Stand Up for Continuous Improvement in the Federal Government

The Stand up – The one technique you need to begin continuous improvement

In the federal government, timely information is key. To get timely communication you need to put in place feedback loops.   In dry terms, feedback loops occur when outputs of a system are routed back as inputs thus creating a loop or self feeding system.  But in terms of communication and team dynamics, feedback loops are one of the best ways to improve.

Knowing what works, what needs tweaked, or  outright fixed can bring about continuous improvement.  To get continuous improvement, you need a way  to get information from the source so you can act accordingly. The more quickly you can cycle your loop (within reason), the faster you bring change.

Traditionally, the normal feedback loops are similar to reports, status meetings, and answering data calls. All of which have their place. However, there is a better way to get immediate information on collaborative efforts.

The morning stand-up is a collaboration tool and is one of the most useful feedback loops for a team. The morning stand up is a highly effective habit for getting your team to be more nimble.  And it’s a great way for the team (not just me) to get the ground truth of what’s going on.  The standup requires no special technology or advanced training to use. It’s readily accessible and a team can be taught to do it, in less than an hour.  If you introduce no other feedback loop I highly recommend this technique.

A stand-up focuses on what the team member accomplished yesterday, needs to accomplish today, and what are the roadblocks in their way.   As a feedback loop, it’s immediate and actionable.  Better yet, every team, developer and non developer alike, can use it at all levels of an agency.  From Capitol Hill to a branch office in Alaska,  a stand up can benefit your team, regardless of what your team works on if communication / collaboration is an essential part of what you do.

 

Here is what you need to know to set up your stand up.

The Mechanics

A morning stand-up should last 15 minutes.   Meetings are overhead if not used effectively.

Each team member answers 3 key questions

  • What I did yesterday
  • What I’m planning to do today
  • Are there any roadblocks or barriers preventing me from accomplishing what I want to do today

 

Standing up

Standing up for lengthy periods of time is generally uncomfortable. The original idea behind calling it a stand-up was that no one likes to stand for that long.  By standing up through the meeting, it is a physical reminder that you are potentially creating useless overhead.

As a team member, be respectful of your teammates, you shouldn’t take more time than you need to cover the three questions.

If you’re co-located, meet in a hallway, conference room or cafeteria.  In person is always best since it is the richest form of communication.

Standing really isn’t a rule, but rather a gesture of recognizing the importance of time.  Please be respectful of those who can’t stand for 15 minutes.  Do not insist on standing.  Further, for sight or hearing impaired employees/contractors, make the reasonable accommodation to help them fully participate. 

For geographically dispersed teams,  use a conference bridge, live meeting and/or assistive technology.  You could have people stand up while on a conference bridge, but I don’t think that’s effective.  Rather, I think it’s best to just make sure that you have a scrum master or a facilitator who is keeping an eye on the clock and making sure that you are proceeding through so that you’re done within 15 minutes.

Facilitator

You need a facilitator.  This person moves you through in an orderly fashion and can take minutes.  This person is actively watching for and putting an end to sidebar conversations, calendar reading,  and hijackers of the meeting.

If you are a scrum team, often it is the scrum master who facilitates.    That said, ANYONE can facilitate.   It improves engagement.  Just make sure everyone knows who is wearing the facilitator cap on any given day.  A facilitator should make sure roadblocks are captured and communicated to the person who can do something about them.

Frequency

It should be daily.  The frequency and immediacy of communication is highly valuable.

Sometimes when first starting out teams will not want to use or do daily stand-ups.  It is seen as a burden to meet daily.  When I introducing this technique I always make it daily. Don’t try to do once or twice a week. All you will have done is introduced a new way to conduct status meetings once or twice a week.

Timing

Use a stand up in the morning preferably when people get in.  I highly recommend doing the stand up no later than 9 a.m.  If you wait until after that time you tend to run into other meetings of the day and it takes away from your ability to get in front of any issues that may have cropped up.

Depending on the agency you work for, your agencies’ use of telework, and how geographically dispersed you are,  you may or may not have people available when you decide to conduct a stand-up.

If you are geographically dispersed and in multiple time zones, try to be mindful of this so that you do not inadvertently create a stand up that works great for you at 8:30 am in Washington D.C., but not so great at 5:30 am in the morning in California.

Communication Channel

In person is best, but a phone works too.   My recommendation is to use the channel that has the most communicative form.  If you have access to video conferencing tools like live meeting and you have cameras.  Use it and turn the cameras on.

Depending on how you track your work one thing you can do with a stand up is to use live meeting or other visual tools that can show you that backlog of work that you have and who it’s assigned to.  If you don’t have a backlog, perhaps you have action items.  It is it’s helpful to have the visual reminder when people are talking about the work that they need to accomplish.

If you are geographically dispersed, and have someone who can take great on-the-fly minutes, have them display the minutes  via livemeeting or similar tools while people are speaking.  It helps with comprehension.

 

Pitfalls

Cancelling the standup meetings.  It starts out innocent enough, but it’s much easier to cancel the stand up once you have done it a few times.  Just remember, not everyone can be there.  The standup must go on.   Make sure there is always someone on the call with the responsibility of facilitating the call.

15 minutes.   Don’t get discouraged if you can’t fit your stand up into 15 minutes from the get go.   Very few teams can early on.  It’s usually a sign of pent-up demand for collaboration.  As your team gets used to the format and purpose, this will get better.   Use the experience of a long stand up to reflect and make changes to the next standup.

Listening to criticism early on about the value of the meeting.  People tend to not realize that the meeting has more value than they’re giving it credit for.  It can be inconvenient for some employees and it can feel like a waste of time at first.  Don’t give in to the people who want it to go away.  Make it a part of your culture to enjoy the stand up.   Verbally state to the team how much you enjoy their quality feedback.

Talking at people but not listening to anyone.  I’ve had several people who will listen while they’re giving out their answers on the stand-up on their turn.  But  after they are done with their turn.. they begin multitasking.  A facilitator needs to help keep people engaged.  If something Mary said is relevant to Joe, the facilitator should call that out.  Listen for people asking for someone to repeat the question.

Reciting meeting from the calendar to you.   New and/or unprepared team members do this.  If I can get everything you tell me from reading your calendar, then your status is wasting everyone’s time.    If a roadblock is someone not attending a meeting, bring it up.   Otherwise, nip that behavior in the bud.  Don’t embarrass someone, do it privately.

Diversion – Once people start engaging, it is real easy to let conversation go on.   Before you know it, you are in a full blown meeting on a topic of their choosing.  Try to keep your morning stand up on point. If you find that you have discussion that needs to go in depth or needs to take longer than your 15 minutes, whoever you designated as the facilitator of the call  should recommend people taking it offline.  Have them schedule a follow up meeting to go over and discuss.

Being unprepared – Encourage your team to come prepared.  You can usually tell if someone is unprepared by the phrase “I have nothing to report” status.   I encourage my team to write down their answers to the 3 questions.  If they’re not present to be able to participate, have them send those into the scrum master.

Micromanaging – A manager should be there to listen to collect the feedback coming in.   Avoid the pitfall of taking the opportunity to micromanage.  As a manager, you have the big picture. Keep your comments on other people’s questions limited to big picture/strategic ideas.  Provide tactical answers if it will help overcome a barrier.

More Resources

 

 

 

About Aaron Francesconi 9 Articles
Agilist and Devops specialist working in the Federal Government Space

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