Agile North Spring Mini Conference

I gave a short presentation at the Agile North April Mini Conference last Saturday. It was a great half day, and possibly the first Agile conference without any reference to Scrum or XP! Just Real Options and Kanban with Portia Tung, Pascal Van Cauwenbergh, David Anderson and myself.

I’ve added my slides to the downloads page. The talk was also videoed, so that may appear later aswell.

Unfortunately, we all had so much to say that we ran out of time, and I wasn’t able to play my “KFC Games”. Actually, they’re more simulations than games, but here’s some links to what they involve in case you want to try them out anyway.

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KFC Development

I’ve been referring to my latest thinking on development process as KFC Development. Its a bit of a gimmicky name, which makes it memorable, but there is some meaning behind it. KFC stands for Kanban, Flow and Cadence – three lean concepts which I think are important and complementary.

Kanban – Kanban is the mechanism which controls the workflow and helps manage inventory and investment, and identify bottlenecks.

Flow – More specifically One Piece Flow. The one-piece is a Minimal Marketable Feature (MMF) which ensures there is focus on the delivery of actual value. This avoids the temptation to artificially break work down into smaller chunks in order to fit them it into an iteration or sprint. A side effect of this flow, is that typical agile time-boxed iterations can become unnecessary.

Cadence – Cadences give the team the rhythm usually provided by time-boxed iterations. There can be a variety of cadences, from daily stand-ups, to quarterly roadmap planning. An additional cadence is that defined by cycle-time, which determines throughput, and allows a level of forecasting of future work.

I’m hoping to explore these ideas more in the future.

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Kanban Commitment

In a recent post on kanban-esque scheduling, Brian Marick asked whether using a kanban system to manage software development has enough discipline, and in particular whether there is enough commitment to deliver. I’ve been working on ways to answer this, and recently came to a conclusion, when David Anderson reminded me that Corey Ladas has already said the same thing, which he described as striking a different bargain with the business.

To put it in a nutshell, rather than making commitment on an iteration/sprint/time-boxed basis, you make the commitment on a feature by feature basis. In other words, when a Minimal Marketable Feature (MMF) gets scheduled, you agree an SLA for when it’ll be delivered. As Corey has already explained the concept so well, I’ll instead describe how I came to the same answer.

When we were using a more Scrum-like approach, we make a forecast of what we could deliver on a Sprint by Sprint basis, along with a longer term forecast using the Product Backlog. However, moving to a more kanban-like approach meant that there were no time-boxed forecasts, and the Product Backlog became just a list of things to do no prioritisation and forecasting.

But the business, however, still wanted some idea of what to expect in the coming months, so for the last two quarters, we’ve tried to put together a high level roadmap. The kanban approach meant that we didn’t want to invest much in analysing and estimating a Product Backlog up front. Instead we identified some key MMFs and did some simple T-Shirt size estimates, and based on our historical velocity we plotted out what we thought we might deliver in each of the following three months. This was very quick and high level, such that we planned for Q1 this year in under 2 hours. What we have actually delivered, however, has turned out to be very different due to the usual changes in circumstances and priorities.

That’s a fairly clear indication to me that even such basic estimation in advance is wasted inventory. So how do we set an appropriate level of expectation with the business so that they know when they might get a feature? Cycle time and throughput help, but when MMFs are of varying size, the calculation of when to prioritise can be complicated. On one the Agile mailing lists, Alistair Cockburn recently described the purpose of planning to be able to answer the question “With what we NOW know, what will the most useful system we can create look like on THAT date?” and that’s when it occurred to me that an estimate is just a way of setting an SLA with the business so that they have confidence that if we start something NOW, then it will be done by THAT date.

As a result, estimation can be done in a lightweight way at the “last responsible moment” in order to set an SLA with the business. The last responsible moment will depend on the criticality of the feature. For a more critical feature, the SLA may be required earlier in order to ensure it can be prioritised soon enough. For a less critical feature, the SLA may only be required when it as actually scheduled.

To get back to Brian’s concern then, the discipline and commitment is because the team is saying, as Corey puts it, “When we agree to take on a work request, we intend to deliver it within n days“.

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A Kanban System for Software Development

Prior to September 2007, my team was using traditional Scrum; a t-shirt sized and prioritised Product Backlog, two week Sprints begun with a two hour planning meeting and ended with a two hour review and retrospective meeting, and Sprint Burndown and Velocity as the primary metrics.

However, despite the team completing Product Backlog Items every sprint, and making regular releases, there was dissatisfaction within the team. The Product Owner felt that the development team was under-performing, and the development team felt that the Product Owner was not giving clear and consistent prioritisation and specification of what needed to be done. Despite numerous attempts to adapt the process to try and resolve the issues, including shorting the Sprint length from four weeks, and altering the level at which we did Product Backlog planning and specification, we were unable to improve sufficiently.

The primary issue was that during Sprint planning, the development team were unable to accurately identify and estimate appropriate tasks, usually because while the Product Owner knew what goals he wanted to achieve, the actual solution was often not yet fully understood. This would be highlighted by a poor Sprint Burndown signature, and the result was a trend to slip back into waterfall-style deliverables to functionally and technically specify work before development could begin. In addition there was a tendency for individuals to focus on completing planned tasks and lose sight of completing the larger feature they were part of. Ultimately, this prolonged the lead time to actually complete and release software.

In September 2007, the team agreed to a change in the process inspired by hearing about Kanban systems at the Agile 2007 conference. The goal of a Kanban system is to minimise inventory, or Work in Process, and maximise throughput of value in the system.

Rather than Sprints, with their Sprint Planning meetings, we have moved to a weekly cycle in which we simply refreshed a buffer, or queue, of the immediate priorities to work. The items in this queue are Minimal Marketable Features (MMFs) – the smallest things which can deliver value on their own. This is different from XP User Stories, which might demonstrate progress, but aren’t necessarily valuable in their own right. The queue was initially sized at seven MMFs, but we recently reduced it to five due the fact that we were prioritising items into it unnecessarily early.

MMFs move from the Queue to WIP when the development team begin working on them. The focus is then on getting the MMF “Done” as quickly as possible, where “Done” means that value has been actually delivered and realised, which invariably means that code is deployed and running on the production servers. Currently we are not limiting WIP, which a traditional Kanban system would.

One of the concerns with pulling MMFs in this way, with little forward planning, was that there was little or no visibility of whether the team would, or could, meet any longer term strategic objectives. To address this, we have added a quarterly cycle, which allows us to set up to three high level Goals to guide the selection of MMFs. These Goals are then linked to a number of key MMFs which are t-shirt sized and provisionally forecast to be worked on in particular months. This probably strictly counts as creating inventory, but is done in a way which minimises investment as much as possible, while allowing some basic release planning. The identification of key MMFs also allows tracking of progress using Cumulative Flow Diagrams and a Parking Lot.

The team also continues to hold retrospectives every month in order to keep inspecting, learning and adapting, and also measures monthly Velocity. In addition, the cycle time of each MMF is measures, from the date it is prioritised into the queue until the date it is agreed to be Done. A mean cycle time can then be recorded every month.

Note that this is not to say that traditional Scrum itself is broken, but that Scrum had highlighted a problem quickly and visibly. One solution might have been to ask the team to spend more time planning to ‘groom’ the product backlog in advance of Sprint planning. However, this feels like suggesting that if the planning is failing, then the solution is to do more planning, which seems to be valuing process over people, counter to the values of the Agile Manifesto. Rather, Lean thinking, and Kanban Systems suggest doing less up-front planning, and valuing focussed teamwork over process in order to deliver value quickly.

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