Why I Don’t Use the Phrase "Continuous Improvement"

Continuous means “uninterrupted in time, sequence, substance, or extent”. Continues improvement sounds so good, doesn’t it? But that is not the sort of improvement experienced by organizations going over to Scrum.

In my intro to Scrum classes, students create different types of paper airplanes, measure the distance that they fly, and then modify the planes to make them fly further. The students collect data on the distance that each type of plane flies after each throw. A typical chart looks like this:

             Plane #1      Plane #2
Throw #1        5                8
Throw #2        3               13
Throw #3       10               20
Throw #4       11               14
Throw #5       10               25

The planes always fly further in the last throw than they did in the first throw–but the improvement is almost never a straight line. If the team were to quit as soon as they stopped continuously improving, the planes would never reach their full potential.

An organization transitioning to Scrum is likely to have many things changing at once. People are changing roles, the work tempo is changing, interactions with customer are changing. Much is going on. At any given time, the organization will often find that some things will be getting better and some things will be getting worse.

If the organization expects “continuous improvement,” then it is likely to be continuously disappointed.

Michael de la Maza

I am an agile coach and an angel investor. As an agile coach, I have consulted and trained at dozens of companies. Major agile coaching engagements have been with Paypal, State Street, edX, Carbonite, and Symantec. I typically begin with culture first and then proceed to process improvement and business results. I believe in a non-confrontational, non-coercive approach to change in which people are invited to be and act in a new way. This takes the pain out of agile transformations.

With Rob Rubin, an online education pioneer and the Founding VP of Engineering at edX, I recently created DemingWay.com, an online agile education portal that we plan to grow until it has the best agile content and the best learning platform.