Improvement Sprints

or Shuhari Sprints

Shu Ha Ri

Nothing worth doing is easy and anything worth doing is worth doing well 

… or so the sayings go. My personal experience certainly proves to me that these are more than simple soundbites and I am fairly confident in those sayings having more than a ring of truth to most IT professionals. So then why do we so often see innovation and professional development limited to the occasional day or Friday afternoon? Well read on…

What’s in a name? 

Let’s start with some background to the subject. Dan Pink recently popularised in his ground-breaking book ‘Drive’ (Amazon Link) that there are three key pillars to employee motivation, namely autonomy, mastery and purpose. This follows on closely from the RAMP model defined in Self-determination Theory (Deci and Ryan 1985). If you’ve not read either book then you should! I assume it is from here that we get the name I have been using to describe this subject ‘Mastery Sprints’. For what its worth, if I recall correctly I first heard this term when speaking to some of the engineers from ING (of the famous Agile transformation story: 

I have been considering the implications of the term ‘mastery’ having been using ‘Mastery Sprint’ for some time now as I have grown increasingly aware of its connotations with white supremacy and slavery. For some reason I had been incorrectly thinking that mastery was of a different root and meaning than ‘master’ – famously now excluded from most areas of technology terminology. I will be avoiding using the term mastery from now on as its roots are beside the point, the term has severely negative connotations and meaning and that is enough. I’m instead opting for ‘Improvement Sprints’ as that does just as effective a job of revealing the intention of the activity. 

I would love to hear of your thoughts on the naming of this. It’s a conversation worth having! 

Update 1st February, 2021

I have already had some feedback on the naming with the term Shuhari Sprints suggested by one of my GBG colleagues:

One of the issues I faced when dropping ‘Mastery’ from my vocabulary is that there didn’t seem to be an equivalent term in English for the specific use case. Perhaps unsurprisingly there is a perfect term in Japanese and I will be proposing the use of Shuhari Sprints from here on. I dare say that this term is even more suitable than ‘Mastery’ for describing what we are trying to achieve and seems to have many further related uses. Google Shuhari, I’m sure you’ll agree!

Nothing worth doing is easy 

When I first heard the idea my initial thought was along the lines of ‘that’s nice and all but I can’t see it being that much benefit to justify the disruption’. Then I started to hear more about the idea from people I trust and my curiosity grew. From there I found myself frequently identifying common organisational issues that would be addressed by Improvement Sprints, so I started making a list from conversations discussing related issues:

“We allow engineers 1/2 a day every week of training time, and this can be rolled up if needs be but they never seem to take it” 

“There’s always too much planned or reactive work to take training time” 

“I’ve tried using training time but it always takes too much effort to switch my environment and my focus then someone calls me and the whole thing goes out the window” 

“I’ve done this research but then I don’t have the time to present it” 

“I’ve done this research and the results are incredible but now there’s no time to implement it in our main codebase” 

“Damnit this part of the codebase is always such a pain to work with we really need to find time to rewrite this part of it using this new tool that wasn’t available!” 

“These innovation days are great but we always need so much longer to really make a dent in this problem” 

Ask any developer of their experience in trying to be productive or effective in fitting training and innovation into the odd day or Friday afternoon and you’ll hear the same story of struggling to utilise the time effectively.  

Dedicated Improvement Sprints present an antidote to these problems. By taking an entire week or two and spreading the overheads across a number of people – ideally bringing independent squads and teams together for collaboration – you completely shift the overhead-to-productivity ratio as demonstrated in this very sciencey diagram: 

Diagram showing ratio of overheads in an activity

If an organisation allows or even encourages the use of ‘company time’ and budgets for training, innovation and improvements then it stands to reason that they would wish to see the most effective use of that time. 


The benefits beyond the drastic increase in efficient use of training/improvements time are many. 


I fully subscribe to the idea that the most effective teams are made of individual’s who’s personal and professional objectives align closely with those of the business at a given time. It’s classic synergy. And if Gee Paw Hill is on the same side then its fact in my opinion: 

This is reinforced by Dan Pink’s work in Drive, which makes clear how much more effective and engaged people are when they are progressing meaningfully in their careers; businesses that can leverage this by providing real opportunities for ‘mastery’ (sic, Dan Pink) will benefit from more engaged and productive team members.  


As the name suggests Improvement Sprints are how you make things better. You will be aware of the many issues your development teams complain about on a regular basis and this is a chance to address those using the latest and greatest. 


Speaking to INGs engineers indicated that as many as 1 in 5 developer suggestions make it into production – This isn’t just playing around, well it is really, but it is proven to result in actual usable value for your business.  

A scientifically proven competitive advantage 

The DORA DevOps research program ( has highlighted a number of key cultural behaviours of elite performing technology organisations that are clear differentiators for their competitive advantage. These include encouraging learning, experimentation, team collaboration and job satisfaction, all of these can be improved upon by leveraging dedicated improvements time. 

Step 1: Plan, Step 2: Collaborate, Step 3: Profit! 

In terms of how you schedule the Improvement Sprints I would suggest starting by taking the time already agreed for training and rolling it all up. So if you have say ½ a day each week per engineer then roll this up into a week giving you 1 week in 10, or 1 week after every 5 two-week sprints, you get the idea, use the maths that works for you. You’ll be starting with a NET benefit. Then the only thing you need to sell to the business is the planned disruption as the costs should level out and as discussed the benefits make it a solid sell.  

You have two options for organising your teams here. If you are fortunate to have no reactive or operational demands on your engineers then just book the time in and tell the business you are on a training break and unreachable. If you must maintain operational support availability then look at splitting your team in half and run the Improvement Sprints in sequence, one half at a time. Just make sure to mix up the split next time around. 

Then plan the work. Team members should be allowed to use this time how they see fit (autonomy) but one way of helping guide their efforts would be to have a brainstorming session of current burning issues or popular ideas and take a vote on each for being included in the Improvements Sprint. 

Measure and report the outcomes. It may be that some work will end up being fed into further production sprints but for the most part getting a team together to focus on a common goal should yield plenty of great outputs so be sure to shout about them! 

Some final notes

Overrun still happens 

Sure you can do a lot more in a week or two with a whole team than a few people in one day but sometimes things worth doing are even harder than expected 

Technical Debt need not apply 

Technical debt is a project decision and every time it is taken on it must be accompanied by a paydown plan and included in formal project planning. This is nothing to do with innovation or improvement and should be kept out of these discussions. 

Thank you and good luck!

I am poised to embark on this journey myself and the above captures where I am up to with my thinking and planning. I’ve found scant details on this on the Internet so would love to hear of your stories and experiences. I will report back here as my story unfolds.

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