Changing Patterns of Thought for Defining and Expanding Done

“Without changing our patterns of thought, we will not be able to solve the problems that we created with our current patterns of thought.”  -Albert Einstein

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but habit.”  -Aristotle

Among leading Agile thinkers, coaches, trainers and practitioners there is a rich, ongoing discourse around a subtly deceptive concept  – the concept of the Definition of Done.  Within this discourse, a singular constant challenge is emerging:  old patterns of thought.

For example, there is an old pattern of thought that tells managers of software companies that at least some part of the Definition of Done must be imposed on teams in order to protect a universal standard.  Rationalizing this antiquated thought pattern seems to have become a rigorous intellectual discipline in and of itself.  One of the most prevalent excuses to which many managers have invested a great amount of mental and emotional energy seems to be around the challenging concept of multiple Agile teams working together on the same project (or product).  Surely, in such cases there needs to be some kind of imposed standard that all teams need to comply with in order to avoid chaos in the main build, yes?  In fact, this is the exact wrong approach to take.

We also seem to become confused at times by our own limited understanding of the words that we use when attempting to talk about things we are or are not trying and learning to do.  The more we learn about doing something, the more we are able to talk about it in practical terms.  Since theoretical discussions around semantics rarely result in appreciably improved behavior/results, we will endeavor here to address this subject with both brevity and caution.

Our old patterns of thought make understanding many words, including the word definition and the word done, problematic.  We tend to think of these words as implying static, rigid, absolute conditions; for example, the way we tend to think of the word definition in terms of the definitions of words.  We like to think that those definitions are relatively stable.  Indeed, there are some real benefits to this.  We can have conversations with people and assume that for the most part their understanding of the definitions of the words we are using are similar to our own.  But even with words, there can be more than one definition, which already makes the definitions of words less static than they often seem.  At some level, one might even ask – who actually decides on the definitions of words?  Is there an actual authority out there (not merely the self-proclaimed “official” authorities) that decides on definitions and hands them down to us?  Some may say “yes, indeed, namely the authoritative texts of the world’s religions,” for example.  On the other hand one could also say that the definitions of words have evolved through the ages (just as languages have) as humanity has received progressively more complex guidance from religious texts according to its evolving capacity (compare, say, the Bhagavad Gita to the Quran).  But that is another conversation.  What is important to acknowledge here is that the meanings of words expand and evolve over time given the capacity of the individuals who use them to develop new patterns of thought and that the energy required to do so is tremendous, even epochal.

An old pattern of thought construct around the word done is equally problematic.  A conversation limited by a rigid understanding of the concept of what done means, is and looks like can quickly take us spinning off into the stratosphere of “nothing is ever done.”  When there is a lack of trust and respect among people, as is generally the case in our society, and since ownership and ego are often entangled with limited and rigid understand, we then find ourselves in situations in which the limited and rigid understanding of a few with arbitrary power and authority take precedence over the understanding of others.  In other words, people in authority are expected to solve every problem and people that do work are expected to be robots.  Both are set up by this arrangement to fail.

Indeed, there is a real problem in trying to talk about things that we do not do, or that we do not sincerely try to do.  True learning, on the other hand, consists in people striving to be truthful and sincere working together  engagement in a continuous cycle of action, reflection and consultation.  Learning also requires us to be truthful – if we think we have all the answers, learning becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible.  If we are not at least trying to learn to define what “done” is to us, we will never be able to actually talk about it in a knowledgeable and meaningful way.  Furthermore, it will likewise be impossible for us to help anyone else learn to understand their own Definition of Done if we haven’t learned through real experience about how to understand our own.

As we engage in a real learning process, through action, reflection and consultation, new patterns of thought begin to emerge and perhaps even crystallize.  These emerging new patterns help us to bring concepts out of the stratosphere of semantics, rhetoric and theory back down to earth where we can actually act and reflect on them in order to implement creative new solutions to the problems of our world.

In her Agile 2007 presentation The Role of Leadership in Software Development (, Mary Poppendieck offers powerful insights into the history of patterns of thought around leadership and the emergence of Agile thinking out of the wisdom of Lean Manufacturing.

As with all Agile methods, Scrum is a framework for learning in which new patterns of thought that began to crystallize in Lean Manufacturing practices have been adapted and applied to software development practices.  It then follows that the Definition of Done in Scrum is consistent with a specific Lean Manufacturing practice, namely Standard Work.

In his book Workplace Management, Taiichi Ohno, the father of Lean Manufacturing, defines Standard Work as such:

“There is something called standard work, but standards should be changed constantly.  Instead, if you think of the standard as the best you can do, it’s all over.  The standard work is only a baseline for doing further kaizen [change for the better].  It is kai-aku [change for the worse] if things get worse than now, and it is kaizen if things get better than now.  Standards are set arbitrarily by humans, so how can they not change?

“You should not create these away from the job.  See what is happening on the gemba [shop floor] and write it down.”

Based on the assertions of the previous two paragraphs, we must conclude that just as standards should be changed constantly in Standard Work, so too should definitions change constantly in the Definition of Done.

How, then, does our work benefit from a Definition of Done that is always changing?  This is a deceptively simple question, as it is an example of a problem posed by old patterns of thought that can only be solved by new patterns of thought.  In order for the old patterns of thought thinker to be helped to form new patterns of thought, he must be accompanied by the new patterns of thought thinker to develop the capability to adopt new patterns of thought.  In other words, in order to really learn, people need to be accompanied by those who have more experience.  Such an exercise is far beyond the scope of any article and requires a completely different venue – namely the coaching relationship.  More about capacity-building and accompaniment later.

For now, suffice it to say that the point of having a Definition of Done that is always changing is to allow for kaizen – the Definition of Done, therefore, like Standard Work, is only a baseline from which we constantly change for the better.  In other words, the Definition of Done is the record of what we are actually doing now. It allows us to be absolutely confident that we know as much as possilbe about what we are actual doing now so that we can make real, concrete, and confident decisions about actual improvements to our work.

Actually doing the Definition of Done, as Ohno tells us is simple:  “See what is happening on the gemba [shop floor] and write it down.”  For many of us though, this simplicity is deceptive in that it is actually often very difficult – both the seeing and the writing.

The ability to see what is actually going on is clearly vital to the capability of defining done.  It is valuable, therefore, to examine more closely the sense of sight:

We have physical eyes that see.  What do our eyes see?  Light.  Is this what Ohno is talking about when he says “see what’s going on” – literally seeing light – or is he talking about a different kind of sight?  Clearly, what he is talking about is what we might call true sight, or the ability to see the truth.  We can think of truth, therefore as being like light.

Is it our physical sight that sees the light of truth?  This, of course, is impossible since our physical eyes only see physical light.  So what is the sense in us that allows us to see the light of truth – in other words, what is true sight?   Some may say that it is our sense of justice.  One must have a strong, developed sense of justice in order perceive truth, especially in environments like software development in which the truth can be easily hidden.

Writing down the Definition of Done with accuracy and clarity requires us to be both truthful and precise.  This is very difficult to do well in our present environments of opacity, defined roles, command and control management, fear of failure and general distrust.

Clearly, we can see now that the Definition of Done, challenging to understand in its subtlety as a concept, is far more difficult to apply effectively in reality and therefore fully realize its value in practice.

The concept that allows for the value of the Definition of Done to be realized is the concept of expanding the Definition of Done.  Expanding the Definition of Done in Scrum and Agile is the equivalent of kaizen in Lean Manufacturing.  In order to expand the Definition of Done, the actual Definition of Done needs to be well understood.  In other words,  “Where there is no Standard there can be no Kaizen.”

Ohno says:

“When creating Standard Work, it will be difficult to establish a standard if you are trying to achieve ‘the best way.’  This is a big mistake.  Document exactly what you are doing now.  If you make it better than it is now, it is kaizen.  If not, and you establish the best possible way, the motivation for kaizen will be gone.”

This brings us back to the initial problem created by our old patterns of thought around our understanding of the Definition of Done – namely the misconception that at least some of the Definition of Done must be dictated by management in order to have consistency across teams working on the same large project.  The solution to this problem is challenging yet simple:  It’s irrelevant.  An organization is a living, breathing entity.  When management makes room for kaizen by not dictating standards, kaizen has more power to pollinate the entire organization and transform the way people think and work than imposed standards could ever begin to hope for.  Dictating standards, in other words, is limiting while kaizen harnesses the creativity of all.

Again, Ohno says:

“We need to use the words ‘you [the worker] made [the standard]’ as in ‘follow the decisions you made,’  When we say ‘they were made’ [for you] people feel like it was forced upon them.  When a decision is made, we need to ask who made the decision.  Since you also have the authority to decide, if you decide, you must at least follow your decision, and then this will not be forced upon you at all.

“But in the beginning, you must perform the Standard Work, and as you do, you should find things you don’t like, and you will think of one kaizen idea after another.  Then you should implement these ideas right away, and make this the new standard.”

Changing our patterns of thought requires creativity, but who’s creativity?


“Years ago, I made them hang the standard work documents on the shop floor.  After a year I said to a team leader, ‘The color of the paper has changed, which means you have been doing it the same way, so you have been a salary thief for the last year.’  I said ‘What do you come to work to do each day?  If you are observing every day you ought to be finding things you don’t like, and rewriting the standard immediately.  Even if the document hanging there is from last month, this is wrong.’

“At Toyota in the beginning we had the team leaders write down the dates on the standard work sheets when they hung them.  This gave me a good reason to scold the team leaders, saying ‘Have you been goofing off all month?’

“If it takes one or two months to create these documents, this is nonsense.”

People on the shop floor or the Scrum teams need to be given the freedom and authority to figure out how to do their work better and change the standards of their work as they learn.  Ohno was really first and foremost a master coach who knew how to accompany people to develop their capabilities to perceive truth and generate and apply their own knowledge and creative solutions to challenging problems.

Gary Hamel, in his article “Management Innovation” in the February 2006 edition of the Harvard Business Review, wrote:

“Only after American carmakers had exhausted every other explanation for Toyota’s success- an undervalued yen, a docile workforce, Japanese culture, superior automation- were they finally able to admit that Toyota’s real advantage was its ability to harness the intellect of ‘ordinary’ employees.”

In Scrum, the Team itself defines Done by what it actually gets done.  The ScrumMaster removes obstacles so that the Team can expand its Definition of Done (kaizen).  Scrum assumes that all Team members are dedicated to expanding the Team’s Definition of Done from Sprint to Sprint and that the Team will achieve this as long as organizational obstacles (such as managerial control fetish) are not impeding it from doing so.  When a Team is empowered in this way to expand its own Definition of Done (as well as empowered in other ways, according to the rules of Scrum), it will have the space it needs in order to grow into a hyper-productive Team.  That is to say that no one outside of the Team (i.e. management) dictates any part of the Team’s Definition of Done (a common management practice that results in kai-aku).  The Definition of Done is one ingredient in the remedy for curing our culture’s leadership disease – the failure to learn.

“…your failure is an internal disease…You firmly believe that sound management means executives on the one side and workers on the other, on the one side men who think and on the other side men who only work.”  -Konusuke Matsushita

(Shameless Plug: we offer excellent Certified ScrumMaster Training and in it we discuss the Definition of “Done” in the context of people’s actual problems.)

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3 thoughts on “Changing Patterns of Thought for Defining and Expanding Done”

  1. In a strict sense, yes, it’s true that “no one outside of the Team (i.e. management) dictates any part of the Team’s Definition of Done.” The team is self-organizing and defines its own Standard Work. But a Definition of Done that is intended to be relevant requires input from many people outside the team. The PO can say, “This is what I require to accept this work as release-ready.” The operations and help desk people can say, “This is what we need to be able to support an application in production.” Management can say, “This is the quality we expect in our products in order to ship them.” Until those outside requirements are negotiated and incorporated into the Definition of Done, the team may be producing software that it calls done, but which is not done in any meaningful sense.

    Granting that teams tend to grow their Definition of Done over time, I’ve found it useful to make visible the difference between releasable (the target Definition of Done, if you will) and the current Definition of Done (the team’s Standard Work). That visibility combined with retrospection is often enough to make the two converge.

  2. “Done” is delivering tangible business value. If that is lowering costs through more efficient scaling, improving unit tests to reduce maintenance, or delivering features people want, these are all business value and must be quantified. I have found teams always need guidance on this, otherwise, all to frequently, they can meander.

  3. I think that in general, the confusion about this concept is also shown in the comments on this posting and on the previous one I wrote. Let’s pretend for a moment that neither of us has had this conversation so far… start with a fresh slate.

    In the very first Sprint, the team produces some “working” software. The team looks at the qualities and attributes of that software; is it checked into a repository? is it tested by a user? is the user documentation for it ready? etc. It notes down on a whiteboard, the list of attributes that apply to the software they have produced. Then in their retrospective, they look at this list and amongst themselves they decide that it is possible for them, in the next sprint, to keep doing everything on that list, but also add another two attributes, say “compiles without warnings” and “internationalized and localized into English”. These attributes and qualities apply to the software as a whole, not to any particular items on the product backlog.

    Now separately, the team’s management, who have come to the first demo, decide that they think they will want to release the software to a limited set of beta customers after the fourth sprint. They know that in order to do this, the software has to be localized into Swahili as well as English, and that documentation needs to be created for technical support. Neither of these things are currently part of the work of the team. In fact, for some reason, both of these things are outsourced and the turnaround times for doing these things is at least six weeks.

    The team’s definition of “done” is different than the organization’s definition of “done”. Which is okay. Why is this okay? Because the team (who are properly empowered by management who are swiftly removing all the obstacles mentioned by the team) is systematically expanding its definition of “done”. The team is doing this by either:
    1) Automation
    2) Skill development
    3) Expansion of authority
    4) Stopping wasteful activities

    In the very first sprint it is ridiculous to expect a team to produce actually shipped/deployed work (note: in most contexts this is true… in some organizations which have very little existing bureaucracy and who are creating public-facing web sites, it may be possible to ship/deploy in the first sprint). For management to impose a definition of “done” on the team for the sprint is only demoralizing. However, management should be expected to look at the team’s definition of “done”, understand what it could become, and work like their jobs depended on it to remove obstacles so that the team’s definition of “done” continues to expand as quickly as possible.

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