S07 E06 Joe Krebs on Agile Katas

In this conversation, Joe Krebs joins us at the ScanAgile24 conference in Helsinki. He discusses the concept of Agile Kata and its role in continuous improvement. He shares his passion for this topic and how it originated from his experience with agile transformations. Joe emphasizes the importance of challenging existing processes and habits to drive meaningful change. He also highlights the need for a continuous improvement mindset and the challenges organizations face in embracing it. Joe shares success stories of organizations applying Kata and the potential benefits it brings. He concludes by discussing the importance of building the Agile Kata community and the slow progress in doing so.


  • Agile Kata is a pattern for continuous improvement that can enhance the world of Agile.

  • Agile transformations should not be treated as projects with an end date but as ongoing journeys of improvement.

  • Kata introduces scientific thinking and challenges existing habits and processes.

  • The biggest challenge in embracing continuous learning and improvement is breaking through existing habits and routines.


00:00Introduction and Background

02:24The Importance of Continuous Improvement

04:17The Misconception of Agile Transformation

05:14Evolution of the Talk on Agile Kata

06:12The Challenge of Embracing Continuous Learning

07:40Challenges in Challenging Existing Processes

09:07The Time Investment for Creating New Habits

10:08Using Kata to Improve Business Situations

11:36Success Stories of Applying Kata

13:31Applying Kata in Lean Manufacturing Environments

14:55The Challenge of Having a Continuous Improvement Mindset

15:23The Danger of Zombie Scrum

20:35Challenging the Sprint-Based Approach

24:21Applying Kata in Simple Product Spaces

25:20The Slow Progress of Building the Agile Kata Community

27:35Question for the Next Guest

Sander (00:00.306)
Joe, good morning. How are you? Good morning. I’m good. How are you? I’m good. Always good to have you here. Thank you. How’s the conference so far? Conference here in Helsinki. Awesome. So far, great speaker dinner. Highlight of the highlight. Highlight so far. Yeah. And we’re just getting started. What are you talking about on this conference yourself? Well, I’ll be talking about a talk that has been developed for some time. It’s called Don’t Cut Our Corners.

as the name indicates, it’s about Kata in particular, Agile Kata. Go on, tell us more. It’s a pattern for continuous improvement and that’s something I’ve been passionate about for five, six years at this point, to really look deeper into lean Kata thinking and what Kata can do to improve possibility of world of Agile. So it’s an ongoing talk. It’s a…

talk that evolves and it just basically is a reminder for a not to exclude cutter thinking, but also to follow the steps of cutter. So not to cut corners or cut corners. You’ve mentioned you’ve been passionate about this for five, six years. What makes you passionate about it? Well, it’s all started with a situation I was facing as a consultant in Azure transformations.

agile transformations being, I don’t want to generalize, but many of them were executed in a waterfall way, just like the irony of all that, to take a waterfall approach for an agile transformation. I thought something’s not right, something needs to be looked into. I didn’t have answers at that time. I stumbled across the world of Toyota and Toyota Carta, and that was like an eye -opening event for me.

but I was purely entirely focusing on natural transformations at that time. The window then opened up in the topic to something like there is much, much more to it than just transformation. So it was like this byproduct of the cut. I was like, I solved or approached one problem and I feel like that is the, it’s a promising way of for agile transformations, but then also was the tool, the vehicle for doing all those things. So, and that was the interesting part. And,

Sander (02:24.242)
Just like scrum in 2002, when I started with it, I, um, and it was just like keeping my interests. The same thing happened when I started with Qatar. So it’s a, it’s an exciting thing. You mentioned that, uh, it’s an ironic thing that these agile transformations are being done in waterfall approach. Isn’t it equally ironic that the term agile transformation.

is a term in and by itself because the word transformation would assume that you go from one state to the other. Right. And then you’re there. It has an end state while agile doesn’t have an end state. That’s right. Why do we persist on calling it an agile transformation? Yeah. I mean, we could, I mean, the word itself could possibly indicate that there is an end to it, which is obviously in, and from an antitrust perspective, not, um, there are other examples though, where you could say it’s an, it’s an ongoing.

how I worry, it’s transformation, you’re absolutely right. It’s possibly indicating wrongfully for management or leaders that this is a start and has an end date. There is a cost associated with it. And these are obviously pitfalls in an international transformation. You have maybe some short -term gains. You might have some small benefits coming out of it. But I don’t think you’re going to really see the full impact of an agile transformation. And that was the appealing thing of agile Cata is…

It’s continuous, right? It’s like the, it creates an environment for continuing. So it’s, it’s impossible to stop. Um, you could stop. You could basically say like, well, we’re ending by the end of whatever year. Uh, but that just means you’re ending to improve. And I don’t think that’s in anybody’s interest. So is, would you rename, would you prefer to rename agile transformations to either agile, Kata or agile journey?

I don’t like journey either. It’s more like a transition or transitioning. I think to emphasize the ongoing effort, I’m okay with transformation as long as you know what it entails and that there’s no end date. I think that’s the part I think where from biology’s perspective, you have a caterpillar into transforming into a butterfly and that’s it. That’s my example here. It never transforms back. It’s the end state. Butterflies is the end state.

Sander (04:46.386)
And that’s a transformation, but, um, that’s not what we mean here. Now you mentioned that this talk has been transforming over the years as well. Yes. What are the biggest parts that have changed and what are your biggest lessons? Um, what has changed is actually a more formal, um, it started with Cata as a, as a pattern of introducing change, um, and more following the pattern in the beginning to now to.

basically see the opportunities coming out of this pattern. I don’t call it a process necessarily, even though you could argue it’s a sequence of events and therefore a process, but I prefer the word pattern because the pattern is, it’s a starting point and then you would evolve over time. And I think that’s part of my lessons learned or improvements to the talk or the evolution of the talk to just focus more on the, it’s a starting point, but then it’s more important about what you’re making out of it.

once you start evolving. What do you see in your experience is the biggest challenge within organizations to embrace the idea of constant learning, constant improvement? Well, so what Qatar does is it introduces something called scientific thinking. Now that term is a little scary for some, you know, it’s not like we’re walking around in white coats and are in a laboratory and we’re becoming scientists. It’s the thinking.

It’s based on research, it’s based on data. We’re making some decisions. That does not mean we’re having a ton of data, but we need some form of help in terms of decision making because our brains, human brains, are directing us into a specific direction otherwise. That’s just how our brain works. We have certain habits, we do that. We can say a daily scrum or something like that, certain habits, right?

And once you have these habits, you keep going with these habits and you have to break through these habits to find a new path, whatever that is. And I think Kata is brilliant around that. To say like, okay, we are trying something new and the pattern is reminding you to challenge those habits on an ongoing basis. So, and that applies to learning and to your question, right? It’s like, these are the challenges. We’re not learning actively, we’re installing a process and, um,

Sander (07:11.602)
And then we’re just going to live with this habit of a process and we’re not really challenging the underlying way of working and should we change anything around this or add something or remove something like lots of organizations have many, many meetings and things like that. I was like, should we challenge any of those? And I think that’s a great learning opportunity to use. In this case, AgileCutter. Isn’t it true that in many organizations, people are not incentivized or even the opposite?

of challenging these kinds of meetings because they’re there and management told you to do them. That’s right. Why don’t you do them? Well, it’s like, you know, those processes like scrum, there’s Kanban, there’s scaled processes out there. You all know. And those are the pros that are being sold into organizations. I do have to say as a certified trainer myself, just like you, they’re good starting points. I think they are. But I think,

I think that’s where I want to go with my talk is to say this is starting point, challenge certain things. You know, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it, just, just applying it out of the box, but should be constantly in my answer of if something’s not right, you got to speak up the process, you know, whatever you apply is, is a, is a way for you to remind everybody to change when, but then the tool of how to change that’s the actual cutter. Right. So you can.

It was like a sprint retrospective to say, here’s a situation we want to change, maybe not on a team, but organizationally, but then scrum masters or edge our coaches are left behind. We said, how do I do this now? And cut us the vehicle for that. There’s this saying, and I don’t know whether this is true or not, but that it takes 10 ,000 hours to become an expert on this. Now, if you take into looking into creating habits, how much time should people invest?

Well, it depends on first the pattern, the, uh, the habit you want to break, uh, is it, you know, is it an organizational, uh, habit that might be a bigger thing to do than it’s just, if it’s a personal, uh, habit, um, you know, everybody has certain habits of how you get up in the morning or certain routines, uh, day to day basis. Um, so I would say I couldn’t really put a time box on this, but I would say organizationally, culturally, well, group of people work together. That’s usually a bigger thing.

Sander (09:39.474)
How do you create these incentive environment? Let’s, let’s put it like that. And the people are actually inclined, become inclined to risk, try challenge to change their behaviors, to form new habits. Right. Um, cause it’s very easy looking at, for instance, the improv principle of yes. And you can do the opposite. No, and immediately kill the idea. In other words, we try a new habit, try to fill a bill, a new habit and immediately after the first one, two, three attempts, we say, no, it doesn’t work because. Yeah.

and then your momentum is gone. So how do you capitalize that? Yeah. So what’s interesting is, um, the, uh, the edge, our cutter is really connected to the business world. Um, so it’s not the, the, the idea is not, we’re trying to install something new or we’re trying to change the way of how we want to work on necessarily because of agile. Well, changing because we want to build a product differently, or we want to build a new product differently, or we want to change the way of how.

We interact with our stakeholders. And that change, we want to use Cata4, but we want to make the change with agility in mind. So we want to improve a business situation. So it’s not for the sake of introducing agile. It’s like for the sake of making the workplace a better place. But we want to make this change through the lens of agility. So we would be.

closely looking at the 12 principles, let’s say, of the Azure Manifesto and say, is there any kind of conflict in the change we’re making to agility? And that might not be a good idea, right? So we don’t want to improve and create a micromanage kind of organization, right? That’s not what we want to do. We want to end up with an organization that’s building amazing products, but also to, um, it just to give you an example, like a self -organized team. And, uh, and that’s where the coach comes in and say, like, we want to make change. I can guide you through change as a team.

We’re using CADA and scientific thinking, but the main purpose is business. So it’s different, right? So when you’re comparing, let’s say, Scrum, which is like you’re introducing a framework, you’re saying these are the ways of how we want to work going forward. Whereas CADA is like where we work, what we do today and how can we improve. So you’re always starting with where you are today. Scrum is more like shock therapy. Where you say, stop doing what you’re doing right now and replace it with Scrum.

Sander (12:04.786)
Kata is evolutionary. So you go in and start where you are. Tell us or talk us through one of the biggest success stories that you’ve seen with a team or an organization applying Kata. So there’s a, there’s some case studies out there on Azure Kata .Pro where people can read up on as an insurance company that is working on it. In this case, I can name it as the standard belief out of Oklahoma.

And they have used Qatar for improving their teams. There are some beverage companies in the Netherlands. Really? Yeah, so they’re working on improvement. There is financial institutions that are using Qatar for improving the roles of agile coaches. So they’re using it within the team of coaches. How do we become battle coaches?

So there’s a strong interest in various parts. So it’s not only agile transformations. That’s the interesting part about it. What we started with agile transformations and we started with a company in the U S organizing that and great success. But that company was already very open to lean in the first place. So I have to say that, right? So it’s like, it’s a, it’s a concept that comes out of lean manufacturing. So if you’re having a lean manufacturing environment,

you’re building, let’s say, IT products, Cata introduction should be fairly straightforward. Are there any prerequisites to any organization to apply Cata? Not at all. And that’s the beauty. Yeah, there’s no prerequisite. You just have to have a mindset of continuous improvement. You have to be relentless in your desire to improve a certain situation. And it comes back to the to the talk, you have to be

willing to not just jump to conclusions, but basically making decisions based on research and scientific facts. How many organizations say that they have a continuous improvement mindset then actually don’t? Well, it’s interesting, right? Because it’s in the Agile manifesto is continuous improvement. We are uncovering better ways. It’s a, so it actually, it starts off with the.

Sander (14:25.692)
Um, agile manifest is saying that. So it’s the uncovering. It’s not saying we have uncovered. So we’re still doing that. Um, so I feel like, um, everybody who should be out there saying like, we’re an agile team should have that mindset just by, by default, you know, but how many organizations actually say that they have is like, they think they have it, but they don’t. And how do you make that transparent? Well, so, so the point is, um, what’s interesting, um, you know, I feel like you’re.

familiar with Scrum. Let’s hope so. I’m just kidding. So we can use Scrum as an example. And so when you bring in a framework like Scrum, there is, and some of our colleagues as trainers, they have even written a book about Zombie Scrum. So a book that is, you know, just showing like the robotic behavior of how teams go through the motion of doing Scrum. So you’re installing a process framework.

scrum. I’m just purposely saying, starting in air quotes. But it’s the, you’re starting this new habit of, you know, going through a sprint based approach and you know, you have these, these events, et cetera, et cetera. And a team feels like we have accomplished everything by applying the framework. That’s unnecessarily continuous because we’re now using this framework to build a product possibly in the same way. And the danger is what comes out as zombies scrum. So, um,

What we want to, and I don’t know the exact percentage number to your question of like how many are and how many are not, but the data around zombie scrum is pretty depressing. I don’t know. So what is it? 60 % is severe cases of zombie scrum based on their research. And then the remaining is also very high on mild zombie scrum. And the edge arcada could be the tool for breaking through that pattern. Could be one of them. I’m not saying it’s the tool, but it’s a tool where.

Scrum Master can easily, and I would say that’s probably one of the use cases which are very straightforward, Scrum Master using this tool and practicing continuous improvement. The team might not even know that they’re doing continuous improvement by applying it. There’s really no learning curve on this because it’s a pattern sequence you’re walking through and you change the way of how you behave and how you work as a team, but subconsciously it will introduce continuous improvement.

Sander (16:53.554)
If you look back in your career, what did it have changed? If you would apply this like continuously throughout, cause you mentioned you’ve been passionate for the last five, six years. You also mentioned you started doing or working with scrum in 2002. What would your career look vastly different if you apply that? Yes. Uh, I, I think that is one of the learnings in my career. So I, I got trained in scrumming at a time. It was an eye opener. I, um,

In the 1990s, before the Agile Manifesto, I did some use case driven work, Eva Jacobson, etc. XP, I got exposed as a developer myself. So the first decade after the Agile Manifesto, which was really about teams, like introducing agility to teams, bottom -up movement, grassroots movement of agility.

There were challenges for sure, but it was also very new and people didn’t really know so much about Agile at this point. So if you walked into a party somewhere and you said like, I’m an Agile coach, people would say, what is that? Nowadays you might meet somebody at the party that is an Agile coach as well. So it has changed a little bit in terms of how widespread it is, but.

To your question, I think the one thing in reflection is the transformation piece, the following 10 years where the industry went crazy with agile transformations, left and right, treated it as you just said, as a project, right? Start and end, what’s the cost? Checkbox, we are agile. And that is, in hindsight, if I had that tool, I would have worked very, very different.

But I’m glad I stumbled across the work for Mike Roth or who wrote to your Dakota. And that’s, uh, that was the starting point for, for me to change things up and, and use different kinds of tools and techniques. And when I saw how effective it is, uh, then just didn’t leave me alone in the topic. So here we go. Yeah. Then why is it, if it’s that easy, cause the way you make it come across, it’s super easy. Yeah, it’s not gone. Yeah, it’s not, it’s not easy. Yeah. Um,

Sander (19:12.242)
It’s easy to share the pattern. It’s hard to do in practice because our humans and brains, they work. I don’t want to say we want to be lazy, but our brain uses every opportunity it gets to slow down. So we like habits.

So, and that’s the hard part. It’s like, it’s like, it feels good if you’re having a habit and we can go through this because our brain is not necessarily fully active right now, but we can’t do this because our brain also is a massive consumer of energy. So we’re having, you know, our brain constantly works, it makes us tired. Um, and, uh, so therefore we’re trying to go with a comfort zone of saying like, let’s just have the habits kick in. Um, and that’s the hard part of.

Uh, following through it. So you have your pattern of changing your behavior, but it still requires people to have that, uh, mindset of let’s, let’s do it. Right. Let’s try something. Let’s experiment with something. Let’s try something new. If it works or not, that’s a different story, but then try something else and try something else. It’s much easier to just say, like, let’s just do it how we always did it. It’s just easier. Right. What’s the biggest industry habit that you feel we should stop doing as soon as possible? Industry habit.

You mean industry in the agile community? Yeah, like widespread. Yeah. This is a tough one for the two of us, you know. Oh, no, this is just you, not me. OK. This question is all yours. No, I know. I want to see your reaction to this one. As much as I like the iterative sprint -based approach, the agile cutter challenges the sprint.

It says like, it’s good to have this rhythm, but the rhythm might not be for everybody. So you’re having these two week, three week sprints iterations, uh, whatever timeline you have and you’re filling it with time. And your color is very different. It says, you know, what is your, what’s your next step you would like to take from a business perspective, maybe from a process perspective, right. And then say, how fast can we get to this? It’s a very different mindset.

Sander (21:32.786)
So it doesn’t matter if it’s takes two weeks coincidentally, the same as your sprint, or if it’s only three days, or if it’s more than that, the, the approach is a business goal. It’s like how fast in whatever quality standards you have, can we get to that point? And once we reach that point, we’re building a next point. So it challenges a little bit this, uh, this, the, the, the sprinter of them. So in the scrumming it uses as a framework to sprint, which I think is super helpful. And I.

Do we think if teams are starting with Scrum, it’s a great opportunity to learn about what agility is and learn how to improve and everything. But there comes this moment, this is what AgileCutter does, where we possibly say, should we challenge that? Why should we work in different ways? It shouldn’t be the business, the target we want to do rather than just going through two week intervals. Now.

On the other side, the downside of that is that teams now don’t have that rhythm anymore. You have to be very comfortable with that as a team of continuous improvement to say, this was just, we’ve reached our target condition in two weeks. Let’s go back to the drawing board and plan our next target condition and experiments around it. So pros and cons. But that would be – It depends. Yes, exactly. But it is one of the things I would like to see challenged a little bit. Yeah. Yeah.

Because those sprints are habits in them by itself as well. Right. Exactly. Yeah. You can change them, right. Um, over time, not necessarily, I would say, uh, every, every round, but, um, you do get, you know, coming back to this habit and routine and possibly danger of zombies crumb is, is. Could be that if you’re in sprint 64, going to sprint 65 and sprint 66, you’re doing it. Just go through the motion. There is this danger.

But if I take that sprint away from a team and say like, here’s the next goal we want to achieve. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. It does something to the team psychologically. It’s like, how fast can we get to that? That’s different. Yeah. It takes a huge level of a discipline, but also awareness of yourself not being sucked in that laziness trap. Right. Right. And that’s why, that’s why I said in the beginning, a scrum might be a great stepping stone, right? It’s like, good to start this way, but then start.

Sander (23:52.786)
possibly rethinking some of those things. And that might be sprint 65 where you want to start like, Hey, so are there things we can do? Uh, it feels like a routine, feels like a habit. Are we still working in the most optimal ways? Maybe not. We’ve been talking about people and organizations that could do Katas, uh, that there are no prerequisites of doing it. Are there any organizations of types of behavior or teams where you would say, I would recommend these teams not to apply God.

I don’t know, this might be the same answer as for agile teams in the trivial space, in the simple product space, like the Stacy chart, if we’re like in that territory, I would say it’s probably the same answer as other agile teams. It’s like the maximum point of uncertainty is in the beginning of your effort. And so whenever you feel like you’re in complex territory, I think at

And your car could serve you in the exact same way as, uh, as, as agility, but in a simple space, I don’t know. I haven’t applied it there. Yeah. All right. Thank you. Hey, I want to wrap up with two remaining questions. One is from our previous guests and they asked the question without knowing who the next guest is going to be. So that’s going to be in my next assignment for you. But she asked what has been the biggest learning point you’ve had last year. Last year, 23. Yes.

Oh, wow. That is a big question here. My biggest learning point is as we’re creating the Agile Carta community, we have like 20 instructors worldwide that are offering trainings around that is as much as we make progress, the learning is that it’s slow, right? In terms of,

how to build a larger community. So I hope by people listening to this podcast that they’re going to join the community and get exposed to this and see it as a tool they can apply effectively. So it doesn’t mean that you’re throwing something out. It doesn’t mean that you’re stopped with anything you’re doing right now. You’re just starting to improve the way of how you do it. So is not like Edgocara is not competing.

Sander (26:19.218)
with something you’re currently doing within your organization. So it’s not like what you had invested in is thrown out of the window. Kata can certainly improve on that. So the learning is definitely community building. It’s super cool to see everybody who goes through these programs and works with agile Kata to see like, you know, the interest and how cool it is. And we have some folks that are super interested in this. But, you know, it’s just slower and, um,

We hope that with conferences like this and podcasts like this that I possibly spark more interest in the communities to give it a shot. Where can people find more about it? I would say ajarkada .pro. So we reserved that for professional Ajarkada and we just hope that people find their trainings there. More than that, we have some webinars, podcasts there as well, Ajarkada series.

Um, and, uh, think that would be a good starting point. Wonderful. And then my last question, without knowing who our next guest is going to be, what would you like us to ask them? I do not know the next guest on your podcast. Um,

I would like to maybe just give a spin from that question I just got from your previous guest and say what will be the learning for that person for 24? All right, we’ll make sure it’s awesome. Joe, thank you so much for being here. Thank you so much. I appreciate it. Enjoy the conference. Thank you.