Is there a White elephant in the Agile Camp?

March 5, 2010 Leave a comment

So what is this White elephant in the Agile camp?

Well, I am thinking that all team based work-flows have components of process and practices. So, when it comes to Agile approaches why are some not more explicit about the process components? Let me explain.

In the webinar by Alan Shalloway, where he presented The Different Agile Approaches: First (XP, Scrum) and Second (Lean/Kanban) Generation Methods. On seeing the tabulated difference/similarities with Agile approaches (Scrum, XP, Kanban, Scrumban) a light bulb went on, especially when he was talking about TOC (Eli Goldratt).

So, for sometime I have been thinking based on my experience, when using Scrum approach in developing projects, and this doesn’t have to be limited to software projects only, that one looses sight of the critical path that is otherwise formally expressed if the project was to be planned out in detail based on the assumption that all requirements have been expressed, collected and analyzed. Now, I am not suggesting we go back to doing waterfall when it comes to software development just to gain what the critical path in the project is. However, what I am suggesting is that bottlenecks arise quite naturally in any team based work-flow, making team resources and/or the work area critical path and in the way of the flow. In fact this is common in any thing that exhibits network like behavior. So for instance you see bottlenecks on a daily basis on freeways or even at grocery check outs as capacity limits are reached at some points on the path. Based on this I realize the following:

In reality all team based work-flows have a process component and a practice component. So when it comes to getting things done (GTD, David Allen), the best approach is to deal with requests in small batches, tune the practice of work according to the flow experienced in the process with the purpose of maintaining a harmony between these two components. For software development the process steps are often just thought of as A.D.D.T, Analysis, Design, Develop, Test. Well actually the D.T process step, well the practice is intertwined especially if you adopt TDD, but lets just say there is a final acceptance test.

Now secretly but surely, lets all say it all together: This doesn’t make it waterfall development. As pointed out in Alan’s presentation that at the granular level you have to follow these steps and really its a matter of scale. Small batch, iterative development approach not waiting for all the project requirements have been nailed down first before coding is clearly the root for any Agile approach. Seriously though, its unfortunate that for quite some time the term waterfall is used as mud, often to harass scrum teams with. This is often by some layer of management and at times scrum masters, who are pushing for team velocity over say helping the team overcome systemic issues that an explicit process of steps would have helped uncover.

When it comes to the Kanban approach, and specifically WIP Limits. Well at the team level this expresses what is needed to get and maintain the practice in harmony with the process. In software development TDD, ATDD, CI & some of the XP practices are patterns that best help in creating a resonance between the practice and the process.

So what of orchestrating this at the enterprise level, which really means work of multiple teams where some have cross team dependencies, potentially dealing with multiple products and at times vying for constrained resources. I see each team has its own harmonic and the following questions came to mind:

[Q] How does one conduct such an orchestra?

    – For instance with Scrum, its stated that there ought to be an SOS but as far as I know nothing else is spelled out about SOS. It’s assumed that this follows the pattern of Scrum, Fractal view of Scrum. However, in absence of any specific guide and best practice I’ve witnessed SOS being used to air out an issue log, with out the same level of accountability, transparency and expectation being prescribed as it is at the individual scrum team level. In fact the way I see it SOS team should have a prioritized backlog (in my thinking issue log expresses one level of acceptance criteria) representing the product|sprint backlog. This in turn helps with the business decision-making, including the business of product releases at the enterprise level as well as aligning elements of the business operations (marketing, sales, operations, finance, support etc.) to enable customers can attain the best value. I would say the paper on Enterprise Scrum by Dan Greening better expresses how to orchestrate this with a top-down approach at the enterprise level.

[Q] What is the process at this level?

    – I can only think of the overall release process for the domain, in software environments this is some combination of (release engineering, support, marketing, sales, education …)

[Q] What are the patterns that can be called on to help reduce the impedance and create smooth flow at this level?

    – Can’t think what this would be right now, but recognize that there must be patterns to deal with bottlenecks at this level too. I think what ever it is, must include “effective collaboration”, meaning things that need to get everyone on the same page and hopefully on a single glass pane.

Finally, as for TOC this is well recognized in critical chain planning, a technique used in traditionally planned projects to balance critical resource on a critical path. This leads to the other observation, that I think Alan was expressing, and I have seen frustration in both software and technical operations teams when it comes to Scrum. Whether its Scrum or XP, the frameworks don’t prescribe or guide the team to pick a process path that is best suited for their domain. Even worse is that most practitioners (scrum masters, coaches etc.) don’t see this hole and thus fail to guide teams in addressing this during the adoption phase, often resulting in the cargo cult behaviour, or as I call it monkey see monkey do. The way I see it, process expresses work-flow, transition states and interfaces for hand-offs in the chain of adding value to the product. For instance in technical operations I’ve seen poor handoff’s, and in a way I am sure this implies poorly defined or agreed upon acceptance criteria. There is no doubt in my mind that this was but one symptom of poorly expressed and agreed upon work-flow process that the Agile practice, in this case trying to bolt on the same Scrum framework that the development teams were using, helped expose. Alas in the same environment the core principle of the Agile practice, one of continuous improvement or Kaizen really meant just tinkering rather then seeing the whole work chain and recognizing the constraints for what they were.

So what does this all mean? and why does it matter? Well for one, which ever Agile framework you pick make sure you explicitly specify the process component that you want teams to subscribe to. This will help mature teams to become that much more self organizing and less dependent on manager types to make decisions for them when they hit bottlenecks (constraints) or when the team needs to set right level of expectations with other teams within the organization.

Kanban – Definition in post twitter age of 140 characters or less

February 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Agile Blog Define Kanban in 130 Characters or Less — Can You Do It? http://ow.ly/16nSrq

Here is how I see Kanban -

    Managed & visualized team work practices and work flow, reducing bottlenecks at a sustainable team rhythm, continuously adding value to customers

Scrum is just a tool! You choose when and how to use it. Don’t be a slave to it!

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

I really like the treatment that Henrik Kniberg has given when contrasting Kanban vs. Scrum. He expresses a dialog that is not too dis-similar to conversations I have heard especially in fire-fighting environments that are asked to shoehorn Scrum as this is best thing since sliced bread. Okay, that is a bit of a stretch, as I can do without Scrum but not without food!.

From what I have seen, this shoehorning occurs as usually the impetus is to conform to a mandate coming from a higher authority within an organization. This is usually management needing to use a common methodology by which all business operations that are delivering projects. This being most acute with groups that interface with Engineering teams, where Scrum is usually rolled out first. I’ll go out on a limb here and say Scrum isn’t a methodology. Sure it is a framework of iterative practices to deliver quality product (or services) in small batches. This is aimed to be in concert with the customer, so the customer gets exactly what they want and when they want it. The practices are one of team work and really fostered as bottoms-up approach to solving problems of delivering projects (products or services) that otherwise far often then not have failed to materialize value to the customer as either they are too late to market, at times the wrong thing at the wrong time, or just too costly to be of benefit.

The problem with the top-down approach suggested by mandates I refer to are – that they do not see the whole picture in terms of work flow within an environment. Sure this is a tactical issue of The how? as opposed to The why? when it comes to shoehorning any set of practices, including Scrum. By the way don’t get me wrong, mandates can be a good thing for kick starting change as much as getting everyone pulling the oar in the same direction, and hopefully the right direction. Scrum truly helps in this as it quickly surfaces issues that block team work and allows one to steer the team and potentially organization in the right direction if error is made in charting the wrong direction. I have also witnessed an initial shoehorning exercise where a divisional group lead would say “we just need to do is speak the same vernacular of Scrum that the Engineering teams were doing”, and by implication this will make the group Agile!. If this isn’t cargo cult behaviour then what is?

So you can see why I like the line Scrum is just a tool! You choose when and how to use it. Don’t be a slave to it! is the nub of what Henrik has stated. This is to say one may need to shape and customize how Scrum is practiced in your environment, this includes your Engineering environment and not just roll it out of the box. In order to customize this you’ll first need to identify and analyze some of the first order problems you are seeing in your environment and you wish to solve. It is not enough just to say “we want to deliver quality products or services first to market to our customers”. Tell me who doesn’t want to do that! Scratch this surface statement and ask what is it that is holding you back from doing this today, and which of the Agile work practices such as Scrum or Kanban (Scrum on steroids) mustered in software development environments by XP & TDD practices will best help overcome some of these impediments. Don’t kid yourself with tools of technology if fundamentally communication or timely decision making are the real problems. You’ll need to be honest to yourself at the team level, as well as at the organizational level when dealing with the gap in the Knowing & Doing of what are two critical components leading to less then stellar project work outcomes.

Based on my experience with software development and service operations teams I have to say the pull practices of Kanban, initially instrumented with WIP (work in progress) limits is a better starting point. To some this may be getting teams to swim in the deep end, in truth no more so than taking on a fresh graduate or a new employee and saying okay you are part of the following team. If there is no nurturing in the work practices in your particular environment then one only sees cargo cult behaviour when it comes to Scrum.

In conclusion, I firmly agree Scrum is just a tool!. You choose when and how to use it. Don’t be a slave to it!. Which means weave in team work practices such as Kanban and foster software development teams to adopt XP, TDD as part of the overall Agile framework that you need. The need being defined by the set of first order problems related to team work (individual) and Team Work (organizational) that you as part of a group are trying to solve.

As for the organizational team it will be of great help if you also map the value chain within your organization. This map addresses all the functions that are involved in product or service life cycle, from both the customer view point as well an internal view point. After all customer doesn’t see or experience all the pieces of the jigsaw that brings value to them. Use Lean principles to guide the Agile practices you are adopting and refine these based on your and the teams experience. After all much like a car engine that has to be tuned to match the organizational & team culture, with culture change being on a relatively slow time scale. Which means be patient with the teams and don’t rush to refine before you have some real evidence from the Teams in what is working and what isn’t. Most of all be pragmatic in your approach for nurturing Agile practices, and take great care not to read into the tea leaves of statistics of How well Teams (organizational level) are doing? based on a voting turn out in internal surveys that are lower then the turn out at a U.S election. I have witnessed this too, from those who have a vested interest in calling out the success of the fruits of their labor of rolling out Agile practices. Sure is difficult to be independent even in a Scrum and an Agile environment!.

As for pragmatic, I mean use base principles such as Lean to support the decision making and tune the Agile practices in your software development or otherwise work environment. These principles are tried and tested in many situations, from Lean manufacturing, construction to Lean Health care – and as such not unique for software development. Many have expressed the Lean principles, and currently I am using the following mnemonic D.E.A.D B.S.E (hey, this has nothing to do with the mad cow disease, far from it. It sure is a guide to preventing the effects of this within software development teams :-)):

  • Dilver as fast as possible
  • Eliminate Waste
  • Amplify Learning
  • Delay Decision making
  • Build in Integrity
  • See the Whole
  • Empower the Team

as a reminder to help any team that has to make a decision on some issue that hasn’t been previously encountered and past experience and know how does not point to a clear choice amongst a selection of options. It allows the team to shape Scrum practices and frames a more constructive team discussion then does knowing and doing the Scrum practices alone.

Healthcare – Agile/Lean principles and practices in a hospital

October 16, 2009 1 comment

Since my last posting on this subject, with a family member having been admitted into care in a hospital I was able to talk to other health professionals who particpated in the care giving. For the past two weeks, I had the impression of smooth flow and wait free attendance of the care and auxiliary staff who needed to attend to the care and recovery of one particular patient at hand. I had sampled the Nursing staff who were explicitly assigned on the ward when sharing what I had observed.

However, its quite possible I have conveyed skewed perspective given that my daily visits were around the same time window between 12:00 – 2:30 pm. I managed to discuss my observation of what appeared to be smooth flow in providing the patient with the daily need in care (medicine, meals, clean up, exercise etc.) with couple of the aides who came in to give a breathing treatment, this usually lasting no more then 15 minutes. It works out that not every task, even the medical treatment task, appears on the ward Scrum board that I had previously mentioned. In fact he pointed out that his daily orders of which patients to attend to for this particular type of treatment appeared from the Pharmacy. He pointed out, more often than appearances had so far led me to believe, there would be a bottle neck in the patients room with number of care personal trying to serve one need or another. This resulted in waiting and lining up similar to the lines we see at a grocery check out – his exact statement. Fortunately they have some slack and really freedom to coordinate their time, so often they’d go to a nearest patient needing service and return there after. No doubt there are others who may not be permanent fixtures to the ward but do provide service to it that have similar experience, and waiting may not be the only waste that they see or experience.

Clearly, there is room for improvement that can lead to better coordination and collaboration amongst all the care providers. In the ideal case having a shared and common information system, Scrum or Kanban board at the ward level would be of great value. In general I would say at the strategic level there is an opportunity to work at the ward level with all the care staff to Train, Map and Check on Lean principles, in particular their role in helping identify and eliminate waste. I say do this at the ward level, as in my mind this is the effort of a team. Though I consider Lean thinking to take place a many levels, including individual, role as well as team based. I like the following example 8 Wastes with Healthcare examples (ref: Lean Healthcare Exchange).

I also realize that the Paul Levy‘s recent blog Kaizen Corner – standardized work was in part addressing this and the opportunity of better coordination in order to deliver value to the customer. His blog is aptly called Running a Hospital.

Healthcare – Agile/Lean principles and Kanban practices in a hospital ward

October 10, 2009 Leave a comment

Well its been a week since I last reported, with the family member admitted to the ward and the use of a Scrum board, this was a white board by Nurses station on the floor and it indicated assigned stories that a team of Nurses were working on.

Week 2, things have moved along. They have just today started using the electronic board, more along the lines of the Kanban board that ER. There appeared no fuss in with this change. Didn’t see anyone having kittens about this change, a far cry from what I had observed with some software engineering and/or tech operations teams teams. Clearly the mission of saving or mending lives is a greater leveler in the relative mundane changes with use of new tools and presentation of information. It was late this evening so I didn’t get the opportunity to ask the Nurses what they made of the changes. I will get to this during my next visit and may be even ask the patient coordinator if they have been on any training relating to Lean principles.

I also came across interesting sites/articles relating to Lean in Healthcare

The blog on standardized work is by a CEO of a large Boston hospital.When I first read this I wasn’t convinced that there is a call for standardized work. You see the work performed by Health care workers is one that touches people when they are most fragile and really some variability is desired by both the care giver and the patient alike. In software engineering there are standards that the coding and testing practices are measured to, but the standards adopted by an organization are used as a framework within which teams are expected to deliver their product. So no two people, though equally trained, will approach laying down the track of code the same way. Within this there is great deal of variability due mainly to style and level of experience.

Besides this standardized work as seen on a Toyota production line is not a comparison one wants to make when addressing Healthcare. For one machines have no cognition nor expectations. My biggest objection with a call for standardized work in health care is that this will replace the rational thinking that is needed, you know the act of doing as it is in the standards. I am sure there is fine balance between standardized work and what may be micro-management.

However, having said this and seeing at first hand the investment in information technology that has been made, I do see the opportunity of standardized process and work flow, as an example the nurses Kanban board. This no doubt can help with better coordination in services the patient receives, such that there is an order in which a particular set of services are best received. This last point is critical idea of standardized work that is addressed in the article. In fact, I realize the article does talk about benefits that can be achieved through standardized process by which work is gated and within which learning occurs. It also points out how visual cues/flags can help signal and thus avoid errors.

…… returning to my original thoughts – I still wonder if they routinely have retrospective meetings that promote Kaizen – continuous improvement.

Healthcare – Agile/Lean principles and Kanban/Scrum practices in ER

October 2, 2009 2 comments

Yesterday I spent some 7 hours in a local Hospital attending a family member to the ER. That morning, I had quickly scanned through my copy of Lean-Agile Pocket Guide for Scrum Teams by Alan Shalloway & James R. Trott. This truly is a bible for Agile teams, note the operative word here is Teams. Anyways, this is my hindsight account of one persons Hospital ER experience, in particular how they have adopted Agile practices and Lean principles, proving to me that the current wave of Agile/Lean in Software development is actually behind the maturity curve of practices that have already been successfully adopted in what is otherwise Life or Death situation. I don’t say this lightly, given the hospital in question is also coping with the turmoil that building expansion brings to otherwise an operational environment.

When entering the ER, given that the family member was in a stable condition i.e not needing to be rushed to an OR theater, first we had to register the patient (register onto the backlog). I had come well prepared with as much detail regarding the patient, including details such as insurance details, age, height, weight, current prescription details, snapshot of test results collected in the past month and finally any changes seen in the past week leading up to the incident needing to rush him to ER. This was all recorded onto the electronic platform. There after we waited some 10-15 minutes to be seen by the Triage Nurse, I later learn from the attending nurse, the people filling in this role are really the overall ER team Product Owner/Champion and Scrum Master. Soon enough we were in ER exam room, as we made our way there I noticed few very large LCD displays along the two corridors that were the main artery through which Nurses, Doctors, Auxiliaries, Diagnosticians made there way when hustling between rooms (exam, medical dispensing store etc.)

During the next 6.5 hours from time to time I studied the LCD panels, and made out that these were really the Kanban/Scrum board – team work board. After the family member is seen to by couple of diagnosticians who performed a range of tests, such as temperature, BP, blood, urine, EKG, X-ray and CT Scan, each test being source of not just greater complexity for the lay person, but more important then this was how smoothly the flow was amongst all these people without ever conflicting in both time or space. As I later learned that all these on-goings was being updated on the Kanban board. Few hours into the ER exam room, when things had quietened down, I asked the attending Nurse:

[Q] How do they coordinate their work effort?
[Q] How should I read the board being displayed on the LCD display?
[Q] How is the board used?

I pointed out how fascinated I was at the smooth flow in work, remember this is an ER room, where the unexpected is the expected. She smiled and briefly explained that the Triage Nurses who take in the patients size the problem and assign resources based on the story. First the allocation is of the Nurse (Technical Champion/Business Analyst) and a Physician (Product Champion).
So I asked:

[Q] How do they ensure no one is gaming the system, and skipping out on the undesirable duties that may come there way?

She pointed out that when assignments are made, this is done based on complexity, number of patients being attended to and availability. The boards were a snapshot of state of the resources (rooms, health workers, diagnostics requested and completed). These boards represented the open and honest communication that allowed the smooth flow within the overall system of managing ER. She pointed out, for instance at sometime she may be attending only 1 or 2 patients, when compared to her colleagues who during that time may be attending to 4 of 5 patients. This really depends on how complex the needs of the patients are. There is a feedback loop on which the Nurses cycle back the size & complexity information to the overall product champion, the triage nurse who defines the assignments.

The interesting thing was the information on the Kanban board, I’ll call it that as this appeared to limit the Work-in-Process (WIP). This had a headline metrics of:
Waiting Room:2 Active Patients:19 Ready: 10 Dirty: 0 WTBS:0 TBADM:3 (the numbers are just part of a snapshot)
(WTBS – waiting to be seen, TBADM – to be admitted, Dirty – room is unoccupied but dirty from work on last patient)

The board by which the team managed its work had following elements (not all elements are listed here)

RN, MD, Gender, Age, Status, LOS, LAB
(LOS – Length of Stay)

Here is a snapshot of the

ER Kanaban board

ER Kanaban board


In addition to the Kanban board, the Nurse had informed me that when they need more details relating to the story, then they just logon to the system from any number of free standing terminals (on mobile platforms) and get to the centralized information. What was joy to watch, even in the circumstance of a family member in ER, was the sustainable and rhythmic flow of work (cadence). Contrast this to the work of Software Development environments that carry the baggage of being acclaimed with highly compensated information workers who often encounter a hard time with basics like having a open and honest communication channel, daily stand up meetings, decision making that optimizes the overall system, and critically Scrum or Kanban board to instrument smooth work flow by bringing visibility and transparency for the work of the team.

Outside the ER setting and on the ward I saw what I would call a Scrum board, this was a white board by Nurses station on the floor and it indicated assigned stories that a team of Nurses were working on. Some were co-owned and I can only assume that the physical need associated to taking care of the customers (patients) need being that much greater and called for collaboration. In addition to the Scrum board I noticed that the wards were equally dotted with free standing terminals which enabled the Nurses to get to the detailed information that was needed to support the work in progress against each story. I wonder if they routinely have retrospective meetings that promote Kaizen – continuous improvement.

Here let me share what I was thinking of while travelling between floors in the hospital. I put on my Product Champion hat on and figured the following products could greatly increase the efficiency with which each patient/story is managed and thus contribute to optimizing the whole – in this case the Healthcare system. So here are a set of stories (epics) I’d want to have my backlog and humbly say it would be great if:

  • At check-in I am able to supply trend charts, in electronic format, for some of the routine snapshots in picture of health and well being. For instance common trend charts could be a time history of Temperature, Blood Pressure, Weight, Blood panel work, Xray etc. as measured at various visits during the course of prior 12 months. There may be trend charts for less frequently measured bio-information such as EKG, CT Scan, Ultrasound (Kidney, Heart etc.). All of this could better define the context and condition of the patient prior to the current event. The trend charts may lend themselves to detecting anomalies in condition and potentially allow for better preventative care.
  • Diagnostic equipment (thermometers,blood pressure units, IV feeds) were smart sensors – lets say blue tooth and web services enabled. This follows the Lean principle of eliminating waste where by data is otherwise recorded today in analog form and maintained in a separate paper record system would now be digitally available and integrated within the overall patient record system. One can imagine health workers carrying a handheld device much like the FedEx/UPS delivery crew do, recording and transmitting information off the smart sensors corresponding to the patient in their charge. I have no doubt there are efficiencies of scale that will not only contribute to lowering healthcare cost through following the Lean principles of Optimize the whole (the patient, the resources), Deliver fast and in essence emphasis the two main categories, defined by as the authors of Lean-Agile Pocket Guide for Scrum Teams, as being central to the Lean principles and Agile practices – that of achieve fast flexible flow (A-F-F-F) and Discover what is needed (D-w-i-n).

As a foot note, with the Healthcare reform debate raging let me just add following statement when it comes to testing. In software development one part of the Quality Assurance strategy is to seek greater automation in testing. This is in line with the Lean principles of eliminating waste, deliver fast, optimize the whole and build quality into the software product. In healthcare much is made about over testing and often to the lay person there is a perception that much of the routine testing that one encounters is wasteful, especially if the same parameters are measured on frequent visits. Let me also add the disclaimer that providing trend charts, mentioned above, does not necessarily preclude the need to undertake some or all of the routine tests on each occasion. This data is just snapshots in time and when it comes to health systems I am reminded by the fine print from another health system of sorts, and that of DMV test report. This spells out that its just a snapshot and a pass does not provide mean an assurance against a failure in the near future, may be even on the same day.!

Scrum and XP from the Trenches – a great Scrum Master & Scrum Team notebook, pragmatic with common sense practice for using Scrum

September 24, 2009 Leave a comment

Well, I just finished reading Scrum and XP from the Trenches, by Henrik Kniberg. I found my experience resonated with all the practices that is documented in this scrum masters notebook - a common sense approach to the tactical work of Scrum. I highly recommend this those new to Agile and specifically Scrum. You don’t have to be a Scrum Master to make use of this. Its a fast read with a journey into how Henrik and his teams practiced Scrum. He expresses situations they encountered and what they experimented with. he is good enough to share what was thought of but hadn’t been tried out at the time. The good part of a lightweight framework and practice of Scrum is that you can adapt it to your environment, and as the situation changes tailor the practice to best suit your needs. You don’t have to worry about the Scrum Police, mind you like everything else in life there are purist who insist on practices that they consider a must, of course this contradicts Agile. You can use Lean to assert the Scrum practices that your team is successfully using and living up to the need for transparency, continuous learning and improvement as a result, rapid delivery of what the customer values.

I have no doubt in my mind that you will pick some good practices, as for the best practices well that is for you to work out with your team taking into account your environment (company and team culture, business needs etc.) – context is everything!

As for the must haves (listed below), they are indeed a best practice. The thing about a best practice is that there is no time like now! to start doing

  • The Product Owner must have a Product Backlog with estimates created by the team
  • The team must have a Burndown chart and know their velocity
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