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Measure impact, not action

Continuous Improvement is the cornerstone of Agile and Lean. Whatever we do, we should reflect, understand and improve. Simple and clear. And yet so often, teams and organization go wrong with this.

We (as human beings) seem to have an obsession to create task lists and action plans. We measure our success by checking how many actions we did. We desire to see that our carefully planned actions have impact. We don’t want to waste time or effort, so we see correlation (impact) in places they don’t exist. We are blinded by our bias to see link between a completed task and a positive change. (Of course, we do not easily see the link between our action and negative consequences).

Actions are not the point. Well, without action there is no improvement, but it is far more important to raise our eyes from our feet and look into our real goal: better business, better products, or whatever we are aiming to reach when moving to Agile and Lean.

To illustrate this, here is an example.

Recently I noticed my physical health is deteriorating. I want to improve my well-being and get fit. Jogging is popular, easy and effective form of exercise. So, I decided to start jogging: 3 times a week, 30-40 min each time.

After following my action plan very carefully for 5 weeks, I notice my knees are broken. Walking up stairs hurts like hell and my knees make a snap-crackle-pop sound when I lift any objects.

Was I successful? Should I celebrate because I followed my plan?

Well, I do smile when I see I already reached 100 total km’s (“I must be better fit by now!”). I stop jogging for a while, wait until my knees heal a little and start over. And after few weeks stop again when even more excruciating pain hits my knees.

How do my knees relate to Agile and Lean transformation? Well, observe the action planning patterns in your organization and see if actions only increase pain. What is measured (action or impact)? Are the same actions repeating over and over again? How well the problems and actions are aligned, are the actions based on careful root-cause analysis or “just a hunch”? Are people making experiments and openly discussing about failures? How long are the feedback cycles? How often plans are checked, reflected and adjusted?

“Done” or “Not done” is not relevant. Relevant is action that takes us towards our goal. More relevant is to see impacts objectively and gain understanding about cause-effect relations in the system. Most relevant is to experiment, collect results and learn in order take better action next time.

And my knees.. Well, I reflected the situation after two failed cycles. First, I admitted my mistake and made sure my goal is still relevant. Then, I switched to swimming and other “softer” sports. Later I paid a visit to doctor and she prescribed me set of special supportive insoles for my running shoes. Now I am back in jogging, starting slowly and carefully (but regularly!). I see improvement and my knees are still with me.

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