(Thanks to Falk for brining up Mr. Miyagi here)
If you have never seen – or heard of – the 80ies movie “The Karate Kid“ the phrase “Wax on - wax off” probably won't mean much to you. Fair warning: spoilers ahead!
Amongst other things that happen in the movie, the relevant part here is that Daniel learns karate from Mr. Miyagi, the handyman for the family's apartment. Without delving too deep into the story, in the beginning, Daniel is demanding from Mr. Miyagi that he wants to learn kicking and punching, but Mr. Miyagi stalls him for quite a while giving him seemingly unrelated tasks to do in very specific manners. For example, Daniel has to shine a considerable amount of classic cars following a very explicit process, using one hand to apply the wax (wax on) and the other to polish (wax off) in precise circles. After a number of chores Daniel gets unhappy with being Mr. Miyagi's “slave” and Mr. Miyagi demonstrates that all those “chores” actually built capabilities which Daniel didn't have before and all the “techniques” he learned, like “paint the fence”, “sand the floor” or “wax on – wax off” could actually – once they where mastered – be quite powerful and effective tools (e.g. defensive karate techniques and blocks) that Daniel would use throughout his further Karate training and his tournaments.
Side Note: Of course there are clips on youtube depicting the "building the muscle memory" part of the story as well as for the part where “the learnings are applied.”
How does this relate to agile?
To me, it seems we have a lot of focus on advanced agile topics and managing agile teams (and I‘m not even talking about scaling agile) and less and less on the basics of working in an agile manner. But from my experience, it is paramount to have the basics at your disposal all the time. Even with all the “Agile Mindset” in the world a racing car team (like Wikispeed, who actually apply lean and agile approaches to building race cars) would not have much success if their team members weren’t highly skilled in their respective crafts. You can’t pick a random person from the street and just expect them to be proficient with a Torque wrench or a Gas metal arc welder.
IMHO honing the basic skills would do many agile initiatives good. Speaking from my personal experience, even if it seems tedious and even if it is not the sexy “punching and kicking” - every now and then it does help a lot to focus more on “wax on – wax off.”
till next time