Noticing Improvement

Posted by on Sep 19, 2012 in Agile & Lean, Coaching | 5 Comments

There’s a lot written about how Kanban is less disruptive and demanding than Scrum in most contexts, and I think some of that might be true. There’s probably as much being written about how Scrum may be more merciless at uncovering dysfunctions in a system, throwing all of the bad stuff in your face every two weeks.

Flipping the Coin

Listening and observing to some interesting conversations today at a client, I came to realise a more crucial difference between Kanban and Scrum, that I haven’t read anything about so far:

Kanban makes it much harder to notice improvement.

See the Whole

See the Whole


This morning, when I approached the client’s office, I met one of the organisation’s Kanban and Agile early adopters, who recently had not been very happy as his team lost interest and motivation in Kanban, or any improvement. The common frustration of the organisation had basically killed their enthusiasm (which for some team members hadn’t been too great to begin with). Now he approached me with a broad smile, and as I asked him, “How’s your team doing?” he laughed and said, “Great!”, and generally emanated happiness.

I hadn’t seen him doing that in months, so I asked, “Wow! What did happen that improved your mood so much?” Thinking, his face fell, and he said, “Nothing. They still hate Kanban.” Puzzled, I went on, “So, what made you so happy?” and he said, “Well, our customer recently had another important project going on, so they didn’t really have time to give us many requirements, and we had time to clean up some stuff. Generally, we didn’t have much stress any more.” Wow. Didn’t notice the improvement although they were happy.

Later today, another team, retrospective. “I don’t have anything. We can’t change anything anyway.” Nodding all around the table. This was the most frustrated of all our teams. We talked through possible improvements, we asked how we could be of help, which wishes we might take to management… In vain. They didn’t want a standup anymore (no opportunities to collaborate, all specialists, no slack to learn), they seemed to think their board was useless and just additional effort to update… Then I asked if they wanted to stop using the board. Silence.

They started looking afraid, not frustrated and complaining anymore. They looked at each other and one (who had been relentlessly complaining the whole Kanban idea was useless from the start) said, “There’s something in the back of my head, I don’t really know what it is… And I think I want to keep it.” Relief all around. Action item: keep the board, keep updating it, standup once per week (had been two before). Wow.

What unobserved improvements have your teams or organisations surprised you with?


What happened? These teams work in a rigid, frustrated organisation—it’s persona would be clinically depressed. Both teams have not yet managed to cut their work into pieces of a size where it would be reasonable to measure the lead time. They have no way to see their improvements, and for an outside influencer it’s still hard. Scrum would “force” them to cut their work into measurable pieces. Is that really a bad thing?

Containers add visibility. Not only to challenges, also to improvements.

How do you mitigate that in your influencer’s work, using Kanban?.


  1. Mike Leber
    September 19, 2012

    Very interesting observation, Olaf, as I do have exactly the same experience with a client of my own. And I also once asked them the “exit question”, where they started thinking and said, no we wan’t to keep it, continue.

    Scrum might provide mechanics for some more insight. But still, they can also be neglected, dropped. I personally believe, it’s not a matter of the method.

    Thinking about real change, I think the method mechanics are simply not enough. We need to touch the organization, its culture, the “management” and – last but not least – the individuals, their value systems and motivation. If we want to make change happen here, we really have to make our hands dirty here. This implies no only fun also pain, great chances even to fail.

    Neither Kanban nor Scrum alone will help here in my opinion – they can just supplement.

    my 5cent
    best, Mike

    • Olaf
      September 19, 2012

      Thanks for joining the conversation.
      Fully agree, improvement doesn’t succeed or fail because of Scrum or Kanban, they are mere tools that can help.
      I just noticed one specific difference that I hadn’t discerned or read about before.

  2. Paul Boos
    September 19, 2012

    Kanban is great when people are focused on wanting to improve and it can provide great utility in identifying symptoms that need deeper digging, but if the motivation to improve has been squashed, it will seem tedious. I do like that this team seemed to recognize (perhaps superficially?) that it is a useful approach to identifying these symptoms. I also personally think more radical change, like Scrum, will highlight dysfunctions faster, and the two approaches are quite complementary.

    Perhaps talking with the layer of management that would benefit from possible improvements would help eliminate these?


  3. Mike Pearce (@MikePearce)
    September 30, 2012

    It’s hard to tell the difference between what you might be seeing as “the apex” of improvement and just regular old apathy. Like the old mantra, “change for change sake”, is there a similar, “improvement for improvements sake”?

    Could something like KPIs help with providing a reason for improvements?

  4. Michael Sahota
    October 7, 2012


    I have seen this stance by teams in the past and I my intuition is that it is not really about Scrum or Kanban.

    Earlier this year, I was in a situation where I was on a follow-up visit with a team in their 4th Sprint. The situation was uncomfortable for me since I was there to support their learning and growth and they just wanted to go heads down and focus on Sprint “deadline”. In their mental frame, they were great I was disruptive by challenging them. I help up a mirror to show them a team that was not really interested in improving and they didn’t really care. The culture, conditioning and perceived value around immediate delivery was so high that the level of interest in learning was quite low. Reminded me a bit of the team in your story.

    – Michael


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