agile, lean, work

The Cost of Hidden Work

I’ve been working with one of the teams here recently all of whom have been feeling that the pace at which they deliver features is slower than they would like. I’ve run a number of sessions in order to gather data about the work they’ve been doing and how it flows through their wall. During one of the sessions, we focussed on the types of work that they are asked to do of which support was noted as one flavour.
Image of the Team's wall showing support streamThe team currently structure their board around the ongoing need to service this support need, see an image of their current implementation left. One of the 5 developers within the team will work solely within the Support Stream seen at the bottom of their wall for an undetermined amount of time.
The support items are typically raised through our issue management application and usually carry an expectation with them that they will be worked on immediately irrespective of their size. The team has tried implementing an SLA around response times in respect of support items before but for one reason or another (discussion of which is outside the scope of this article), it has never really taken hold (We have in the sessions discussed Classes of Service details of which will be covered in a subsequent post.).
Back to the team’s opinion that they weren’t delivering as fast as they might like though; in our discussions I stated that I felt that part of the reason was that in undertaking the support items they were undertaking a lot of what was effectively hidden work. It was work that was also implicitly being prioritised above all the other items that had previously been agreed as highest priority in a prioritisation session.
We didn’t manage to reach a conclusion on what to do about the support stream though and so the conversation continued outside of the meeting. One of the Developers in the team noted what he saw to be the pros and cons of the support stream which with his permission, I’ve noted below:


  • less distraction to the rest of the team
  • less confusion who’s looking into what
  • faster responses
  • fixed amount of resources dedicated to support – support cannot slow up feature streams
  • 1 person dealing with each support request = less overhead in understanding the problem


  • support rota not evenly distributed amongst team members
  • faster responses = less pressure on business to ask for automated solutions
  • pre-sale enquiries don’t fit well, so would still cause distraction
  • 1 person dealing with each support request = issues are hidden from rest of the team

I then followed up with a rather lengthy response which is the reason this post has emerged:

My issue with support is this; support items are essentially features that are being requested. In that respect, they should be prioritised among all the other features. The fact that there is a specific stream for support suggests that they are automatically accepted as being higher priority than the other features in progress and that is certainly not the case. Furthermore in prioritising them above the other features those other features are affected.

I think that it is far more prudent to prioritise the work you are doing on a daily basis, as a team and include the support items in that prioritisation. In my opinion, it is not so important that the rest of the team are not distracted as per the first point in the pros section above and that instead what is important is that you are as a team working on the highest priority items. Only then will you ever work together as a team to establish a flow. In that, I recognise that there is absolutely value in disrupting the flow of another item to get a major bug fixed, as there is also value in understanding why you are dealing with a support request and in the case of the why, you will only ever understand that by having a discussion with the other members of the team. I would hope that once you understand why as a team, you can then incorporate any learning in to an improvement cycle on a far more regular basis than waiting for your next retrospective at which time the item may have either been forgotten in the larger context or not voted as the highest priority thing to be attended to.

To the points above though; I’ve already touched on the first point in the pros section and as for the second point, I think that a clear definition of the role of the person acting floating manner will clear this up. On the third and forth points in respect of faster responses; as I’ve touched upon above, this may well be the case in respect of the items that you now classify as support but the net effects are that the other items are slower to deliver, I don’t have any data to substantiate this claim but I will point you at Little’s Law which suggests that the number of items in process is closely related to the overall time taken to process those items. On the fifth point, this is in direct conflict with our ambition to deal with one of the biggest problems we face as a department, that a select few that know more about our software and systems than anyone else; as well as the received opinion that two heads are better than one.

In terms of the cons listed above, the first point I may not understand fully but if I do understand it, surely a weekly system of having a floating role that fulfils a number of duties (which we can define as a group but for example: Monitoring the support queue, leading the stand up in the morning in discussing the blockers, the support requests that have come in and discussion about the work that is in progress.) would give a fair split of the responsibilities. I think I agree with the second point made but I would add this, the “business” (which is a term we should not allow to propagate lest we fall deeper in to a them and us mentality) classifying a support item as a feature and having a conversation about its priority and how to achieve it as a team which is what I am proposing, would I hope lead to other solutions being suggested and indeed the emergence of those automated systems bit by bit. If as a team you recognise that you have a little longer to undertake the item, schedule among the other things that you are doing, deliver it in a timely manner but put the building blocks in place for something that you can extend as time goes by. I’m in agreement with the fourth point about pre-sales enquiries as are we all I think, as we’ve now included it in the activities that we map on the board. Pre-Sales is a first class activity that everybody should have visibility of and also, should be able to undertake.

How Has This Concluded?

Firstly, the support stream hasn’t been removed from the team’s wall (as yet). They do now a rota in place though that clearly shows who is acting in that capacity. Furthermore and most importantly in my opinion, they now do prioritise the work within the context of the other features and don’t necessarily respond immediately but at a time that is convenient. They’ve also stopped tracking support items specifically opting instead to consider them features which are sized thus give us more reliable data about lead and cycle times and again and importantly actual visibility of the capacity the team has to do work.

agile, lean, work

Plan The Work But Don’t Work The Plan

I tweeted yesterday something that I had overheard to which a friend of mine, Toby then responded. As Toby then went on to suggest, the five tweets that I responded back with were a great analogy for why batching should be avoided (it had nothing to do with the 140 character limit, it was intentional, honestly.)

I thought that a blog post would allow me to better justify why I tweeted what I had overheard. My primary concern with the statement that was made is that in my opinion, batching all the requested items together to avoid somebody having to rework a plan multiple times slows down the delivery of the highest priority item the effect of which is to deliver value back to the person(s) that requested the work later.

Tying the team up on a larger bodies of work has further affects though. Firstly I think it means that it is less likely that a shorter feedback loop would exist which in turn, would mean that it would be easier for both the team and the person(s) requesting the work to not consider the smallest piece of functionality that could be delivered to meet the requirement. It starves the person responsible for prioritising the work of options to change, it asks for a commitment to deliver all requested items well in advance of their actual start date. Lean and Real Options would suggest deferring your commitment to the last responsible moment and as the InfoQ article I link to, I think this is at the core of being agile.

Working in very small batches isn’t without complication though; the concerns that I am suggesting in the above statements are born out of a bias towards a project based delivery mentality, the alternate to which is a product based one. In the environments that I have worked within it has always been difficult to group products in a meaningful way which in my experience has often lead to product owner groups all of whom need to compete to get their work done which has often ended up leading to frustration. From an engineering perspective, working in smaller increments also increases the need for two things: automated test suites that provide early visibility of breaking changes and also remove the strain on those people that fulfil a testing role in respect of doing the need to do full regression testing. Secondly, an automated release process is needed so that time spent doing releases is reduced.

I should be clear in all of this that I am not suggesting that planning does not add value. The value it brings though is in support of the actual delivery of the requested work. It’s biggest benefit is from a communication perspective and in that respect, it should be something that is recognised as being constantly out of date and therefore that it has a cost associated with it in keeping it up to date.

I mentioned flow specifically in one of my responses and that is point is worthy of expansion. If you imagine a magnet being passed above a bed of iron filings, a weak magnet would have less of an affect on the filings than a magnet with a stronger field would. Similarly small features individually passing through a team’s pipeline have less probability of causing a disruption. In relation to batching, Little’s Law suggests that the more items in a pipeline at any given time has the net effect of slowing (or to use the analogy, disrupting) the other items also in that pipeline. Finally, when you focus on individual features it makes it much easier in my opinion to understand where the bottlenecks are in your system Having the knowledge and then understanding why they exist is the first step in being able to focus efforts on  setting your pipeline up to work as effectively as possible with those bottlenecks.

    life, work

    A Lesson Learnt, It’s Not Just About Creating the Right Environment

    Following a discussion with members of one of the teams that I work with this week and given a little time to reflect, I think I’ve learnt an important lesson which will help me re-focus myself going forward.

    I learnt that it’s not about creating the right environment for a team as you perceive it to be; it’s about providing that team with the necessary support so that they can create the right environment for themselves.

    I’ve used “it’s” a couple of times in that statement so firstly let me quantify; I hold the belief that my role within a team is to help them be more effective and that in actual fact I work for the team as opposed to them working for me. Since joining my current company, amongst other things I have been striving to build an environment in which the development teams can work at a sustainable pace. One in which they are afforded the ability to strive towards creating better quality software. I want the people that work within the team to be able to have some fun and also to be able to take pride in the work they’re doing. One of the key things that I’ve been selling for example is that the teams should feel comfortable in their ability to be able to take a requirement from a stakeholder and wrap up in the associated body of work any refactoring they deem necessary.

    What I’ve realised since the conversation and following a subsequent one, is that all of that has been seen to be largely hollow talk and that the team in question actually felt that they didn’t have the support, particularly given their burgeoning pipeline of work. I found the last point particularly frustrating at the time, I couldn’t understand why the team members weren’t just going ahead and operating in the manner in which I thought that I was allowing them to. I was convinced that it really was simple; I’d said that they had the capacity within themselves as a team to operate in a certain way and yet their behaviour suggested otherwise. I got to a point in fact where I felt almost depressed that all of my efforts to create something that I believed would yield wonderful results hadn’t been realised and in that respect, I’d not done as well as I could.

    Importantly to me, what I’ve realised now is that I’m not spending enough time with the people doing the work, listening to them and understanding the way in which they are working and seeking opportunities to learn from them and ultimately, gaining a better understanding of how I can help them more.

    And what of my renewed focus? I’m not going to stop doing what I was doing before. I still think there’s a need to be doing that. It’s time to compliment that with actions as well though.


    Dunbar’s Number in Relation to Team Size and the Effect of Shuffles and Shaping

    I had an interesting chat with Steve Freeman at the Limited WIP Society meet this week about the way the relationships within a group change in relation to it’s size during which he introduced me to Dunbar’s Number. Based on my reading so far, Dunbar’s number would appear to be commonly thought to be in the region of 150. In the context of our conversation though, Steve suggested that it was actually a sequence (If I remember rightly 1, 2, 5, 12, 30 … 150) of numbers through which you could identify the points at which relationships within a team change.

    I’ve always held the belief that in terms of team size, there is a sweet spot of greater than or equal to 5 and  less than or equal to 8. I’ve previously observed that a team of less than 5 find it difficult to self organise and whilst I can’t substantiate this, I theorise that it may be possible to tie this back to the work of the likes of Belbin and Tuckman. At the other end of that scale, I think that a team larger than 8 needs to consider further the leadership structure and it was this point in particular that led Steve to raise Dunbar’s Number.

    Of particular interest to me though is that by coincidence, the department that I work within maps to the sequence outlined above. In the past year our organisation has grown and as a consequence the department has roughly doubled in size. Throughout that growth we’ve made some changes to the way in which the teams are structured going from 3 teams with roughly 4 people on each, to our current state of 4 teams with on average 6 people. We’ve chosen to introduce or at least formalise somewhat the existing Lead roles that we had in place (Rob has previously posted details of the Roles and Responsibility documents that we created at the time for those interested.). Through the processes that we use within the teams, we’ve placed a greater emphasis on communication and I think that is paying dividends. Furthermore, communication at a departmental level is good too.

    There are of course areas in which I feel we could improve, none of which I can necessarily single out at this stage, it’s my intention to spend some time understanding them more with other members of the department over the coming months. With the probable introduction of another 4 people to the department this year and the fact that that will take us ominously close to a contingent of 30, the next number in the sequence though, I’m keen for my own curiosity’s sake to attempt to measure the effect of any new team members joining. Not only within the context of the team but of the department at large.

    Which leads me to question what to measure? I’ve previously used rather crude measures such as capacity of the team to do work both in the lead up to the introduction of a new person and for a period of time thereafter (I appreciate now that this was wrong, mapping a team’s productivity to it’s overall well being was naive.). I’m thinking of perhaps using something like the satisfaction chart towards the end of this post though I must confess that the value I think would derive from the data would be questionable. I’ve always quite liked the Pillar’s of Agile retrospective because as a tool it can be used by a team feasibly on a regular and ongoing basis to drive recognition of the results of the continual changes they are making to their practices. I wonder if this could be purposed in a different manner, I can absolutely see it working at a team level, I’m not sure how it would work at a departmental level though.

    How about you? What if anything are you measuring outside the classic delivery / throughput criteria within your team and or department (in which case outside of appraisals too) that could you point to and say “This event caused this impact on us as a team.”? Does it matter to you that this sort of thing be measured?

    agile, lean, scrum, work

    One Piece Flow, One Piece At a Time

    There’s been a lot of interesting conversation regarding the use of Kanban / Continuous Flow Development models and it’s something that I see a great deal of benefit in. I find myself struggling to understand whether it would be possible to start a team that hasn’t really used a process of any description before out with something like Kanban and for them to reap the benefits that people are discussing.

    I think the reason I’m struggling a little is that I’ve read nothing that would suggest that Kanban in particular is teaching a team the principles behind the practices and whilst I’m sure that some would disagree, from what I’ve read there isn’t too much focus in that area and given Kanban’s relative infancy, there’s little to speak of about the practices either. For example, whilst I’m sure most could easily see how something like Kanban allows a team to Eliminate Waste, might they miss the fact that the process of mapping your Value Stream allows you to See the Whole (i.e. that your kanban should represent all stages in the life cycle of a feature request)?

    At the moment and perhaps given my current circumstance, I feel a lot more comfortable that using a vanilla Scrum implementation will help the teams here at least move towards understanding the principles behind Lean so that we would then be positioned at a later date to implement a flow based model. It was Benjamin Mitchells tweet

    Good tips from @henrikkniberg on software processes: evolve the right process for your context, expand your toolkit and experiment!

    earlier that prompted me to make this post though I was also reminded of Matt Wynne and Rob Bowley’s presentation at XP Day Evolving from Scrum to Lean. Matt Wynne in particular once posted that for teams, Scrum is The Stabiliser Wheels on Your First Bike and that for organisations, it is like a bulldozer.

    Following a suggestion from Rob who attended a presentation by Jeff Sutherland at BT titled Shock Therapy and my later watching a video which is of very similar content, we’re running an experiment here with one of the teams and have got them using Scrum with 1 week iterations.

    Scrum is a collection of great tools, and the idea is that when used in this manner, they will help a team very quickly evolve to understand the problems they are facing (retrospectives come in very useful here) and the advantages of working in small batches to best be able to deliver to their definition of done every iteration. It’s easily understood (I accept that to some Kanban may also be easily understood) and some of the agile principles are baked in, it increases communication between the Product Owner(s) and the development team and its iterative nature means that the team is doing this over and over and in doing so, means that the practices and the principles that we’re talking about with them are there for them to see in action, time and time again. I should add that we’re not using Scrum alone, we’re using engineering practices such as TDD, refactoring any of the legacy code we come across and generally focussing in on quality throughout, we’re getting acceptance criteria up front which alone is proving worth the effort.

    If the ultimate goal is to move to One Piece Flow then, how specifically is our current use of Scrum helping us?

    As I suggest above, there are a number of benefits to Scrum but in respect of doing 1 week iterations, first and foremost, it’s giving both the team and their customers a much greater degree of visibility and better still, it’s happening sooner rather than later.

    From the team’s perspective, any of the issues that they are facing are immediately apparent, furthermore and small issues that we might not have caught in say a 2 or 3 week iteration cycle are raised in their importance. The team really need to remove any impediment that they come across as soon as they can to give them as much of a chance as possible of delivering the feature that they have committed to at the end of the iteration. Any problems downstream of the development work going on (e.g. testing, deployment) becomes much more apparent. Doing a retrospective at the end of each iteration and taking meaningful actions away is allowing them to tackle some of the more process based issues they face, they have started to realise too that rather than relying on key people to do repetitive small jobs that come in, they should all be capable of carrying out the task and that furthermore, there would be real advantage in writing a tool so that the job can be done by people outside of the team.

    From the business’ perspective, the team is creating a lot of data, quickly. This data includes the team’s velocity, the amount of time a feature that is requested takes to go from being requested to be being delivered and in that we’re also tracking how long that feature is in development.

    Whilst I mention above it’s worthy of note again that secondly, it’s helping the team form together as a successful unit, it’s forcing them to self organise. I’ve mentioned before Tuckman’s team development model (I’ve previously heard learning models such as Shu Ha Ri and the Dreyfus model referred to when discussing this advancement.)

    Of course, we’ve had a few problems outside of the team too, there are some people that feel that the amount of time that not only do the development team require of their customers in prioritisation sessions and in analysing requirements but that they themselves spend in meetings every week adds too much of an overhead. So far I’ve answered this by saying that the team have some clear goals to meet and once they have done so, they are free to move to whatever they deem appropriate, be that longer iterations or indeed a Continuous Flow Model. I’m also working to help people understand that software development is an inherently collaborative process and that in my opinion, you’ll never see the true efficiency gains to be had from a software team until you change the organisation to accomodate that, something that this post by James Shore alludes to.

    Anyway, I’m off to the eXtreme Tuesday Club’s inaugral Kanban Klub meeting tomorrow night so perhaps some of the things that I am struggling with about Kanban will be answered then. In the meantime, Scrum is seeing a little of a renaissance in my estimation as a tool to help development teams quickly mature in to ones that don’t just apply processes and don’t think to ask questions but ones that are questionning for themselves which process that they should be using.

    agile, work

    The Greatest Trick The Devil Ever Pulled Was Making People Believe That He Didn’t Exist

    James Shore made a great post the other day, Stumbling Through Mediocrity in which he talks about how dysfunctional companies will never truly reap the benefits of an Agile adoption as they aren’t inclined to actually change their ways. Rob Bowley then followed up with his post, Agile Isn’t Enough likening the introduction of agile to dropping a bomb on the internal workings of an organisation which then sends out ripple effects with much wider repercussions that actually get ignored by managers.

    I posted a while ago about the fact that I thought that all a team needed to be successful was a clear set of parameters to work within and the support needed to build a learning culture and I maintain that opinion. Indeed when I started at 7digital I was keen not to sell any particular methodology. I set out 3 things that I thought that the department as a whole should focus on; Focus On Quality, Releases as Non Events and Building a Learning Culture. Whenever I spoke about those things I was careful and still am to a certain degree, not to use the dreaded “A” word.

    One of the biggest impediments to introducing a change in process whilst I was at my last company, aside from the abundance of people with their own political agenda, was my attempt to introduce “Agile”. I realise now that rather than bestowing the virtues a bunch of practices I should have spent more of my time talking more about the principles. Furthermore, I should have found out whether or not people wanted to change. If they didn’t perceive there to be a need to, then it was my responsibility to find out why, perhaps they had a point and perhaps even in having that conversation they may have heard my point a little more. You live and learn.

    What’s interesting though is that whilst there were a large number of people that I used to perceive to be willing to fail, pretty much all of them wanted to get the job done or the project delivered but I was putting it down as a failure because we hadn’t successfully engaged with our Customer, we weren’t in my opinion delivering everything that we could be for them and we hadn’t truly enabled the development team to deliver a quality product. Often I would sight agile as I thought that it would be the answer to these perceived failings and I still think it is, ironically it became a barrier to it though.

    Given the posts I mention above, it would suggest that I am not alone in my point of view. My take on it is though, everybody hears the “A” word and thinks “here’s a process that we can use to deliver this piece of software” but actually it won’t. It requires commitment that a lot of people just aren’t willing to give and in many respects, perhaps the word Agile is in fact a hindrance.

    Perhaps we should just start sitting with our customers more and hearing exactly what they want from the software that we deliver them and in doing so, put our case across about what we want from them. Do we necessarily have to persuade them of anything other than that we want to deliver the best quality product and that we want to do that by working as closely with them to understand their business model, that we want to as honest and transparent as possible about how we’re progressing. It’s keeping these conversations going throughout the project that’s most difficult. And it’s that very thing that we should be working on the most. The arguments have been won already for how much more successful we are when we use certain techniques as opposed to others, they should be implicit when we say we’re going to develop software.

    development, work

    Madmen In The Halls

    I read Tom De Marco’s book Slack a few months ago, the first chapter titled “Madmen in the Halls” starts by suggesting that:

    “The legacy of the nineties has been a dangerous corporate delusion: the idea that organizations are effective ony to the extent that all their workers are totally and eternally busy. Anyone who’s not overworked (sweating, staying late, racing from one task to the next, working Saturdays, unable to squeeze time for even the briefest meeting till two weeks after next) is looked on with suspicion. People with a little idle time on their hands may not even be safe. As [one of the authors friends] at Digital Equipment Corporation told [him] during the company’s darkest days, “There are madmen in the halls looking for someone to ax.” Of course, the ones they were looking to ax were the folks who weren’t all that busy.”

    It’s sad to be able to draw parallels with some of the rash actions that were being taken then and the drastic ones people are being forced to take now.

    Inevitably, as people look to make their respective companys’ more efficient and trim their bottom lines, Development teams are called upon to get the latest cost / time saving feature delivered as soon as possible.

    It’s at times like this, when we’re being asked to go as fast as we can it becomes increasingly difficult to sell the fact that we need to deliver a quality product rather than one in which we’ve cut corners, as Jason suggests in his post, perhaps quality will suffer as part of the credit crunch. But now is precisely the time that we should be pushing harder to see the quality of our product improved.

    I’m a believer in the Lean principle that you should decide as late as possible and that development teams should seek to defer decisions until the last responsible moment. Should we defer that decision to include unit tests, to tackle that particularly naughty piece of the code that is always causing us problems or to automate our build and deployment process. Definitely not.

    Choosing not to pursue quality from the outset is almost like behaving like a student, leave doing it until the last minute and you will either hand in something that’s rushed, doesn’t really meet the expectations and will therefore need to be reworked or having to ask for an extension to the deadline.