Continuous Improvement with Agile, ITIL & Lean.

In this article, I'll lightly explore continuous improvement using Agile, ITIL and Lean.

Continuous improvement with Agile
Agile is more than just a modern software development process, it is having an agile mindset (or to demonstrate agility for your customers' dynamic needs). While the Agile Manifesto outlines four (4) values, it is principle 12 that highlights Agile's focus on continuous improvement. Principle 12 states "At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly" (Principles behind the Agile Manifesto, n.d.). 

Retrospectives are one instrument that Agile provides to check the health of your service delivery and identify improvement opportunities. Held at the end of a sprint (time boxed interval of enhanced product delivery), the retrospective gives stakeholders an opportunity to reflect on:
- what went well for the sprint (to repeat it again),
- what didn't go well (to address issues),
- what still puzzles me (to address what confuses and hampers people).

Typically when a retrospective is held, action items or recommendations for continuous improvement are identified and registered as future story cards in the product backlog. These improvement story cards can later be selected for an upcoming sprint for action.

Further to this, Smith and Sidky (2009, p30) state that showcases (end of sprint product demonstrations to customers) are a form of continuous risk management (proactive improvement) since "the customer gets a feel for how requirements are translated into an application before the project is complete".   

Continuous improvement with ITIL
The IT Process Maps website (ITIL V3 CSI - Continual Service Improvement, n.d.) provides a good summary of ITIL CSI by presenting it as four (4) processes:

  1. Service Review: regular reviews of the services provided.
  2. Process Evaluation: regular reviews of tactical and operational processes used to support the services.
  3. Definition of CSI Initiatives: Defining initiatives based on the above two regular reviews.
  4. Monitoring of CSI Initiatives: Monitor these defined initiatives and implement corrective actions. 
In the ITIL text (Cabinet Office, 2011, p.53), continuous improvement is based on a more detailed seven (7) step process:
  1. Define what you should measure: Use the information about your services to define what should be measured to gauge improvement.
  2. Define what you can measure: identify what can be measured with your available budget, resources and technologies.
  3. Gather the data: Gather data based on identified goals and objectives.
  4. Process the data: process data from various sources for an 'apple to apple' comparison.
  5. Analyse the data: Transform the data into information.
  6. Present the information: Show the results to key stakeholders.
  7. Implement corrective action: Identify and register actions to address any gaps or opportunities for improvement. 
Continuous improvement with Lean
Central to Lean manufacturing (based on the Toyota Production System) is the concept of Kaizen (which is Japanese for continuous improvement). Toyota using a seven (7) step process which relies on the existence of a problem. Liker (2004, p. 256) outlined Toyota's problem solving process as follows:
  1. Document initial problem perception.
  2. Clarify the problem.
  3. Locate area or point of cause.
  4. Investigate root cause.
  5. Identify countermeasure(s).
  6. Evaluate the effectiveness of the countermeasures, and if successful.
  7. Standardise the new approach/work process.  
In their book "Lean IT", Bell and Ozen (2011, p40) outlined that there are two kinds of kaizen - System kaizen and Process kaizen. They state "system kaizen attempts to improve the overall value stream by enhancing material and information flow, and it is the focus of management. Process kaizen, performed by teams and individuals, concentrates on reducing waste in specific focus area within the value stream. Improvement in one type of kaizen positively impacts the other". Further to this, using kaizen can be categorised by the activity's duration. Large scale kaizen initiatives can be managed as projects. Smaller, focused mutli-day events as known as kaizen events, and smaller improvements is known as daily kaizen or kaizen blitz (Bell & Ozen, 2011, p.41). 

Extending on Bell and Orzen's ideas further, I suggest that these kaizen events appear in Agile and ITIL as well.  The table below illustrates examples of how the three methodologies support continuous improvement with their specific instruments:

Large scale improvement
CSI Project
Project, A3, 7 step problem solving
Medium scale improvement
Retrospective, Showcase, Feature
CSI, Problem investigation, Change request
Kaizen event, A3, 7 step problem solving
Small scale improvement
Fedex Day, Story card
Problem investigation, Service Request, Incident
Daily kaizen, 7 step problem solving

In this article, I have lightly covered continuous improvement in Agile, ITIL and Lean. Please use the references provided to learn more about these approaches in greater detail. As shown immediately above, each of the three (3) methodologies provide instruments to scale for the size of the continuous improvement event. 

ITIL and Lean both utilise a systematic approach to continual improvement and problem solving based on Deming's Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle and therefore it is not surprising that Lean and ITIL compliment each other and are similar in this area. Agile does not appear to have the same systematic approach to continuous improvement but the problems or opportunities for improvement identified in sprint retrospectives could easily become the inputs to ITIL's/Lean's seven (7) step problem solving process. 

For large IT organisation's, the decision is not ‘Which one should I choose?’ but rather 'How can I integrate these approaches to provide the most effective and efficient continuous improvement service for my customers?'

Bell, S., and Orzen, M. (2011). Lean IT, New York: CRC Press.

Cabinet Office (2011). Continual Service Improvement. London, UK: TSO.

ITIL V3 CSI - Continual Service Improvement (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2013 from _Continual_Service_Improvement

Liker, J. (2004). The Toyota Way, New York: McGraw-Hill.

Principles behind the Agile Manifesto (n.d.). Retrieved January 28, 2013 from

Smith, G., and Sidky, A. (2009). Becoming Agile in an imperfect world, Greenwich:Manning.

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