safety — the ability to be bold and take risks without worrying that your team members will judge you.

The High Performance Commitment Model posits that if we apply the elements of cross-functional, focus, purpose, psychological safety, trust, and transparency over time we may achieve a high performance commitment culture. Therefore, for a high performance commitment culture, start with team norms that enable these elements.


-Luis Lira, Manager of Business Analysis