Revitalizing Agile Retrospectives with Katas: Part 1

Revitalizing Agile Retrospectives With Toyota Kata
Revitalizing Agile Retrospectives With The Toyota Katas

Retrospectives have been a cornerstone for continuous improvement for Agile teams. They are the sacred moments for reflection, adaptation, and connection. Yet, many teams report that retrospectives feel ineffectual, leaving them running in circles rather than advancing forward. Why is this, and how can we change it?

The Traditional Woes of Retrospectives

  • Games Over Deep Thinking: Engaging and interactive? Sometimes. Conducive for deep analysis and thoughtful planning? Perhaps not. Many retrospectives deploy games and activities, but sometimes, they overshadow the core objective. While some teams may appreciate the light-hearted approach, the main goal often gets overshadowed by the “fun.”
  • Long Lists and Scattershot Approaches: Retrospectives can quickly become a catalog of complaints and ideas, followed by votes to prioritize them. This approach can scatter the team’s focus, preventing deep dives into any issue.
  • Picking New Problems Every Sprint: One prevalent challenge is shifting attention from one problem to another, usually before the previous one gets truly resolved.
  • Reactionary Over Proactive: Instead of focusing on root causes or long-term objectives, many retrospectives become fixated on the issue of the week. As a result, teams often find themselves addressing symptoms rather than root causes.

The Toyota Kata: A Scientific Approach to Improvement

Kata: Derived from the Japanese term meaning “form”, a Kata in the context of TPS (Toyota Production System) and Lean refers to a structured routine or practice aimed at achieving specific goals and continuous improvement. In martial arts, a Kata refers to a detailed choreographed pattern of movements, practiced alone or within pairs. Similarly, in the Lean methodology, it is about practicing structured problem-solving methods repeatedly until they become second nature, ensuring consistent results and constant evolution. Toyota Kata is a way of coaching people and fostering a culture of continuous learning and improvement through coaching and deliberate practice.

At its core, the Toyota Kata is about a scientific approach to continuous improvement. It introduces a systematic way of thinking and acting to achieve challenging goals amid uncertainty. Here are its foundational questions:

  1. What are we trying to achieve?
  2. Where are we now?
  3. What’s currently in our way?
  4. What’s our next experiment, and what do we expect?
  5. When can we see what we’ve learned from that step?
5 Questions of the Toyota Kata

By utilizing the Toyota Kata, teams can steer clear of the traditional pitfalls of retrospectives:

  • Focusing on deep thinking ensures that improvement topics are selected and analyzed critically, ensuring they align with broader objectives.
  • Its structure prevents scattershot approaches. Instead of juggling multiple issues, the team concentrates on systematic problem-solving.
  • The iterative nature of the Toyota Kata ensures that problems are tackled thoroughly before moving on, preventing the constant shifting from one issue to another.
  • Lastly, the methodology encourages a proactive stance. By identifying root causes and anticipating challenges, teams can strategize effectively.

Blending the Toyota Kata with Agile Retrospectives: The Retro Kata

How does this relate to an Agile team, you ask? The scientific approach can be integrated with Agile values, principles, and practices to facilitate continuous improvement, target root causes, and maintain alignment with longer-term objectives. By blending the Toyota Kata with Agile’s iterative approach, teams can benefit from a structured yet adaptable framework for growth.

In the end, maybe it’s not about reinventing retrospectives. Perhaps it’s about restoring them to their original intent: a platform for making meaningful and continuous improvements.
Stay tuned for our next piece, where we delve deeper into blending the Toyota Kata with retrospectives in what I call the “Retro Kata.” Although it can be used across any framework, we will highlight what this will look like with Scrum.

Remember, the ultimate goal is to build capacity and habits to improve in things that matter continuously.


Rother, M. (2010). Toyota Kata: Managing People for Improvement, Adaptiveness, and Superior Results. McGraw Hill Professional. 

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