Improvement days

The idea of letting everyone work on whatever they want for a set amount of time

· 760 words · 4 minute read · Edit this article

Improvement day(s) is an event in which each team member is given a chance to use the day(s) in whichever way they want, well as long as it’s something productive, where are not here for improving Tekken or Rocket League skills on the PlayStation. What we are about here is different things like learning something new, trying out a new library or tool and even hacking out a tiny proof of concept. In the company I work at, we’ve been doing this for more than 2 years already, and I’ve seen it become one of the things everybody is looking forward to, it has helped in promoting innovation and creativity, learning and cooperation as well as getting across the message that constant experimentation and improvement is part of our culture, and we support it by having dedicated time for it.

How it works?

The reasoning behind something like this is that we want to give everyone an opportunity to do something completely different, without feeling pressure to succeed, the only expectation is learning and sharing that knowledge with others afterwards. The process looks like this, everyone who wants to participate comes up with ideas for improvement and writes them down in a public shared space, it can be an idea that they want to work on or for someone else to take up. Others can then give their input on the idea or even suggest that they join forces and work on it together. Then before we kick the improvement day(s) off, everyone participating gets together and shares with others what they will be doing. The end of this event is another meeting called “Improvement demo” where we present the outcomes, however successful they may be.

It’s important to stress that it is completely OK not to participate, maybe whatever the person is working on as part of daily business at the moment is even more interesting, and also that it’s OK not to achieve what was initially planned, it’s a very much a defining part of life that it doesn’t always go according to the plan and that’s fine, this is an opportunity to learn something from it, maybe that PoC wasn’t as simple as originally thought, or, more often, the idea was a bit too ambitious from the start. This is one of the reasons why the initial meeting is there, it gives another chance for more senior colleagues to add their suggestions and raise any concerns.

When it goes right

In the past I’ve seen some really awesome things come out of it like improvements in the CI/CD pipeline, developer experience, web app loading time reduction, ease of onboarding new team members, but also sometimes it shows the benefits of doing things in a different and new way and this is then brought into the regular sprint for any effort necessary to generally apply it. There are also benefits that are not so visible, like facilitating discussion, bouncing of ideas and generally advocating the spirit of always trying new things with the aim of doing it better.

Things to watch out for

Improvement days are not about fixing technical debt or implementing purely technical ideas that should otherwise be done as part of regular work, it should not be used as a go to for all kinds of experimentation especially when those are bigger things that can’t be done by a single person. Another issue that is much more difficult to notice is that it could lead to individuals feeling a bit unhappy after one or more of these which, in their eyes, ended up as a “failure” because they did not achieve the goal, or if they look at another’s “success” with a bit of an envious aftertaste. I’ve put those words in quotes because at all times, whatever the end result is, something has been learnt, and learning doesn’t always bring what we expect it to. So you might say, maybe better call it “Learning days”, but I don’t personally like that because learning happens every day during usual work, not just on certain days.

Final thoughts

I hope this post gave you an inspiration to try and push for something like this at your own workplace. The other companies that do something like this only do it with the engineering department, but I feel like this is something that could be useful in other departments as well since all have complex processes that could benefit from a fresh new improvement, but I have yet to find instances where the company does this more broadly.