This is a transcript of episode 300 of the Troubleshooting Agile podcast with Jeffrey Fredrick, Douglas Squirrel.

An underperforming tech team is missing something, but what?

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Alignment using Toyota Kata

Listen to this section at 00:14

Squirrel: Welcome back to Troubleshooting Agile. Hi there Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Hi, Squirrel.

Squirrel: So we’re in the at the beginning of a checklist that we announced last week. And we said we were going to talk about three different elements. That would be the sort of the way our listeners could figure out where they’re missing a conversation. Where is their team not functioning as it should? Can you remind us what those three elements are, and what are we talking about today?

Jeffrey: Yep. The three elements are alignment, which is say, are we clear on what we’re trying to accomplish? There’s engagement, is everyone contributing? And finally, do we have felt permission for candor, meaning do we have constructive conflict? And today we’re going to start with alignment. And and we can do that by referencing the first bit. Some people have probably heard of this before. Simon Sinek start with why. And that’s kind of where we are with alignment. We have to make sure, I think in my experience, if we’re not clear on what it is we’re doing, not just what, but why we’re doing it, then we’re not going to be successful. How does that match with your experience?

Squirrel: Well, it certainly does. I have plenty of clients who come to me often, it’s the CEO saying, “gosh, my technology team is doing a lot of stuff. But I’m not sure what stuff they’re doing. And they tell me it’s all great, but I don’t have much to reassure me that what they’re doing is effective, and I’m certainly not seeing the results I expect.” That’s often a diagnostic problem. And of course, on the the other side, the engineers say, “I don’t know what the salespeople are selling, but it’s nothing that we’re building and we’re doing all kinds of crazy stuff just to keep marketing satisfied. And I don’t know what the rest of the business is doing.”

Jeffrey: Yeah, and having been in OKR season, I’ve just witnessed a lot of people bringing forth their OKRs and they would say something like what they wanted to do. And then the response from leadership saying, “but why? Why? You need to tell us why you’re doing this. We want to make sure we’re clear on the why first, before we say, okay, on the what. Let alone the how.” So this idea of alignment is, I think, crucial at all levels.

Jeffrey: Now, for me, when I’m dealing with clients who are having trouble with alignment, I often introduce and have them learn about Toyota Kata. Now, of course, we’ll have a link to this in the show notes and in particular of the Toyota Kata, there’s there’s the improvement kata. And it’s not necessarily that you need to apply the improvement kata, but I think it’s very useful in understanding the four elements of the improvement kata. And so this becomes in a sense like a sort of checklist in and of itself for alignment.

Squirrel: We ought to help our listeners, by the way. Kata is K-A-T-A, It’s a Japanese word comes from the world of martial arts, where you practice the same motion again and again.

Jeffrey: That’s right, yeah. I think the word means form or something like that. So if you’re going to do this form and repeat it and that’s what I really like about it is that. And this one say is even if you’re not using Toyota Kata as a common element in your company, you can look at the form of the kata, the pieces of it, and realize that you should have sort of the equivalent of these four things. So let’s maybe get through the the four elements of the kata. How does that sound?

Squirrel: Excellent.

What’s your North Star?

Listen to this section at 00:39

Jeffrey: So the first element of the kata is your vision, you know, do you understand what the direction is? Now in some cases, this is your North star. This is like your ultimate goal that you’re trying to achieve, even if you’ll never make it. And the example from the book they use is like Toyota has the idea of, in manufacturing, that they’re going to have one-piece flow. You don’t need to know what one-piece flow is. You just know that that’s their ultimate ideal for how manufacturing would ultimately work.

Squirrel: And it’s quite pie in the sky. It’s the idea that everything would be perfect and they’re never expecting to absolutely 100% achieve this nirvana.

Jeffrey: That’s right, but they can say, well, if this gets us closer to one-piece flow, then we’re moving in the right direction and different companies will have different North stars. I remember Alcoa several years ago had quite a transformation, but one of their, well, their North Star they put forward was a perfect track record of safety, which in aluminum smelting is not a normal thing. But they could say what our operations, what we want is to make it safer over time.

Jeffrey: Now, a lot of times, though, more practically, you’ll have a goal that’s somewhere like a year or 3 or 5 years away. So it’s kind of your major effort. The exact time frame probably depends on the maturity of your company. If you’re a relatively new startup, you’re probably thinking in terms of max a year. If you’ve been around a bit longer, you’re probably thinking more in terms of 3 to 5 years.

Jeffrey: So that’s the first question. Do we understand, do we have a common understanding in the team of what the vision is? What’s kind of the purpose of all this. And if we have that, then we can kind of move on to the next step.

What’s our current condition?

Listen to this section at 05:13

Jeffrey: The next step I find is interesting, which is about understanding our current condition. Do we understand where we are today versus where we want to be? And this is actually really interesting. I don’t know if with your clients and the teams, do you find that this is something where people have a common view of their current condition? Because I often find that they don’t and are unaware that they don’t have a common view, that the view of the different functions: marketing, sales, product, engineering, are a bit different. Even maybe even within an engineering team, for example, that they have different views of their current condition.

Squirrel: Oh, absolutely. And that’s the danger is that everyone thinks they have a common view. And the engineers think that the biggest problem is that there’s old software that needs replacing. And the marketing people think the worst problem is that there’s nothing exciting to blog about. And the customer service people say they’re both wrong, and why can’t we fix all the bugs?

Jeffrey: Right, and the element here about about putting together your current condition is that everyone’s view is correct as far as not necessarily the most important problem, but they are all problems. And so putting together that current condition is bringing everyone’s view together to say, here, all of these things can be true at the same time. And once we look at all of them being true, then we can kind of decide. What’s next?

What’s the next step?

Listen to this section at 06:39

Jeffrey: And that brings us to step three of the Toyota Improvement Kata, which is what’s your next target condition? What’s the next step? We can’t jump all the way to our vision in one go. What’s an intermediate goal that we’re going to aim at? And kind of agreeing that. One way, I might explain this to people who are used to OKRs. And we talked about OKRs quite a bit recently, is we might have an annual OKR acting as our vision.

Squirrel: OKR is objectives and key results. It’s a method of goal setting. Some some listeners might not know that. Keep going.

Jeffrey: That’s right. And then the next quarter’s objective is our kind of our target condition. So that’s the next step we’re going to take. So we have this year long goal, but now we’re the next quarter. This is the element we’re going to address.

Squirrel: And I tend to think of it in even shorter term terms. Namely I help teams deliver software every single day and do experiments multiple times per week. And one of the very best things you can do to improve alignment is to very frequently adjust your target condition. So I would even say you could be adjusting that every week or every day as you do further experiments and learn. That’s a more radical view. But if you’re frequently checking in on your current condition, you can be establishing what the next target is very frequently, much more frequently than you think you can.

Jeffrey: Yeah, and that’s that’s a really great point because while I’m talking about here in terms of the Toyota Kata and OKRs whatnot, the idea is that these these essence, these four pieces are something that apply on any timescale you’re looking at, whether it’s a quarter or a week, or you can go extreme, you could do it like for today. What is it we’re going to do today?


Listen to this section at 08:35

Jeffrey: And that gets to the last element. And you are to use this word, experiment. Part four of the improvement quarter is ‘what’s the next experiment we’re going to do?’ And then you iterate through through those experiments. So those are those are four pieces. And we can say you know, are we aligned on all four of these? And if not then we know that we’re missing conversations. So that becomes then my checklist for alignment and using the improvement kata as that checklist, even if the company is not a Toyota Kata, you know, improvement kata using company, no matter what it is, I’m looking for these four elements. And if we’re not aligned in all four, then we know that conversations need to be had.

Squirrel: There we go. Okay, next time we’re going to talk about the the next in order, which is I believe, engagement. Thanks, Jeffrey.

Jeffrey: Thanks, Squirrel.