When will it be done?

You have heard it before: “When will it be done?”

Earlier this year, I was coaching a team who frequently got this question from their product owner (PO). The PO was unhappy with the lead times, and wanted better predictability. The team didn’t really understand the problem, because most tasks were completed within just a few of days.

I analyzed the lead times together with the team, to try to uncover why the PO and the team viewed this so differently. The lead time was about 56 days in average, and out of this the response time was 36 days.

Working with the backlog had always been time consuming, and a subject of continuous reprioritization. The team therefore discussed a new strategy for maintaining the backlog with the PO. First they established an infinite backlog buffer (called “ideas”), where the PO could arrange and rearrange tasks as it pleased him. Then they agreed to limit the number of tasks allowed in the product backlog, and to replenish new tasks from the infinite buffer when needed.

Now, a few months later, the lead time is about 26 days, and the response time is down to 7 days. The PO is satisfied with the improved predictability. And as a bonus, the team doesn’t hear “when will it be done?” that often anymore.

One week in the staging environment

Some things are hard to change. A policy that seems to haunt me is that you must stabilize (or harden) a release candidate for a certain period of time (for instance in the staging environment), before you can deploy it in production.

Last week I tweeted:

One reason for establishing this kind of policy might be that it’s related to a (predefined) release schedule. The system simply has to stay there until it’s time for the next release. The problem, from a lean perspective, is that most of the time stabilizing is waiting (or idle) time. You build inventory.

Ideally you should try to minimize the waiting time by deploying more frequently. If you don’t know where to start, you can read up on continuous delivery, but you can make thing better simply by moving the value adding activities earlier. This makes sense because you shorten the feedback loop.

In other words:

Agile and congruent leadership

You’re a leader in your organization, and you want to improve efficiency. You think you want an “agile transformation”, because you heard others have been successful with it.

Then remember this:
Agile is not just a label you just put on the development department. Agile is a behavior and should affect everything you do.

So if you’re still up for the “agile transformation”, then it’s your job, as a leader, to do whatever is in your power to pave the way for every team, project or department, so that they can carry on with their agile transformation.

Start by truly understanding how agile works and how it affects the organization. Be congruent in actions and words. Ask for elements that are in harmony with agile. Don’t ask for reports, estimates or commitments from a bygone era, just so your way of reporting upwards in the organization is easier. Take that fight yourself. Show that you have confidence in your people. Give honest feedback.

Agile transformation is more than words, it’s behavior, and it affects the entire organization. Start by changing your own behavior.

Talking with carpenters

We are currently renovating an entire floor at home, and yesterday I tweeted about a Kanban board I put up for my carpenters. This was only meant as a “joke”, of course, but it generated some feedback and therefore, upon request, I share the board with you:


The intention was not to create a complete work list for them, but I wanted to visualize where their work and my work meet. A couple of examples are; “Pick up new kitchen from [vendor]”, “Tiles will be delivered between 0800 and 1400”. For now I use the columns Later -> Tomorrow -> Today -> OK!

And how did they respond to this? They seemed to understand the concept right away. They even pulled me over to the board today, pointed at a note to discuss possible changes for this particular item. That’s a good sign, if you ask me. They might never move a note on their own, but I think we communicate better this way. Luckily, the carpenters are early birds, so we even have time for daily standup before I leave for work.

To be honest I’m not sure if this goes under the definition of a Kanban board, but once again I see that a visual representation of how we work is powerful.

Exploring WIP limits

A few months back I was involved in a highly developer centric project (very unlike my current project). Non-developers were basically only involved and available upon request, so most of the time the team was not very cross-functional.

The team was using Scrum at the time, but the flow obviously had a few glitches and user stories had a tendency to pile in the test column, until very late in the sprint. A huge team effort at the end of the sprint made us finish most of the user stories just in time for demo, but the hurry was at the expense of quality.

It seems to me that most developers prefer starting on a new user story, rather than truly test and complete the ongoing user story. There’s really nothing strange about this, because often the fun part is gone as soon as the problem is solved. In the good old waterfall days, as a consequence to this “law of nature”, none of the features in an entire release might have been tested properly until very late in the project. Needless to say, this didn’t work out very well, and agile emerged to address these problems.

To fully complete ongoing tasks faster, we need to build in mechanisms in the process that enforces us to finish tasks before starting new ones. Iterations (sprints) do this by limiting the number of tasks we can have ongoing during a shorter period of time.

In our case, this didn’t do the trick alone. We shortened the sprints to only one week, and admittedly things got better, but the symptoms were still present. We decided to apply Kanban. First we put a WIP limit of 3 in the test column, later we added WIP limits to other columns as well, to be able to regulate the flow better. To improve the quality on the deliverables, we introduced a rule stating that the person testing a feature must be different from the person developing a feature.

In the beginning, the limits worked more as a guidance than actual rules – just to start changing the mindset from “push” to “pull”. After a while we paid more attention to the WIP limits, and lowered the limit in the test column even more (WIP = 2) to amplify the importance of finishing tasks. This turned out to be artificially low, but it was a great “pull” lesson for the team.

After a while the flow improved and the team effort was more evenly distributed over time. Initially, I thought we might have to “force” people into testing, but our board made it clear what had to be done, and the developers were eager to contribute wherever necessary (an indication of the power of visualization). As a bonus, the number problems we had earlier in the demos went down.

I should probably add that some of the developers took more than their fair share of testing. Over time that could have been an issue we might have had to deal with, but for the short period of time the project was ongoing, it didn’t turn into a problem.

Still, these small changes made a huge difference to us. We no longer had to rush into demos with poorly tested features, and the “boring” parts of process were no longer only at the end of a sprint.

A simple tip for more efficient standups

A while ago, I was asked for advice on how a team could improve efficiency on standup meetings. The team was growing, and their standups were taking an increasingly amount of time. I didn’t have much time looking into why this happened, so I simply suggested they could try walk the board instead of using the traditional Scrum meeting.

As it turned out, it didn’t have much effect. People on this team are usually responsible for one ticket (user story) each, so they all end up speaking anyway. I took a closer look, and realized their great team spirit might be of the reasons why their standups takes too much time. They like working together, there are many outgoing personalities, and they like solving issues directly in standups. In addition to sharing information and solving problems right away, the standup meetings function as a social meeting place.

This is all fine with me, actually I would even encourage it, as long as the discussions are relevant for most people, and they finish up within 15 minutes. As soon as the team grows, however, not all discussions are relevant for everyone. So, the question is, how to improve the efficiency without killing creativity and good team spirit?

In similar situations, we have had to establish some ground rules to add some discipline and structure in the standup meeting. One way of doing this is by establishing a “parking lot” next to the board.

Whenever a discussion starts, we take a collective responsibility to end it gracefully and note the topic down in the “parking lot”, so that the discussion can continue after the standup meeting. Putting names of whom should participate in each discussion, can help determine the most efficient order of dealing with the topics afterwards. Here’s an example:

This usually works quite well. It helps us focus on the meaning of standups, which is sharing status and relevant information – and it shortens them down. You should try to identify problems in the standup meetings, but you don’t need to solve them all right away. To make this work, you need to add some amount of disciplin, but only with rules the team have agreed upon.

If the team is involved in creating the rules, then you have made the first step building a collective responsibility within the team. I believe there’s subtle, but important, difference by how individuals interpret “ending a discussion” vs. “postponing a discussion and create a new arena for discussing the topic”. We don’t want strict rules to get in the way of good team spirit, do we?

Please share your tips for efficient standups!

Customizing your Kanban board

Lately, I have seen several blog posts and twitter chats emphasizing the importance of customizing your Kanban board. This applies everywhere, no matter if you use a straightforward linear Kanban board, networked Kanban or even your own personal Kanbanyou need visualize the flow so that it fits the way you work.

This is quite obvious. After all, it’s one of the key elements in Kanban. Still, it’s easy to get stuck in old habits, and soon you end up with a Kanban board that does not support the way you work (or even worse, you change your flow unintentionally to make it fit your board).

Pawel Brodzinski shed some light on the importance of this in a recent post: “We are told to visualize workflow, not to use a specific Kanban board design.”

Pawel also mentioned that he likes working on visualization with people from different industries than software development, as they don’t have the same constraints as the rest of us. I fully agree, we need to look outside the software industry to take a leap forward. As a matter of fact, I wrote a blog post about the abilities needed to do this a few months back – seek inspiration elsewhere. So, if you got a cross-functional team, pay extra attention to people from outside the software industry when creating a new Kanban board.

In Kanban you start off visualizing your process, the way it is right now. Then you move on from there, taking deliberate decisions, improving your process – step by step. Is this the way you start off as well, or do you start with a board design you already know, and adapt the process to fit the board? Maybe it’s a gap between the way the board is designed and the way you work?

Creating a board so that it fits your process, is not always easy, but if we think in new ways there’s a chance end up creating a better board. Here are some ideas, with different strength and weaknesses, that might inspire you to think differently.

Mattias Skarin described 10 different Kanban boards at Crisp blog. I’ve picked three examples, but I highly recommend reading the full paper.

System administration team supporting development and production (note the direction of flow and priority):

Development team with completion prediction:
First line support:
Pawel Brodzinski provided a different example using yellow stickies on tickets to limit the WIP:
Arne Roock showed an example of how to illustrate WIP limits using clips. Whenever a clip is free there’s capacity in the column. When a ticket is finished you can rotate it 45 degrees.
A great example from Kanban School illustrating multiple values streams.
Finally, an example of a personal Kanban board from Vasco Duarte, almost looking like a flow diagram:

The bottom line: Don’t be colored by the examples you see all the time. For many, these examples can be a great place to start, but these are not the only way to visualize your workflow.

Read the following posts, and get inspired to discover the true potential of your Kanban board!

10 Kanban boards and their context:

Alternative Kanban Board Design:

What‘s the kanban in Kanban?

Kanban and Multiple Value Streams

Kanban in a networked process — Visualise the network!

I would love to collect some new ideas, so please share your Kanban board by sending me a picture on Twitter?

Kanban in a non-linear flow

A Kanban board is supposed to represent the current process, the way it is right now. Representing the way we work on a simple, linear, Kanban board, is not always easy. In fact, it’s not always possible. Sometimes, the way we work is more complex than that. Jurgen Appelo described how to deal with more complex systems in his recent post on networked Kanban, and that’s what inspired me to write this post.

When first reading about it I was intrigued by the thought of modeling more complex structures as well. As it sunk in on me, however, I realized this also could mean letting go of one of the major advantages in Kanban – the way we improve our flow from start to finish.

I ended up conversing this with Jurgen Appelo and David Anderson on Twitter, and they both helped me understand this better.

Visualizing the current flow, and then continue to improve over and over again, is a key element in Kanban. So what happens if the current flow is too complex to visualize it linearly? Jurgen Appelo suggests using a networked Kanban, a collection of small Kanban models interconnected. The different teams only look at their local Kanban models and improve their local flow.

If there are several local Kanban models in a workflow, how do we improve the flow in the network as a whole? In the end, that’s what we want, right?

In a Kanban representing a linear flow we improve the flow from start to finish. In a non-linear Kanban, if the interdependencies are complex enough, only a few people will understand the entire flow – from start to finish. For local Kanban models it’s business as usual. It might even lead to reduced complexity for them, as they now only need to deal with a simple flow.

What’s bothering me a bit, at first sight, is that if we do this wrong we risk that local Kanban implementations are sub-optimized against the best possible global performance, only because they don’t see the bigger picture. Also, if we start off with a complex structure like this, it will make Kanban “harder” to introduce. If we have too many project policies regarding entry/exit criterion between different Kanban models, people might start treating Kanban as process – not a method.

The clear and to the point linear Kanban board is easy to grasp. People walk by and understand the current process and the status right away. The team itself understands the entire flow and optimize it continuously. Will this be harder with a networked Kanban?

I believe the answer to the question above is yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea. Forcing a non-linear flow into a linear Kanban is not a good idea, so we need to look for new ways of representing, visualizing and improving more complex flows.

More research on this topic is necessary, so we get a better understanding on how this can be applied. How can it be visualized, who should be responsible of improving the entire flow, how will different teams interact? And most important, how do we do all this stuff without turning it into a rigid process?

Personally, I would like to see several different examples on this. The backside with examples are that they might set the standard on how this should be implemented. Therefore, it will be important to view this from different perspectives. We need to appreciate the fact that all have different needs, and that there should be as many ways of doing this as there is networked Kanban implementations – just as regular Kanban implementations today.

Here’s a couple of ingredients to keep in mind when you apply this:
1) Let the independent Kanban systems optimize their own flow. Treat dependent systems as “customers”. (David Anderson)
2) Scale out and not scale up. It’s better with 10 simple models instead of one complicated model with 30 columns. (Jurgen Appelo)

To me, this approach is new, but it has actually been brewing for a while. As it turns out, David Anderson presented a similar approach to what Jurgen Appelo described in his post at LESS 2010 in Helsinki, and Reaktor has been coaching this approach with clients for a while.

A final remark: Even though we now have the tools we need for modelling a complex flow, try to keep it as simple as possible!

If you have any experiences or thoughts on this, I would love to hear from you! Use the comment field below, or drop me a note on Twitter.

Note: David Anderson will cover this topic in his next book on advanced Kanban, which I’m really looking forward to reading.

Using Kanban in retrospectives

I remember reading about the Lean Coffee movement. Inspired by their totally open meeting format, I figured this could be an excellent alternative for our retrospectives. Lean Coffee meetings use Kanban to structure their meetings, they democratize their meetings to learn and discover things about what they don’t know – as well as exploring further what they already know. Sounds like a good fit for retrospectives to me!

I decided to try this out in our weekly retrospectives. After some research I ended up using Kanban similar to what Benjamin Mitchell described in this post a while back.

Here’s our meeting board.

Gather information

We fill the ToDo column with different types of tasks.

1) Ticket (user story)
An important step for improvement is to analyze the tickets we have completed. We measure our subjective well-being of a particular ticket, simply by adding a smiley (also mentioned in an earlier post). There are no rules to what this smiley actually means, it’s just a personal way of expressing how we feel about a particular task.

Actually, there are two potential smileys on every ticket; the person developing the feature, and the person testing it (and this is not the same person according to our project policies).

Completed tickets are taken into the backlog for the weekly retrospectives. A ticket may look something like this:

2) Actions from last retrospective
Follow-ups, that we have finished since the previous retrospectives, are also put in the meeting backlog. Orange post-its for actions items (as we call them).

3) General topic (idea, problem, etc.)
To capture other topics that might be worth dealing with in the retrospective, each of us use a couple of minutes on our own, brainstorming, writing down ideas or problems that have occurred last week. We use blue post-its for this.

4) Time constraints
In addition, if any time constraints applies during the meeting (such as when a person has to leave early), we put that up in a time constraint column – pink post-its. This might affect the order in which we decide to go through the topics. Completed time constraints are moved to “done” when time has passed.

Running through the topics

With all the topics and time constraints available, each of them are given a brief introduction and put up on the wall. Overlapping topics are grouped together. We prioritize them using dot-voting.

We start off with the highest priority topic, and move on, one topic at the time, until time is up (which is 30 minutes). After a while the Kanban board might look like this.

Every topic is time boxed to eight minutes, but if we’re not finished discussing it by then, we might continue discussing it in a new time box – if that’s what the majority wants. Reordering the topics is allowed as we go along!

At the end of the timeboxed meeting this could be the result.
– Two old (and completed) action items debriefed
– One time-constraint passed
– One ticked discussed and completed
– Two general topics discussed and completed
– Two new action items created

Some topics lead to concrete actions. These post-its are put up on the project’s Kanban wall when the meeting ends. If it’s a small task, we usually fix it right away, if not it’s prioritized along with other normal tickets. We take completed action items back into the next retrospective, at least to give an update on what happened, but maybe also discuss them further.

We have been using this approach for a couple of months now, and it seems to work quite well. The structure is fairly easy to grasp, so that all team members can run the retrospective if necessary. We gather data for the meeting backlog in several different ways; finished user stories, previous action items and general topics. All participants prioritize the meeting backlog together, and we move on, highest priority first, until time is up.

Until now, this method has given us new and valuable input in every retrospective. Nevertheless, we will probably spice things up occasionally by using a different technique, just to get a different perspective on things.

Have you tried using Kanban to structure your meetings? Or are you thinking of it? Please share your experiences or ideas below.

(…and the next natural step would be to start Lean Coffee meetings in Oslo now, right? Give me a hint if you’re interested!)

Update 18/10:
After a twitter conversation with Benjamin Mitchell yesterday, I’ll nuance the picture a bit.

1) Our meetings are very effective, actually almost close to stressful. It takes time to prepare and prioritize the backlog, so 30 minutes every week might be too often – or too short. I guess this depends on the team and the situation, but we consider running the meetings 1 hour biweekly. Or maybe you have other ideas on how we might reduce the time it takes setting the stage?

2) The link between the project’s Kanban and the meeting backlog, lets us delve into more details on completed action items and tickets – and find new ways to improve. Vice versa, new action items from the meeting are followed up in the project. These links, both ways, are probably the best things about this approach. Even though it might be valuable also to discuss items in progress (those are fresh in mind), we wait until they are completed. Reason? Simple. We use a manual board, and if we move ongoing items off the board, we risk messing things up. Keeping track of this should be simple, but we skip it to avoid complexity.

Kanban for portfolio management

Yesterday, I published a blog post about using Kanban for portfolio management on my company’s blog.

It’s in Norwegian, so here’s a brief summary for my English speaking audience.

I work closely with my customer’s project department, and I believe they could benefit from using Kanban for project portfolio management. Here’s an example of a project portfolio board.

They could start by adding two simple steps (in addition to what they’re already doing):
1) Map current process to a Kanban board
2) Meet regularily for stand-ups

By visualizing the process and meet face-to-face more often, all people involved get a deeper understanding of how their process works. Bottlenecks gets exposed more easily, and this could plant a seed, nurturing continuous improvement.

I also suggest adding a WIP limit for ongoing projects, based on their current capacity. This could be a tool to manage individual workload and reduce stress, and could be used as an input for overall staffing questions.

Anyhow, I stress the fact that this is an evolutionary process, don’t try changing all at once. Start by visualizing the process and introducing stand-ups.