Forcing Functions and Continuous Improvement

Continuous Improvement?

One of our first stumbling blocks is how we perceive the idea of continuous improvement. Why must we improve? What’s wrong?

Continuous Improvement!

In Continuous Quality Improvement in Higher Education, John R. Dew, Molly McGowan Nearing describe continuous improvement as:

“Performance of the System”

This type of thinking comes in handy when we attempt to “improve the performance of the system.” What exactly is performance? And what contributes to and supports performance? Some see this task as daunting. Just stick to what you can control. But how can you improve on something you don’t understand?

  • Engineering resilience: Focuses on control and predictability, and returning the system to one pre-defined state (resuming equilibrium). Or …
  • Ecological resilience: Focuses on variability and unpredictability, allowing for many possible states that match the altered environment. A resilient organization will return to an adjusted state that matches the changed environment.

Forcing Functions

Which brings us back to increments and WIP constraints. When I hear about “Scrum not working” or “the teams can’t use WIP constraints”, I immediately ask about the culture of continuous improvement. Are forcing functions used for good or evil? Are they effective? For example…

  • Do teams and the organization take the constraints seriously?
  • Are teams learning about the system through the use of the forcing function? For example, a team might come to understand the impact of upstream variables or learn about the challenges of high WIP.
  • Are people actively challenging the definition of “performance”? Are teams beginning to converge on definitions that they understand and support?
  • What is happening on the global level to address team impediments? How much are teams actually in control of their destiny?
  • Is the team punished for “botching” a sprint?
  • Is the team attempting to deliver an increment to production by the end of the Sprint? Is the team respecting the WIP constraints?
  • If a sprint is unsuccessful, does the team shorten the sprint and/or reduce the amount of work attempted?
  • Can the team focus on removing the actual blockers to performance (e.g., help another team remove an impediment)
  • Is the team mapping a performance metric within their control to a performance metric that matters for the business?



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John Cutler

John Cutler


Multiple hat-wearer. Prod dev nut. I love wrangling complex problems and answering the why with qual/quant data. @johncutlefish on Twitter.