Blog Post: Insert a Kata Into Your Retrospective

In my post regarding the incredible value of the retrospective in the Agile/Scrum methodology, the point was raised of how this can really be possible. Many a manager and scrum master has told me of how haphazard and disjointed the communication surrounding process improvement can be. If I’m being completely transparent, I have many sprints that end with me breezing through the exercise because I want to hurry into sprint planning or let the team get back to work.

The breakdown in this ceremony comes when we as leaders are afraid to do two things: question and challenge. 

To inspect is to unashamedly examine what has occurred in minuscule detail and ask questions. Many in the Agile community generally accomplish this by using three simple questions:

  • What should we continue doing?
  • What should we stop doing?
  • What should we start doing?

Seems simple enough for many. This type of inspection allows the team to share what are some of the good things that occurred (the “continue”) and some of the bad (the “stop”). It also establishes some action items based upon the negative (the “start”). On the other hand, some teams struggle with this line of questioning because it is not targeted enough.

Enter the Toyota Kata.

This process for Lean and Agile improvement was pioneered by Toyota, one of the original scrumming organizations. It establishes what the current state of things are, what the intended state is and establish small ways of getting to the goal. Here is a simple four-step process for approaching retrospectives that can challenge your team in a new way and asks for their best:

Grasp the current condition – Go and see your team in action. To really understand what the current output is, you must immerse yourself in the work where it is being done. It is also important to collect real data, not subjective opinions. There are tons of process and outcome metrics to be mined all around you and gathered for analysis.

Sometimes, all that it takes is watching and taking notes while the days of a sprint progress. One side note I will add (not necessarily stated in the kata material), is don’t be afraid to get opinions from the team, because they matter. Just don’t let them be the sole method of gathering data. Opinions can always be backed up by facts.

Set the target condition – It’s not always easy to establish what you want to be when you are performing at your highest. If you are using metrics, however, and think of the process in terms of what “good” metrics would look like it will not be difficult.

One important distinction about the goal is it must be just beyond your team’s current threshold. If it’s too easy to reach the target, they won’t take the exercise seriously and think that success is a given. Think of the target condition as a  hypothesis that is on the way towards your vision. It should also be in line with the business or product strategy already laid out by leadership.

Establish next step towards target – This is where the experimenting begins. Even though we want to push the team and ask for their best, there are often steps that are too big of a bite to take for a team in one iteration. Set a reachable and measurable goal.

Execute – Many times, an incremental step towards the target will not be successful. You might see your team experience one step forward, followed by two or three steps backwards. You might even need to pivot. Regardless, establish the metrics that will get you one step closer to the goal. 

So how do you as the coach ask how they are doing along the process? 

Many times, your role in the process is to help manage expectations and remove obstacles. Ask them about what they were expecting versus what actually happened. Other than that, get out of their way and let them do it. When you are done, ask them what they learned from the process and then iterate.

Is anyone out there doing this currently? I know I am excited to try this on my teams and am curious of the pitfalls some of you found along the way.


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