Continuous Improvement: Today’s Pain Is Tomorrow’s Success

“Today’s pain is tomorrow’s success.” This phrase really sounds like something out of self-help teaching, but it’s connected to an essential value of agile methods: continuous improvement!

To explore this topic, I’ve decided to bring in some other sound-bites:

“Agile methods don’t solve problems, but they do expose them!”

The exposure of problems is precisely what we’re after when we apply agile methods. Methods don’t solve problems; it’s people who solve problems. But when they’re given visibility, people can: engage in discussion, debate the root cause, propose experiments to solve the problem, create metrics, etc. We value visual management very highly, which is where there are always so many Post-Its on the walls.

“The problem must hurt!”

Very often, we see companies introducing practices to absorb problems instead of eliminating their root cause. Here are a few examples:

Example 1: “We have a problem in the quality, so we’ll create a quality team.” This doesn’t resolve the root cause. In fact, by masking the real problem, it’ll ensure the situation remains in place for good. When there’s a quality team, the other teams can “relax” and perhaps the quality will decrease further still. It’s a classical example of a negative cycle deriving from masking the problem.

Example 2: Another example associated with quality which is typical of IT: listing bugs. The list of bugs is a way of absorbing the problem without causing the pain of interrupting what we’re doing and immediately correct it. In the short term, this might seem reasonable, but since it doesn’t hurt, it ends up too easy to simply put any bugs on the list and “we’ll fix it another day”. Again, a negative cycle can emerge with the accumulation of bugs. Accumulation is to be avoided because we’ll create more bugs than we fix, or we don’t discuss the root cause, or bugs emerge as a consequence of previous bugs, or a combination of these factors.

Example 3: Release train. One section of the agile community champions the existence of a long cycle for the synchronized release of a new version. But we aim for ever shorter cycles in agile methods to get point-to-point results, aggregating value and gathering real feedback. Of course in large organizations, the dependency between teams is a major hindrance, which is why we must face this problem. However “release trains” of three months, as some would have it, do hide precisely these dependency problems. Instead of facing up to and resolving the problem, we’re once again creating mechanisms to put up with them.

“Fail fast, learn faster”

The objective isn’t to get everything right the first time, but to ensure the next iteration is even better. Understand that each sprint is an experiment and that we want to validate progress with each iteration. Knowing how to improve is more important than getting it right the first time (like in mathematics, the derivative is more important than the value of the function). In other words, we believe much more in the capacity for reaction than an attempt at perfection.

“The pain of one sprint can be the success of the next!”

In Scrum, there are two very important meetings at the end of each sprint, with a view to continuous improvement: review and retrospective.

The review is the moment to receive feedback about what was done during the sprint. It’s the apex of the Scrum cycle, being the most pleasurable moment when we’re anxious to see people’s reaction to our progress. Not all feedback is positive. For example: “such-and-such a thing is missing” or “we can’t release it without that element”. In this case, we should use this as a lever to success in the next sprint! So let’s get on with ‘such-and-such thing’ or ‘that element’. Then we’ll achieve success.

In the retrospective, the most important meeting of the Scrum is when we discuss the improvements to everything beyond the product: people, processes, collaboration, etc. If there are frustrations present among the team, with good facilitation these can be clarified during the retro. We have to use this as a springboard towards improvement.

So it’s worth repeating the phrase at the top, which is a lesson in life:
Today’s pain is tomorrow’s success! 

Rodrigo de Toledo
Rodrigo de Toledo
Rodrigo is a Certified Scrum Trainer (CST), Kanban Coaching Professional (KCP), Accredited Kanban Trainer (AKT) and Management 3.0 facilitator. In the academic context, he has published several papers internationally, and he has taught at PUC-Rio and UFRJ for 12 years. Read more

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