Lean Thinking

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We talk a lot about T shaped skills in agile teams. For those who aren't familiar with the terminology, think about a capital "T". The vertical line is the team's core skill, they have deep expertise in that. The horizontal line is all the other things the team is capable of outside its core skill. A good team should have skills that are T shaped (broad as well as deep), rather than "I" shaped - deep in one area with no ability to work outside that (like traditional silo teams). We don't want a team that can only work on the back end of the website, we want teams that can deliver end to end. We don't want teams that can only deliver on the shopping cart, we want teams that can deliver in other areas as well.

The more T shaped our teams are, the more flexible we can be in organising work. If we have a lot of shopping cart enhancements, we don't have to wait for the shopping cart team to become free and deliver them all, we have a bunch of teams who can pick up the work and deliver it. This is a very good thing. There are however, a few key misconceptions about T shaped teams that I have observed over the years, that are worth pointing out and correcting.

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Take a thin steel rod. I'm sure you have one handy. Clamp one end in a vice (which you also have handy...I know I do) so that it's sticking straight up in the air. Now move the free end of the rod to the side a little and let it go. What happened? Did it spring right back? OK, now move it a little further. Still springing back? If you keep going, moving it a little further each time, you will find a point where the rod no longer springs back but bends permanently. Materials scientists call this the elastic limit. Below this limit, materials experience elastic deformation - they spring back to the way they were before once the force is removed. Above this limit, they experience what is called plastic deformation - they no longer spring back but permanently change shape.

So why am I giving you this lecture in materials science? Because organisations behave the same way. When you apply a force to them - when you change something - the organisation is very good at snapping straight back to the way it was before.  As soon as you stop pushing the change, the change disappears. We've all seen it happen. As soon as you relax, the change evaporates and within a short time the organisation is happily doing what it has always done.

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Teams hold a special status in agile. Teams are at the heart of all agile frameworks and much of the focus of the agile community is on growing and supporting teams. Not just any teams, agile teams stress things like self organisation and cross functionality. There is no denying that a really good agile team is an awesome sight to behold. The amount of stuff they can get done is nothing short of remarkable. But there are also an awful lot of agile teams that have the same properties but their performance isn't anywhere near as good. So what is wrong with those teams? Is it the people? Is it the environment? Is it the nature of the work? What stops some teams from performing where others with the same characteristics flourish?

In an effort to understand why, I have been thinking deeply about the concept of the team; why they are so effective and why we insist on certain characteristics for our agile teams. The conclusion I have come to is that it's all about the ability to make decisions.

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First up, this post has come about through a discussion I had with a group of other coaches, so thanks to The People's Popular Feed crowd - Steve, Pradeep, Bob, Carl, Gaya, James, Elvira and Tony for the spark.

We all know the Spotify model - squads, tribes, chapters and guilds. It's a great model and many of us have tried to implement it in other organisations. In my experience though, most of those implementations fail, particularly around chapters and guilds. One of the first things we tend to do as coaches is set up guilds. We need a way of getting people to share information across organisational silos and guilds are a great way to do that. Trouble is, it's almost impossible to keep a guild running in many organisations without someone pretty much full time cajoling and pleading with people to attend. Without someone who is willing to make the guild their life's work, they quickly fizzle out. 

It shouldn't be that way. A guild should be self sustaining. The members should be there because they are interested and see it adding value, not because George, the guild master badgered them into attending this week's meeting. So why, when they are so good in theory, are they so hard to keep running in practice? I have been giving this some thought recently (while sifting through the wreckage of another dead guild) and came to the conclusion that it's because we are doing things backwards.

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Probaly the most iconic feature of the SAFe model is the Program Increment (or PI). The PI (for those who have never seen SAFe before) is a larger, release level timebox, usually 4-6 sprints long starting with a 2 day, all hands planning event. The PI is also the feature of SAFe that I like the least. Proponents of SAFe will, quite rightly, point out that the PI planning event is a highly effective way to plan a release and is great for getting a large team of teams aligned and motivated around a goal. And indeed it is. I still don't like them though. As effective as they are, the PI planning session, and the PI in general, have some unintended consequences that far outweigh the benefits.

The goal of agile is to enable organisations to respond to changing conditions quickly and at the team level, for teams to get stuff out to customers as fast as possible. The PI breaks this in a number of ways. It breaks flow into batches, encourages queueing and reduces the ability of teams and the organisation to respond.

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Ok. So I have a team and I'm looking at their board. On that board, if they are like 90% of the teams out there, they will have a burn down chart somewhere. Let's take a closer look at the burn down shall we? Does it, as so many do, show a flat line until the day they all update the tool at the end of the sprint? Does it show a nice progression of tasks done over the sprint but at the end of the sprint are there no stories completed because they worked on everything at once? 

The burn down is one of the classic tools for an agile team. Everyone does burn down charts. Mostly they do them badly. Over the years I have come to dislike the burn down chart for a number of reasons. Chief amongst those reasons is that it really doesn't do what it is supposed to - give an indication of whether the team is going to achieve its sprint goal. On the surface it looks like it should - there is a list of stuff to be done and a rate at which it needs to be completed to meet the date but in reality, the burn down doesn't give a very good indication of where things really are. The other big problem is that while they are supposed to be easy, most teams find keeping a burn down chart up to date a massive headache. So let's take a look at the burn down and some of the things that cause teams pain. We'll also look at a really good way to replace it completely.

16 February 2016

Measuring Agile Success

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As soon as you talk to anyone senior in an organisation about agility, one of the first questions that comes up is "How do we measure the benefit?" It's a perfectly valid question to ask. We are (usually) asking them for a bunch of money to implement change and quite often the benefits we describe are fairly poorly defined - better staff engagement, the ability to respond faster, faster time to market. That sort of thing. They all sound great but what really matters to an executive sponsor is the bottom line impact. Will spending this money generate additional profit? 

Unfortunately, the question of measuring agile benefit is a hard one. Other than time to market (which is actually a hard one to pull off for a bunch of reasons), all the traditional agile benefits are pretty soft. It's hard to come up with a set of hard, bottom line benefits we can easily measure and show the difference agile is making. This tends to make a lot of agile sales pitches a bit like the underpants gnomes in South Park - Step 1: Implement agile. Step 2:Ummmm. Step 3: Profit! While the ultimate metric is the profit, for the reasons I mentioned above, that's actually quite a hard metric to impact on the short term. What we need are a set of good metrics that can show progress towards increased profitability that we can measure and track in the short term. Don Reinerstein is an advocate of using an economic model to show benefits and while this is undoubtedly the right way to go, most organisations simply don't have the maturity to even consider things like cost of delay accounting until they are quite a long way into their agile/lean journey. What we need are things that any company can measure right from day one that we can use as leading indicators for increased profitability. Over the years I have come up with a set of metrics that seem to do the trick.

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For the last few weeks (interrupted briefly by the holiday break) we have been looking at executive coaching. We have taken a look at some of the big problems executives face and at some of the ways we can use agile tools to help resolve them. We have looked at resource planning, controlling financial spend and estimating ROI. All these things, though, are manifestations of a more fundamental problem - the problem of control. Control is a real issue for executives. They are responsible for a P&L. They have business goals to meet. They have people under them to meet those goals. They are expected to be in control.

In a traditional environment they maintain control through their position as central decision maker. Any significant decision will be funnelled up through them. In an agile environment we recognise that centralised decision making is slow and inefficient, so we decentralise the decision making for efficiency. The problem is that, to the exec, we have taken away their decision making (and therefore their control) and not given them any other control mechanism to replace it. Without some alternative control mechanism, execs in an agile environment will continue to rely on their old control mechanism - centralised decision making - to the detriment of the agility of the group. All the unnecessary steering committees, status reports, executive briefings, financial controls, and so on are all manifestations of this fundamental problem - how does an executive maintain control when they are no longer the one making all the key decisions?

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