Are you a lean-agile thinker? Do you want to be?

Who are Lean-Agile Coaches and what do they do?

Let’s take a look at the role of Lean-Agile coaching and lean-agile thinking; starting with the “lean” side of things.

Quality Systems thinking was introduced by Edward Deming in the mid 1950’s and 1960’s. While shunned by most American industries, the Japanese, in particular, Toyota, adopted and ingrained Quality Systems thinking into what eventually became known as the Toyota Production System – later coined Lean Manufacturing by American researchers. Today, Lean thinking has been adopted by Information Technology leaders and combined with Agile into contemporary Lean-Agile frameworks. Consequently, much of the vocabulary, tools, techniques and practices of the Japanese practices promulgate Lean-Agile frameworks.

Lean-Agile coaches use Lean principles and most importantly, demonstrate the practices of servant-leaders throughout their work of coaching executives, development teams, business managers and other stakeholders: putting the needs of others first, listening to understand, then communicating effectively to be understood, being empathetic, but willing and capable of holding themselves and others accountable.

Lean-Agile coaches are also systems thinkers. The principles of systems thinking enables awareness that there are no perfect solutions; but choices made do impact other parts of the system. By anticipating the impact of each trade-off, severity can be minimized or even sometimes taken advantage of, in certain situations. Systems thinking therefore allows coaches to help others make informed choices. Coaches mentor Systems thinking wherever they work; helping others expand their range of choices available for problem solving, broadening their thinking and helping them articulate problems in new and different ways.

Finally, Lean-Agile coaches effectively use the two major tenants of Lean; Kaizen (continuous improvement), and taking care of and developing people. Lean-Agile coaches do this within the context of Agile Teams and when able, throughout an organization.

Lean-Agile coaches practice, mentor and coach the three components of Kaizen; feedback, efficiency and evolution: 

  • Feedback: The core principle of the continuous improvement process is the (self) reflection on processes and their continuity to fit-for-purpose
  • Efficiency: The purpose of the continuous improvement process is the identification, reduction, and elimination of sub-optimal processes by identifying waste (Muda)
  • Evolution: The emphasis of the continuous improvement process is on incremental, continual steps rather than giant leaps implemented through the Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle.

Within Agile Teams, continuous improvement is organic to the team events. In fact, the entire Scrum cycle is a continuous improvement Plan-Do-Check-Adjust cycle:

Sprint Planning – Plan – team members review Sprint goals and backlog, aligning efforts toward a single objective; the Sprint Backlog is readied.

Sprint Execution – Do – team members build and test product incrementally, delivering stories and presenting completed work to the Product Owner for approval. Teams often manage their work by using visual boards or visual radiators and coordinate their work using daily stand up meetings. Quality is built-in using numerous engineering techniques such as Test-Driven Development, Pairing, refactoring, etc.

Iteration Review – Check – A very important process step of Agile generally, and Scrum specifically, is the Product Owner check and sign-off of work completed by the team. Product Owners provide a key risk-management, quality management and scope management role by working closely with the teams and checking their work throughout the sprint using story acceptance criteria. A final check of all the work performed by the team occurs at the end of the Sprint during the Feature demo. Here the team shows functioning, done, ready to release software as a final check that they are meeting their commitments.

Feature Demo & Sprint Retrospective – Adjust – The feature demo also serves as a means by which the team receives input and feedback and can adjust for the next sprint to better meet product goals and system user requests and needs. Finally, the team participates in a retrospective workshop where they can reflect on the process, brainstorm improvements and add improvement ideas to the backlog for implementation during the next sprint.

But continuous improvement is not limited to the Agile Teams. Because of the systems thinking coaches bring to Lean-Agile initiatives, they help clients look up and down the value stream to identify constraints and opportunities; many times, directly impacting the Agile Teams and their ability to deliver product iteratively and incrementally.

Effective continuous improvement begins with leadership vision and the setting of goals for the organization to strive for. Coaches then help their clients identify Value Streams and organize work and delivery of value aligned to the vision and goals. Once the Value Stream is defined then analysis and mapping of product and information flow is made identifying, targeting and mitigating constraints.

Lean-Agile coaches guide implementation of continuous improvement activities by following four pillars:

  1. Start with what you know and get started: no need for wait for extensive research
  2. Respect the current process, roles, responsibilities and titles: no need to “turn over the apple cart.” every organization has “gold nuggets” of value, keep them and move on
  3. Agree to pursue incremental evolutionary change: start small, think big, quality always
  4. Encourage acts of leadership at all levels: servant leaders believe in the inherent capabilities of all people. Leaders surface when given the opportunity to flourish

Using these pillars, coaches often guide clients through activities; from the design of value streams to the implementation of work management systems throughout an organization. The benefits of visualization and transparency, management of Work In Progress (WIP) and monitoring of performance through lead and cycle times, can be realized in just about any business process.

With the Value Stream defined and mapped, and with the assistance of work management systems and visual radiators, Lean-Agile coaches assist clients with monitoring and assessing process performance looking for major impediments and waste, or Muda as the Japanese refer to it. The Toyota Product System defined 7 types of Muda. Likewise, thanks to some industrious lean-agile thinkers, 7 Deadly Wastes of Lean Development have been defined as well:

Lean Manufacturing Lean Development
Transport​ Transfer or Handoff​
Inventory​ Backlog of any partially done work​
Motion​ Task Switching/interruptions​
Waiting​ Waiting (approval/decision)​
Over-processing​ Re-learning, forgotten code, (legacy code, undocumented work), re-clarification​
Over production​ Extra features, over design, over complication​
Defects​ Defects (bugs, rework, failed tests, poor performance, etc.)​

By focusing on waste, Lean-Agile coaches focus on the issues that most often contribute to poorly performing processes; instead of blaming the people within the process.

Perhaps the largest benefit Lean-Agile coaches can bring to an organization, is demonstrating the difference between DOING continuous improvement and the far more powerful attribute of PRACTICING continuous improvement. All too often individuals or teams simply go through the motions of continuous improvement without it becoming a practice, a habit; never fully understanding the why of what they are doing and therefore never fully commit to make it happen regardless of who is watching. Coaches journey beyond simply identifying opportunities for improvement, they help others “get to the why”, where deep learning can occur.

The Improvement Kata

The Lean-Agile practice of continuous improvement is best exemplified by how the Japanese approach continuous improvement as a Kata. Kata are detailed choreographed patterns of movements practiced either solo or in small groups – usually associated with martial arts. The Improvement Kata is a choreographed and practiced learning cycle using empirical discovery to achieve goals. In the Improvement Kata, the individual or team uses data from various sources to identify a target condition that they aspire to achieve (aligned to the vision and goals set by executive leadership). They then use the PDCA cycle to achieve empirical and experiential learning: conduct experiments, receive feedback, invoke the 5 Whys to gain deeper understanding, and persistently work towards the target condition until it is achieved. Then the process is repeated. Practice continues – purposefully.

Finally, Lean-Agile coaches mentor and coach individuals and teams using the Gradual Release of Responsibility (“I do”, “we do”, “you do” ), helping them practice continuous improvement, guiding them through the continuum of learning,  Shu-Ha-Ri:

  • Shu: represents the beginning stage of learning where the student (team) follows the teaching of the coach precisely. The student concentrates on how to do the task without worrying too much about the underlying theory
  • Ha: represents the stage at which the student begins to branch out. With the basic practices working the student now starts to learn the underlying principles and theory behind the technique. The student may learn from other coaches and integrate that learning into their own practice
  • Ri: represents the stage where the student isn’t learning just from other people, but from their own practice. The student creates their own approaches and adapts what they are learning to their own circumstances

Lean-Agile coaches use system thinking, servant-leadership and the process of continuous improvement deliberately and comprehensively. It is a practice – a way of life. Successful coaches delight in helping others grow from basic learning to being their own masters; in all areas of life. They extend the continuum of lean-agile thinking to others.


Kaizen opportunities are infinite. Don’t think you have made things better than before and be at ease…This would be like the student who becomes proud because they bested their master two times out of three in fencing. Once you pick up the sprouts of kaizen ideas, it is important to have the attitude in our daily work that just underneath one kaizen idea is yet another one.

Taiichi Ohno