Tag Archives: lean

Remote Coaching & Pairing: for Individuals & Teams

If you’ve worked with me or Andy Palmer before or you’ve read one of our blog articles, sometimes you might be thinking…

Antony/Andy would know how to make what I’m doing better/easier right now, if only they were here!

Maybe all you really need is 30 minutes to an hour pairing or just talking, not a whole day of our time. Maybe all you need is a few emails back and forth between us. Rest assured, we’re here and we’re happy to help, on anything including:

  • For product and technology teams:
    • Thinner slicing of your Minimal Viable Products (MVP)
    • Effective user stories, Feature Injection & agile business analysis
    • Effective Cucumber scenarios
    • Communicative, narrative code
  • For coaches, managers and leaders:
    • Values & building a culture of innovation
    • Enabling more adaptive teams
    • Challenges of culture and process change
    • Facilitating effective workshops: story-sizing/planning/retrospectives

All sessions are strictly confidential and we’re more than happy to sign a mutual non-disclosure agreement if required. If you aren’t sure if either of us can help, why not get in touch and let’s see. If we can’t, it won’t cost you anything…

Individuals: Pay what you think it was worth

Maybe you need to talk about a challenge you’re facing with your team, colleague or management. Perhaps you have some nightmarish Cucumber scenarios that are making your head hurt. Perhaps you just need someone independent to bounce ideas off.

We’ll have a conversation on Skype, Google Hangouts, Facetime or just on the phone. At the end of the time, all you do is:

  • Tell us what you thought it was worth and
  • Pay only what you are comfortable paying

Money is relative to both your personal income and your responsibilities. You know what they are and we trust you to make a fair exchange of value. All we ask, when you pay whatever amount you’re comfortable with, is to tell us what you thought the session was worth.

You may work in a company that trusts & values your judgement, allowing you to expense personal development activities. This model equally applies, but when that isn’t an option…

Companies: Pay what you think it will be worth

Many large, established companies find it hard to work in the above way. You may not feel you have the freedom to work in the above way (in which case we really should talk). Your manager may want to sign it off and your finance team may want to have a purchase order in place for a fixed amount before you talk to us. So, if you want let’s talk a bit about the challenge and what a new way forward in addressing that challenge is worth. We’ll agree a price and we’ll go from there.

After a chat, you might find that you have a lot more freedom than you think and we can help you make things easier. For more information, get in touch with an email or a call to +44 845 056 9606. We’re happy to help.

This is not a manifesto: Valuing Throughput over Utilisation

In a previous article, This is not a manifesto, I expressed the values I hold as a software development team member. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of these values.

Before I do, I’d like to say what I mean by “software development team”. I mean a cross-discipline team with the combined skills to deliver a software product – product owner, user experience, business analysts, programmers, testers, dev-ops, etc.

A common problem

Many teams I encounter will, at least in the beginning, have team-members who specialise in a single role. Each team-member will rarely, if ever, step outside their job description [1]. This can cause a problem.

Many teams find themselves in a situation where some team members have little to do on the current stories. At this point, the team has some choices, they can focus the under-utilised people on:

  1. Future user-stories, working on tasks most relevant to their job title
  2. Another team, working on tasks most relevant to their job title (e.g. ‘matrix management’)
  3. Current stories, taking on tasks that will take the story to completion sooner, even if it’s more relevant to someone else’s job title
  4. Things that will make the more utilised people get through their work faster, today and in the future.

More often than not, I find teams taking option 1. I think that people choose this option because it feels like it should increase the throughput of the team – i.e. the amount of new features they can add to the product. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

Little’s law

Let’s consider a team that is working in time-boxes or ‘sprints’ (à la Scrum) and measures it’s throughput with ‘velocity’ (story-points per-sprint). Points are accrued as each user-story is completed – i.e. coded, tested and product-owner validated.

In this particular team, it is able to complete an average of 10 points per sprint. Let’s say this is due to a bottleneck in the process. This bottleneck might limit the amount of testing that can be completed during the sprint. This is illustrated in fig.1 where each ball is a story point.

 

Shows a system through which a series of balls are being processed. Each ball represents one story point. It also shows that there is spare capacity in the team.

Shows a system through which a series of balls are being processed. Each ball represents one story point. It also shows that the spare capacity in the team has been used up, even though it does nothing to increase throughput.

Little’s law [2] tells us that the amount of time it takes to complete an item of work (cycle-time) is:

        Work in Progress (WIP)   
Throughput

Which we can read as:

   story points in progress
  velocity 

In this simplified example, WIP is 10 points and throughput is 10 points per sprint. The average cycle time of a story is therefore 10/10 = 1 sprint. Notice, however, there’s all that spare capacity.

Let’s say this spare capacity is developers. So, the team starts taking on more user-stories from the backlog – increasing the number of story points in progress to 20 points (fig.2).

Because the bottleneck remains, velocity remains the same – 10 points per sprint. The amount of flexibility that the team has, however, is now reduced because the average time required to get a story to completion has increased from 1 sprint to 20/10 = 2 sprints [3].

Often this will take the form of testers working a sprint behind the developers. Worse still, over 10 sprints, the team still only completes 100 story points (as they would have before) but is left with a lot of unfinished work. This ‘inventory’ of unfinished work carries overheads which can, ultimately, reduce the velocity of the team.

The impact of filling capacity in this way has yet another effect.

Latency effect

As the developers get through more stories, a queue of stories that are “ready for testing” will build up. Testers working through these will, at least, have questions for the developer(s) or even find some defects. The developer, having moved on from that story, is now deep into the code and context of another story. When the tester has questions, or finds defects, relating to a story that the developer had worked on, say a week ago, then the developer has to reload their understanding of this old code and context in order to answer any questions or fix any defects. This context-switching carries significant overheads [4].

The end result is that the effort required to complete a story increases due to the repeated context switching, therefore reducing velocity.

So, not only does filling the capacity with more work fail to increase throughput, it adds costly context-switching overheads – ultimately slowing everything down.

This phenomenon is not unique to teams using fixed-length time-boxes, such as sprints. Strictly following Kanban avoids this problem, but what I’ve seen is some teams creating a ‘ready for testing’ queue – so that developers can start work on the next story. This has the same latency effect and turns a process designed for continuous flow into a batch and queue process. But, I digress.

What to do with the spare capacity?

The simple answer is to look at the whole approach and determine what is slowing things down. In the example above, I’d be wondering what’s slowing the testing down. Many of the things that hinder testing can be addressed by changing how we do things ‘upstream’.

Are lots of defects being found, causing the testers to spend more time investigating and reproducing them? Can we get the testers involved earlier? Can any predictable tests be defined up front so that developers can make sure the code passes them before it even gets to the testers (e.g. Behaviour Driven Development)?

Are the testers manually regression testing every sprint? Could the developers help by automating more of that? Are the testers having to perform repetitive tasks to get to the part of the user-journey they’re actually testing? Can that be automated by the developers?

Is there anything else that is impacting them? Test data set-up and maintenance, product owner availability to answer questions? Anything else?

Addressing any of these issues is likely to speed up the testing process and increase throughput of the entire team as a result. One solution is to put these types of tasks onto the product backlog. This is fine but if we assign point values to them it can give a skewed view of velocity. Or rather, velocity is no longer a measure of throughput. You won’t be able to see if these types of tasks are actually improving things unless you are also measuring what proportion of the points are delivering new product capabilities.

The only good reason I can think of for story-pointing these throughput-enhancing tasks is if your focus is utilisation – i.e. maximising the number of story-points in progress. Personally, I care more about measuring and improving throughput. By doing so, we get the right utilisation for free and a faster, more capable team.

Up next: Valuing Effectiveness over Efficiency.

Footnotes:

[1] “Lessons Learned in Close Quarters Battle” Illustrates how stepping outside our job descriptions can move the team through each story more quickly by using special-forces room-clearing as an analogy.

[2] Little’s law (PDF) – the section “Evolution of Little’s Law in Operations Management” that references Hopp and Spearman’s observation about throughput (TH), work-in-progress (WIP) and cycle-time (CT) – i.e. TH=CT/WIP. And therefore we can say CT = WIP/TH.

[3] Little’s law also illustrates that if we reduce the work in progress to one quarter, then the cycle time for each story reduces to one quarter of a sprint. We’ll still get through 10 points per sprint, but stories will be completed more as a continuous stream throughout the sprint rather than all at the end.

[4] “The Multi-Tasking Myth” by Jeff Atwood, talks about multi-tasking across projects and pulls together several resources to illustrate the impact of multitasking at various levels. This applies when multi-tasking across stories.

Acknowledgements:

I’d like to say a special thank you to my fellow RiverGliders – Andy Palmer and James Martin – for the feedback that helped me refine this article.

This is not a manifesto

Recently, I had cause to ponder the values I hold as a member of a software development team. Values that, alongside other values I hold, drive my choices and behaviours. They sit behind the things I do and how I do them. They underly my thinking when considering how we can improve as a team and as an individual contributing to that team – for example, during retrospectives. This is not a manifesto of what I will value. This is an articulation of the things I do value.

In what I do and how I seek to improve as a team member, I have found that I value:

Throughput over Utilisation
Effectiveness over Efficiency
Advancement over Speed
Quality over Quantity

While there is value in the items on the right, I care about the items on the left more.

Note, that I say I ‘care’ about the items on the left more. I actually do care. I know that I care about these things more because it actually annoys me if I’m being asked to focus on the items on the right (probably because I know that they will be at the expense of the items on the left). I also know because I actually have a positive feeling when I am being asked for the items on the left (probably because I know that, over time, we’ll get the items on the right for free).

So, what do I mean by these ‘buzzwords’. Stick around and I’ll tell you in a series of upcoming blogposts. Some of these apply in ways that go beyond the obvious.

Acknowledgements:

You probably noticed that I used the same format as the Agile Manifesto. This is because it happens to provide a structure that I believe most clearly and concisely communicates the idea.

I’d like to say a special thank you to Andy Palmer and Matt Roadnight for the awesome conversations that helped me find the right words to express these values and ideas.

To hack, or not to hack

Recently, Engadget reported that Nokia had decided to abandon MeeGo in favour of Windows Mobile. What was interesting is the reported process used to make this decision:

Elop drew out what he knew about the plans for MeeGo on a whiteboard, with a different color marker for the products being developed, their target date for introduction, and the current levels of bugs in each product. Soon the whiteboard was filled with color, and the news was not good: At its current pace, Nokia was on track to introduce only three MeeGo-driven models before 2014-far too slow to keep the company in the game.

This brought to mind some blog posts I wrote in early 2010 (now copied to this blog – see previous two entries). I talked about ‘critical mass’…

Critical Mass of Software: the state of a software system when the cost of changing it (enhancement or correcting defects) is less economical than re-writing it.

In the case of Nokia and MeeGo, there isn’t enough information to know if that’s what had happened but it does suggest, at least, that it was more economical to choose an alternative third-party OS than to continue with MeeGo. Integrating Windows Mobile is going to come at some cost, of course, but clearly they decided it was less than sticking with their current strategy.

This is an example of modern markets demanding more sustainable, adaptive and agile product development cycles, and a company recognising this and acting on it.

It is also a demonstration of how an ever-growing cost of change (e.g. through the number of bugs consuming resources that would otherwise be adding new value) is really deferring of cost – i.e. technical debt.

There are many arguments for ‘prudent’ acceptance of technical debt… This story, I think, is an example of where it wasn’t obvious when that debt was no longer prudent until it was too late for MeeGo as a product.

And this is one of the problems with some lean concepts applied to new products and start-ups. The advice is often to get feedback from the market quickly by hacking the product together and release as quickly as possible. The trouble is, at what point do we take a step back and change to more sustainable practices? Probably around the time the product is selling… but then we’re under pressure from competitors who have seen our innovations and want to copy them… so we’re tempted to keep hacking out more features only to find that the faster we hack the slower we go.

There is no magic answer, to the question “when do we stop hacking and start sustainably building?” We might wait until we’re making enough money to hire more people to do remedial work.

As soon as we find we’re enhancing a feature, it might mean that it’s a key part of our product – one we’re going to keep. We might then treat any code we touch during that enhancement as legacy code, building in the cost of remedial work into the enhancement.

Some would argue that it’s faster overall to never hack things in and to commit to  sustainable product development practices from the get-go. This probably applies in many cases but especially to large complex products like operating systems.

Whatever the strategy used, there will come a point where you can’t hack in any more features. The question is, will you decide when that happens or will the cost of change decide for you.

 

 

A bit of UCD for BDD & ATDD: Goals -> Tasks -> Actions

There’s something wrong with many behaviour specs (or acceptance tests). It’s been this way for some time. I’ve written about this once or twice before, referencing this post by Kevin Lawrence from 2007.

So, first things first, I want to take this opportunity to update the terminology I use…

Goals -> Tasks -> Actions
A useful technique used in User-Centred Design (UCD) and Human Computer Interface (HCI) design is Task Analysis. There are three layers of detail often talked about in Task Analysis:

Goal: What we’re trying to achieve which has one or more…
Tasks: The high-level work-item that we complete to fulfil the goal, each having one or more…
Actions: The specific steps or interactions we execute to complete the task.

Previously, the terms used by Kevin, myself (and several others) were Goal->Activities->Tasks. From now on, I’m going to use the UCD/HCI/Task Analysis terms Goal->Task->Action. It’s exactly the same model – just with different labels at the three layers of detail.

What’s wrong with your average behaviour spec?
Let’s look at a common example… The calculator. For convenience, I’m going to borrow this one from the cucumber website[1].

Scenario: Add two numbers
Given I have entered 10 into the calculator
And I have entered 5 into the calculator
When I press add
Then the result should be 15 on the screen

[1]note: I’m using this example for convenience and simplicity. The value of the example on the cucumber website is to demonstrate how easy cucumber is to use and not necessarily as an exemplar feature spec

What would you say the scenario’s name and steps are representing? Goals and Tasks or Tasks and Actions?

I’d argue that adding two numbers is a task and the steps shown above are actions.

Instead, I try to write the spec (or test) with a scenario-specific goal and the steps as tasks.

Scenario: sum of two numbers
When I add 10 and 5
Then I should see the answer 15

I.e.:
Scenario: <A scenario specific goal>
Given <Something that needs to have happened or be true>
When <Some task I must do>
Then <Some way I know I've achieved my goal>

Another Typical Example
Let’s apply this to another typical example that might be closer to what some people are used to seeing:

Scenario: Search for the cucumber homepage
Given I am at http://google.com
When I enter "cucumber" into the search field
and click "Search"
Then the top result should say "Cucumber - Making BDD fun"

Again this is talking in terms of actions. As soon as I’m talking in terms of click, enter, type or other user-action, I know I’m going into too much detail. Instead, I write this:

Scenario: Find the Cucumber home page
When I search for "Cucumber"
Then the top result should say "Cucumber - Making BDD fun"

Why does it matter?
In the calculator example, the outcome the business is interested in for the first scenario is that we get the correct sum of two numbers. The steps in the scenario should help us arrive at a shared understanding of what ‘correct’ means. How we solve the problem of getting the numbers into the calculator and choosing the operator is a separate issue. That’s detail we can defer. It may be better to explore the specifics of the workflow using, sketches, conversation, wire-frames or by seeing and using our new calculator.

So, expressing our scenarios in terms of goals and tasks helps the delivery team and the business arrive at a shared understanding of the problem we’re trying to solve in that scenario.

Expressing the scenario in terms of the clicks, presses and even fields we’re typing into is focusing on a solution, not the problem we’re trying to solve.

But there’s another benefit to doing it this way…

A Practical Concern – Maintainability
The first calculator example follows reverse-polish notation for the sequence of actions:

  1. enter the first number
  2. enter the second number
  3. press add

If we put that detail in the scenarios, that workflow will be repeated everywhere – for addition, subtraction, division, multiplication… and anywhere any calculation is described.

What happens if the workflow for this calculator (such as the UI or API) changes from a reverse-polish notation to a more conventional workflow for a calculator? Like this:

  1. enter the first number
  2. press add
  3. enter the second number
  4. press equals

The correct answer hasn’t changed – i.e. the ‘business rule’ is the same – it’s just the sequence of actions has changed.

Now we have to go through all the feature files and update all the scenarios. In the case of our calculator that may only be a few files covering add, subtract, divide, multiply. For something larger and more complex this could be a lot of work.

Instead, putting this in the code of the step-definition means that this:

When ^I (add|subtract|divide|multiply) (.*) (?:and|from|by)? (.*) do |operator, first_number, second_number|
@calc = @calc ||= Calculator.new
@calc.enter first_number
@calc.enter second_number
@calc.send operator.to_sym
end

Would have to change to this:

When ^I (add|subtract|divide|multiply) (.*) (?:and|from|by)? (.*) do |operator, first_number, second_number|
@calc = @calc ||= Calculator.new
@calc.enter first_number
@calc.send operator.to_sym #moved up from the bottom
@calc.enter second_number
@calc.calculate #new action for the conventional calculator workflow
end

Nothing else would need to change – other than the product of course. By writing the steps as tasks, all of our feature files would still accurately illustrate the business rule even though the workflow of the interface (gui or api) has changed.

Taking your scenario-steps to task
So, taking this approach helps us to reduce our maintenance overheads. Putting the Actions inside the step definition makes our tests less brittle. When the workflow changes we only need to update our specs in one place – the step-definitions.

Of, perhaps, greater importance – by capturing the user’s scenario-specific goal as the scenario name and the tasks as the steps, the team are working towards a shared understanding of the part of the problem we’re trying to solve not a solution we might be prematurely settling upon. When rolled up with the broader context (expressed in the user-story and its other scenarios) it gives us a focus on solving the wider problem rather than biasing the solution.

Sometimes, at first, it’s hard to see how to express the scenario and is easier when people start by talking of clicks, presses and what they’re entering. And that’s ok. Maybe that’s where the team needs to start the conversation. Just because that’s where you start, ask “why are we doing those actions” a few times, and it doesn’t have to be where you end up.

From Scrum to Kanban – good and bad reasons to switch…

This originally appeared on my old blog in February 2009.

There are, IMHO, some good reasons and some bad reasons to consider switching from Scrum to Kanban… or for considering Kanban over Scrum as a starting point for ‘going Agile’ (so to speak)…

‘Good’ reasons for considering Kanban are…

  • Wanting/needing more visibility of specific development process constraints (bottlenecks) than Scrum gives you (Scrum shouts “there’s a problem!”, Kanban points at where the problem is)
  • Kanban can avoid waste of stories not filling a Scrum sprint (although finishing ‘early’ can allow teams to make improvements they might not otherwise have afforded themselves)
  • Kanban can focus teams on vertical stories from the outset whereas new Scrum teams seem to start with horizontal slicing.

‘Bad’ reasons to choose Kanban over Scrum are…

  • Wanting to say you are “Agile” without really changing your development process
  • Because using Scrum is exposing rigidity and brittleness of software that is the output of your development process and wanting to hide that behind Kanban words like cadence
  • Hiding impact of speculative design behind Kanban work-items when it fails in Scrum because the work never seems to fit into a Sprint, spilling the story over multiple sprints

(by speculative designs I mean implementing architecture that is more than is necessary for current valued-work-item)

For a team that has legacy development practices, producing legacy code for which it simply isn’t realistic to do incremental and iterative development but wants gradual and continuous improvement… I think Kanban is perhaps a better place to start. Your first ‘work-item’ may take 3 months… but it’s an honest 3 months! The trick is to make continuous improvements to gradually increase the tempo of your delivery.

If a team needs to suffer the pain – that comes from seeing that no matter how hard you try you simply can’t fit the implementation of even the smallest feature into one month – before it realises it has a problem… Then maybe Scrum is the better place to start.

Whichever you choose, I hope you choose the right approach for you, for the right reasons ;-)