Improvement Themes Retro

Introducing a new retro format called “Improvement Themes”!

In order to have a more valuable retro with small, actionable items as an outcome, this format takes inspiration from Toyota’s Improvement Kata and consists of small, focused discussions with the goal of finding 3 small action items per topic.

The retro format is broken into 5 timeboxed sections:
Topics to Discuss
(For Each Topic Chosen)
Current State
Ideal State
Next Steps
Assign Action Items

In Topics to Discuss, everyone spend 5 minutes writing topics to discuss. Ideally, these topics are ones which affected the previous iteration and can be improved. Once everyone is done writing, the group then votes on what to talk about.

Current State focuses on the current state of the project - what the team does, what effects the team is feeling, etc. Many people want to say the lack of something (eg, code reviews) is current state, so we ask what the effect of missing items is. This is probably the hardest discussion for people to get the hang of since we are asking people to separate out the effect from causes and potential solutions and just focus on what has been going on. The reason you want to do this is to give everyone a chance to understand on what the problem is before people start solutioning.

Ideal State is when we discuss where we would like to be. Similar to Current State, there is a tendency to skip right to solutions and a desire to state doing a thing is ideal when we want to focus on what the effect of doing the thing is. An example ideal state for Delivery would be ‘All stories are small enough to be delivered within a single iteration’. Similar to above, while the solutions proposed might be good, we wanted the entire team to have a common understanding of what ideal state is before proposing solutions.

Next Steps looks for 3 small action items completable in an iteration. Since the team should have a common understanding of current state and ideal state, everyone can work together to come up with solutions. Smaller action items are ones which can be placed above story work, completed quickly, and should have a positive impact on the team’s working ability. Bigger action items tend to linger for a long enough time people forget the context and rarely complete them quickly.

Assign Action Items goes the same as usual for other retro formats with an effort to make sure the same person does not have a lot of action items assigned to them.

An example chart for a topic after these discussions:

Every part of the retro is limited to 5 minutes and produces good discussions and action items for at least 2 topics in an hour long block. After the retro, you can look into what sort of metrics can track the effects of the action items towards Ideal State. Topics can be reviewed in future retros or in another meeting when there is a large need (eg, major issue happened and we want to do a special retro on it)

We review our action items regularly, usually every Monday, as a reminder to the whole team and to give a chance to let owners give updates. Likewise, we created a powerpoint deck we keep in drive where every topic has 2 slides - the first slide contains the descriptions of the current and ideal states, along with the next steps which came out of the last retro. The second slide contains metrics for our progress towards ideal state.

I have found these changes have resulted in action items which happen and more focused retros.