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:

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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:
http://blog.crisp.se/mattiasskarin/files/pdf/10different_kanban_boards_and_their_context_mskarin.pdf

Alternative Kanban Board Design:
http://blog.brodzinski.com/2011/11/alternative-kanban-board.html

What‘s the kanban in Kanban?
http://www.software-kanban.de/2011/11/whats-kanban-in-kanban.html

Kanban and Multiple Value Streams
http://www.kanbanschool.com/10/kanban-and-multiple-value-streams/

Kanban in a networked process — Visualise the network!
http://softwaredevelopmenttoday.blogspot.com/2011/11/kanban-in-networked-process-visualise.html

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