Sunday, December 28, 2014

Timeboxing and Zeno's paradox

Every now and again I run into arguments about the rigidity of time-box boundaries. Basically it goes like "But perhaps we could have finished what we wanted to do in 2 hours if we just gave it 5 minutes more. _Do we really want to discard 120 minutes worth of work just to save 5 minutes?"

You never have enough time

According to the best known of Zeno’s paradoxes Achilles (who was regarded to be the fastest runner of his time) will never be able to overtake a tortoise with a hundred step head start.
That is exactly the problem with the extension of time-boxes. Even if one would allow a maximum extension of 10% of the original time box to try to “finish it” it would likely still be unsatisfactory in the end.
Like the tortoise in the paradox (give wikipedia a short glance if you haven't already) the time “needed” for completion of the task would be extended an infinite number of times. However, after a couple of extensions, by infinitely small amounts. So in reality and for all practical purposes the timebox would last for 1,11111... times the time that was originally allotted. Which of course is a very specific time. 2 hours and 13 ⅓ Minutes if I am not mistaken.

So the point is definitely not to extend the timebox. It's got to be something diferent.

Parkinsons Law to the rescue?

As Cyril Northcote Parkinson stated in his famous law:

“work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion”

The funny thing is, that the opposite seems to be true as well: if there only is a fixed amount of time, as soon as people realize that it is really fixed, they tend to come up with something usable in that time, effectively applying “design to budget” approaches to things like meetings as well.

And – after people get accustomed to working in timeboxes – the results usually show up shortly before the time is up.

And if they don't sticking to the timebox will help you to plan more realistically the next time around. Just don't fool yourself with 2h timeboxes that tend to last for 2:15 ... ish ...

So – just stick to the timeboxes – use them to your advantage instead of fighting them! (And remember to size them realistically!)

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, December 14, 2014

There is no such thing as a continuos integration server

Of course the title is reference to the “There is no such thing as a free lunch" adage, also known as TANSTAAFL, but really it is about the fact that people think they have the advantages of Continuous Integration when all they have is a build-server.
Of course this is just another instance of semantic diffusion, but IMHO there really is a huge opportunity wasted by not following the concept of continuous integration.

The original Continuous Integration

When I first came across the idea of continuous integration it was in the context of eXtreme Programming (XP). It was just a practice that required a lot of discipline, a finely tuned set of tests, a sound system architecture, capable developers and a good source code management system.

Low-tech is key

James Shore wrote a piece about “Continuous integration on a dollar a day” back in 2006, which in my regards still holds true even today.
The point here is in both cases – in the original description as well as in the James’ article –, that no task is done until it is incorporated in the “main development line” and it is shown that this main development line is proven to be as error-free as can be at that point in time. And the developer(s) who signed up for that task take it on as their responsibility to make it happen. To ensure that this is handled in an efficient way, integrations are serialized and don't happen concurrently. (James employs a nice token to ensure that)
Simple enough – not much technology needed.

Using this approach you end up with a product that always includes all the work completed at that point in time in a way that could be shipped or installed instantly.

That may sound nice in theory, but in our case...

  • ... the tests run too long
  • ... our tasks are so small, we would have way to much overhead
  • ... out team is too big for that
  • etc.

Fair points – let me address them one at a time:

The tests run too long?
That is a very good indicator to make your tests faster and perhaps more expressive. Or change your architecture in such a way that you have more, smaller, independently testable components.

The task are to small for that?
Create slghtly(!) bigger tasks

The team is too big for that?
Your team is too big. Period. Change that!

If the CI-approach is not feasible because of «X» it is almost always a good indicator that you have a problem with «X» - even though the case of long running tests deserves a seperate discussion.

The Problem with CI-Servers

Don't get me wrong – I'm a big fan of automated builds and build servers. But my point ist that they just can't provide continuous integration.
being serious about continuous integration means you can never have a red build on the deliverable after a task is completed and integrated. After all making sure that the main line is “clean” is essential to the very definition of continuous integration.

The point of the original CI-concept is: As a developer your job is not done until the main line reflects your work

The point of the so-called ”CI-Servers“ is: “Just commit your current work an start on something new – I‘ll let you know some time in the future if the test still show that the software is okay or if there are any clashes with contributions from your co-workers.”

Therefore build-servers actually promote starting on new tasks before the seemingly finished tasks are completely integrated – that's exactly what they are made for...

And the problem gets worse if your tasks are small and the test are long-running... Then you end up with huge build queues that grow during the day and get cleared up at night. And it takes until the next morning until you get feedback on whether your code is really integrated with the system or you still have to do rework.

So yes, please use a build server – but only as a safety net. And don't call it continuous integration just because you have a server performing your build-runs and unit-tests for you.

’till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, November 30, 2014

5S – taking it too literally?

5S – taking it too literally?

As an old saying in Object Oriented Analysis (OOA) goes “Naming is essential.” And while I was writing this series on the 5S approach over the last couple of weeks I felt increasingly uncomfortable with the Sort – Straighten – Shine – Standardize – Sustain canon of the English translations.

The 5S-approach works well for knowledge work ...

I actually took the words from the Wikipedia article to create the titles for my articles, but as you can see in the current list of links below I amended the titles with the translation from Hirano‘s book on implementing 5S in e.g. office environments.

To me these translations made a lot more sense in the context of knowledge work. And – to be honest – in the context of the original descriptions as well.

... but not so much with the ideas associated with the English S-Words

It is my feeling that while it is a nice touch to have the 5 Ss from 5S matched up with English words starting with ‘s’ (which definitely helps with memorizing them), there is a very high risk of semantic-diffusion through this.

There is a qualitative difference between organizing things and sorting them. Just like straightening things out is not the same as being orderly. And so forth.

In business process design, design thinking and software development we have a couple of approaches that are completely in line with the 5S approach – but it is hard to recognize that when the (English) S-words are used.

To take one thing from software development, “refactor mercilessly” is a way to keep the codebase organized and clean – keeping the codebase sorted and shiny doesn‘t make too much sense in that context.

There are more things – like naming things correctly, which not only fits in with cleanliness but also with orderliness and discipline. But the point I am trying to make is that the 5S approach provides much more applicable guidance when not taken literally by the s-words from the Wikipedia article, but instead by the older translations from Hirano

So how about giving the translations from Hirano‘s book a try for your next process improvement session? You do have process improvement sessions, don‘t you?

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sustain! The fifth S of the 5S

Sustain! The fifth S of the 5S

(Shitsuke, 躾, according to Wikipedia)

Whether you look at Hirano or the Wikipedia article on the 5S Approach, the last pillar or practice is the hardest Shitsuke, 躾 which the Wikipedia article translates as Sustain, while Hirano translates it as Discipline.

Let‘s once again have a look at the implementations that are listed in the Wikipedia article:

  • To keep in working order
  • Also translates to "meaning to do without being told"
  • Perform regular audits

These factory related implementations seem to translate quite easily into practices that are also known from agile software development processes or the teachings of clean code development or pragmatic programming, but are they really?

To keep in working order for example can be nicely mapped to practices like continuous integration (the practice, not the tooling) or the "no broken window rule.
Performing regular audits is at the heart of almost every agile method – be it as a retrospective or as a operations review- (as long as you don‘t call it a post-mortem).

But in my opinion and experience this is only part of it. The hardest thing about this pillar is that it is about discipline. About cleaning up even if I already worked late. About sorting things even when there is time pressure. About removing the mess I created while working while the sun is shining and the waves are luring. Agreeing on standards even though everybody seems to do it "almost the same way".
About just really following through on the other four Ss.

And for me this is the most important yet hardest to master of the five "S".

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Standardize! The fourth S of the 5S

Seiketsu, 清潔, according to Wikipedia

Other parts of this series

Standardize what?

Even though the Wikipedia-Entry refers to this practice as “Standardize!” I prefer – once again – Hirano‘s definition of this technique as “Standardized Cleanup” which makes it somewhat clearer, what the subject of the standardization is.

Wikipedia suggests things like the following for the workplace on the shop floor:

  • Maintain high standards of housekeeping and workplace organization at all times
  • Maintain cleanliness and orderliness
  • Maintain everything in order and according to its standard.

Now, from my point of view, standardized cleanup blends in perfectly with the XP-practice of ubiquitous automation and the current state of software development tools, where it is quite easily possible to actually define standards in such a way, that the compliance with those standards can be enforced or even maintained automatically.

On a coding level there are numerous things to be standardized

  • coding conventions
  • checkin comments
  • build procedures
  • key-bindings (especially if you're doing pair-programming with changing pairs)
  • Concepts to adhere to (e.g. SOLID and things like that)
  • Line-Endings ... (even though that may seem trivial)

And a lot of those standards could be validated by means of the development tools and the source-code management tool (e.g. git-hooks or the hook-mechanisms available in other source code management systems.

But there is also a lot of things you could standardize on other levels...

  • User Story formats
  • Requirements descriptions
  • The quality of acceptance criteria

What else would you standardize?

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Shine! The third S of the 5S

(Seiso, 清掃, according to Wikipedia)

Other parts of this series

Cleanliness or shine?

According to Hirano the third pillar is called “cleanliness”, a term which doesn't help very much in clarifying the implications for the knowledge-worker or software-development organization.

Let's have another look at the article from Wikipedia.

  • Clean your workplace completely
  • Use cleaning as inspection
  • Prevent machinery and equipment deterioration
  • Keep workplace safe and easy to work
  • Can also be translated as "sweep"

Once again this seems easy – or at least obvious – when the workplace is a workbench, a car pit or any other environment where ‘real’ or physical dirt accumulates. But how do you attain cleanliness at the workplace of a knowledge-worker?

In my opinion, when your knowledge work involves computers, the sweeping might include:

  • Checking the local working copy of your source code control system for orphaned files
  • Removing temporary files
  • Removing unused build and configuration files
  • Deleting invalid contacts and obsolete phone numbers or addresses
  • Or even such mundane tasks as running anti-virus software regularly
  • Keeping you synced folders (e.g. Dropbox) synced
  • Keeping Backups
  • Removing unused branches in the source code control system

If your work also includes actual creation of code there usually is a lot of cleaning up to do at the end of a coding session. That cleaning up could include (but is not limited to) things like

  • Removing duplications
  • Removing experiments
  • Removing trace and debug statements that are no longer needed
  • Adding trace and debug statements for maintenance purposes

Even apart from work directly related to computers there is a lot of ‘sweeping’ possible:

  • Re-evaluting your planned work (e.g. backlog grooming in many scrum-inspired environments) – weed out the stuff you don't need anymore
  • Removing old versions of documents
  • Removing outdated links from the documentation (e.g. Wiki-pages)

And so on – just get rid of stuff that doesn't add value any more or is outdated. Having superfluous ‘things’ usually confuses people more than it helps.

What are your suggestions for sweeping the workplace of knowledge-workers?

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Straighten! The second S of the 5S

(Seiton, 整頓, according to Wikipedia)

I am still not convinced that it was a good idea to only use English words that start with an ‘s’ for all the pillars of the 5S-System in the Wikipedia (and some other) explanation of the concept.
According to Hirano, who wrote one of the defining books on 5S, the second pillar is called ‘orderliness’ which – in my opinion – is much easier to interpret for software development purposes.

Ideas from production (as quoted from Wikipedia)

  • Arrange all necessary items in order so they can be easily picked for use
  • Prevent loss and waste of time
  • Make it easy to find and pick up necessary items
  • Ensure first-come-first-serve basis
  • Make (the) workflow smooth and easy
  • Can also be translated as “set in order”

The difference between ‘sort’ and ‘straighten’ is very subtle - especially when we think about software-development or other knowledge work, but if we consider the alternative translations ‘organization’ and ‘orderliness’, the difference becomes much clearer in my opinion.

How to apply these ideas to software development

While ‘organization’ calls for the removal of unnecessary clutter (be it in your File-System, on your physical desktop, on your computer’s desktop or anywhere else) ‘orderliness’ goes a step further and requires us to set the things that are not unnecessary – one might say those items that are necessary – in a definitive, understandable, reproducible order.

Let‘s look at other options to bring more orderliness into software-development

One of the things I tend to see here is the “automate ruthlessly“ or “ubiquitous automation” concept. Or, as they put it in the old days:

  • The first time you do something, you just do it manually.
  • The second time you do something similar, you wince at the repetition, but you do it anyway.
  • The third time you do something similar, you automate.

But just using the tools of the trade in a more orderly fashion can make a huge difference. Using tags to categorize files (if your file-system supports such a thing), using a defined pattern for file names (not only for source code) and generally not only weeding out stuff but also ordering your tools and material falls into this category.

As James O. Coplien quotes in the foreword to the clean code book there is the old American (?) saying of “A place for everything and everything in its place” which really captures the whole concept very well for me.

What I propose in addition to Cope‘s explanation of this concept (a piece of code should be where you expect to find it) is to apply this idea to everything related to the value chain – from the first idea to the end-user actually interacting with the capability of the system that represents this idea.

  • Where do the requirements belong?
  • Where do the acceptance criteria live?
  • Where would I find the swahili language translation of the help-files
  • Where is machine specific configuration information placed? And how about user specific configuration?
  • and so on...

Now what would you propose to do in our day-to-day work to get our software-development more ‘orderly’?

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Sort! The first S of the 5S ...

...(Seiri, 整理, according to Wikipedia)

When applying the 5S-Approach to software development it is important to not just take the Wikipedia definition verbatim, but to also look behind the scenes.

So what does "sort" mean in software development?

First of all – it is not "sort". [Hirano][hirano-95], who wrote one of the defining books on 5S, describes this pillar as "organization" - the verb, not the noun.

Ideas from production (quoted from Wikipedia)

  • Remove unnecessary items and dispose of them properly
  • Make work easier by eliminating obstacles
  • Reduce chance of being disturbed with unnecessary items
  • Prevent accumulation of unnecessary items
  • Evaluate necessary items with regard to debt/cost/other factors.

When you think about it, this is very close to "decluttering your life" – but with a focus on the workplace. (you might want to look up “100 items or less”)

How to apply these ideas to software development

Does “organize” mean you have to have a clean desktop? Either the one on your computer or the one your keyboards is placed upon?
Does “organize” imply you should not have any personal items on your desk or walls?
Does “organize“ require you to not have old printouts of code on your desk?
No, No and... Yes! Actually it does mean that you don't have any old, obsolete printouts on your desk. This is where things are quite similar between the workplace in a factory and a workplace in knowledge-work – don't put too many things you don‘t actually need in your workplace. Neither in the physical workplace nor in the virtual workplace on your computer

  • Are you constantly clicking on the same buttons? Buttons which don't actually add any value to your work? Eliminate those clicks.
  • Is your computer‘s desktop cluttered with old shortcuts? Remove them! Or move them to a special folder where they don't interfere with the day-to-day work.
  • Do you have all of the Microsoft products installed but only ever use one of them? Sort at least the icons so that the unused ones are out of the way.

Take the time to organize your personal workplace – it pays of in spades.

The same holds on the product level:

  • Do you have hundreds of files, that don't serve any purpose any more? Just delete them! If you're not sure if it is safe to delete them this might be a good time to take a good look at your source-code management system...
  • Do you have local copies of old versions of your source tree, so that you can look up certain things? Once again a good option to familiarize yourself with the source-code management system of your choice. And then delete those copies. (And while you‘re at it you might want to have a look at git to get some more leeway with respect to source-code management)
  • Do you use google to look up how the functions of your programming-language, libraries and frameworks work? Try thinking about compiling the relevant information and making it accessible locally to avoid things like google driven architecture (German article).
  • Do you have dozens of auxiliary (self-made) framworks and libraries? Try combining them while weeding out the unused and obsolete code.

I guess you get the drift – organizing your work in the software world can be tremendously helpful and certainly is a good starting point on the way to a streamlined lean and agile software development process, but of course it is not the only thing that’s necessary. But then again it is called ‘5S’, so there is more to come.

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Gradually changing a ‘system’ (team, company, corporation etc.) – give the five ‘S’s (5S) a try

I outlined earlier, that I do not believe in the Nuremberg Funnel or any other direct way to instill values in peoples heads.

But if there is no "Upload Values" routine in the system, what are the chances to change team and company behavior?

The Five-S approach

Amongst other things the 5S approach has been used for a long time in conjunction with lean production to introduce the lean mindset by applying practices.

The term 5S comes from 5 Japanese words that happen to have fitting English translations which also start with S. As the Wikipedia article states, these words are

While the Wikipedia article explains (a little bit on) how to apply these "phases" as they are called in the article, there is more to these concepts. In other works (e.g. Hirano's "5 Pillars of the Visual Workplace" they are called pillars which fits the original idea more closely.

Unfortunately these ideas are very close to the problem domain from which they where born – which is manufacturing in this case.

Like Kanban, which hast been re-applied to software-development and a lot of other types of knowledge work by David J. Anderson, the 5S approach also needs to be re-applied to the field of software-development to make it an effective tool for this kind of environment.

So I'll look into the concrete projections of the 5S for a software developing company some over the course of the next 5 posts.

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

P.S.: Of course there are other approaches to changing a companies mindset – some even complementing the 5S approach like the Toyota Kata, as described by Mike Rother in his book –, but the 5S System gives very good guidance on an appropriate level of abstraction IMHO.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Diagnostics Plug – a missing abstraction in most systems

Another car analogy – this time with iPhone-Support...

As the website tom's guide - tech for real life tells us

“... Every car sold in the U.S. since 1996 features a built-in engine control computer that can be accessed with the right tools. This is called On Board Diagnostics-II (OBD-II), ...”

And actually this information can be accesses all the time – even while the car is driving.

Nowadays it is actually pretty simple to access the diagnostics information from the car. All you've got to do is buy an odb-II bluetooth adapter and an application like DashCommand or Engine Link or the like and you easily can see all the information from the diagnostic sub-system of your car. Some application also allow for the extraction of the error codes and error log. If you use one of these applications you can find out what's really wrong with your car as soon as you notice that something is off – way before an appointment at the garage would be possible.

Having a running (software) system is much like having a running car - it gets harder to work on the parts when there is more load on the system. If the database load is at 80% it becomes hard to run an additional query to find out how many stale entries are in a certain table. And if the server is maxed out, it is not so easy to just run a second instance of the system just to find out if the supposedly optimized css really is optimized. Some systems (like Apples OS-X) have built in mechanics to enable the collections of diagnostic information with a relatively low penalty for the overall performance of the system. The same holds for some web-servers and database systems – but what about your business application? Is it possible to easily find out how many logical errors occurred in the last half hour? How many searches returned too many or too few results? If that isn't possible, you might not yet have had the necessity to start exploring these types of questions.

If you do have the information available it is quite often the key to effective (end probably also efficient) bugfixing and code optimization.

In his work Betrand Meyer introduces us to the concept of “design by contract” and the related concepts of pre- and postconditions as well as invariants. While Betrand Meyer originally thought of aborting the program whenever any of the expectaions (assertions) was not met, I found it a sensible approach – especially for “legacy” systems that have been running for a serious amount of time – not to stop the whole system, but only to make a “note” of the violation and make these notes available via the diagnostics port for everyone who is invested in the health of the system.

By analogy, I think it's a good idea to make the diagnostic information of you system (any system) available at runtime too.

Disclaimer: “Just” make sure that this diagnostics plug is not also providing access to internals that should not be available from the outside... like credit-card information ad the like.

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Bigger and smaller pieces in the flow - think "Heijunka"

One of the always recurring discussions when talking about flow-based software development processes is the question of the appropriate size of the work-items.

The lean production concept of "leveling" or "heijunka" addresses exactly this questions, but it is sometimes a bit hard to translate lean concepts from production into concepts that are suitable for knowledge workers.

The basic idea – as described nicely in this wikipedia article – is to make sure that the amount of large and small pieces in the systems "levels out" so that an even flow is possible for all sizes of work-items.

To instantiate such a process in knowledge work we are once again faced with one of our basic challenges – to create a balanced mix of small and big work-items we have to know their size beforehand. And usually we don't. But this basic conundrum still is manageable if we allow for some corrections further down the way.

Nonetheless the work-items have to be analyzed at least to a certain degree before they can be fitted into different "Size-Boxes" (if you're emulating some kind of heijunka box).

Once you do have the different sized work-items though it is possible to employ different methods to manage the flow or distribute the work between different swim-lanes.

So - do you have some approach to "heijunka" in place?

Till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, July 27, 2014

After the fact - a new role for function points?

Just the other day I was chatting with a friend about the place of function points in software development.

While they are traditionally used as an approach to estimate the effort required to build a system, from my point of view this role has changed with the current prevalence of lean and agile methods.

Using function points to estimate effort in new project work

... is (IMHO) a difficult feat because there would be a serious amount of functional decomposition necessary which in turn would require extensive analysis which in itself would be a serious step towards BDUF. Furthermore it would require so much effort that a separate project would be necessary to get the funding for the work.

And this approach is neither very agile nor very lean. It does not address the knowledge gain – both about what the project is about and on how to go about the solution – during the project.

Making work between projects comparable with function points

... on the other hand seems quite feasible to me. Usually, after we have finished the work (and of course in an agile environment we have finished, really finished, at least some work after the first iteration) we do have measurable building blocks that can easily be measured and counted (in functionpoints).

Using function points to plan big projects

... is not such a good idea from my point of view. (Even when it is considered viable because epics seem too hard to plan with planning poker)
In my opinion using function point analyses for up-front planning is almost dangerous – for the aforementioned reasons of extensive up-front work (and implicitly commitment to solutions).
If estimating epics seems too hard there might be other reasons involved that would still be valid if function point analysis would be used. But with the kind of up-front analysis that often seems appropriate for function point analysis these points might become hidden behind too much detail. The problem with planning poker is of course that the "consensus amongst expert" that has been derived from wideband delphi depends on a certain level of detail and upon a sufficient number of available experts from the different areas of expertise.

In the end, all that planning poker does is condensing the formal approach of wideband delphi into a seemingly more informal approach based on verbal communication. Establishing a basis for estimation and installing a cross-functional group of experts is still necessary! Even if the process that can take weeks in wideband delphi is condensed to a relatively short interactive meeting. Such a group could – in a software development setting – consist of e.g. marketing, software-architects, database engineers, ux-specialists, testers, quality assurance, technical writers, and so on

If the requirements can‘t be estimated well enough, that problem is often rooted in too little experience in the domain, or missing decomposition into manageable – and understandable – units, for example stories on the next (more concrete) level of abstraction.
While function point analysis also enforces the decomposition of the requirements, it tends to drive the analysis towards a mindset of "What can be counted in function point analysis?" instead of a mindset of "What is a capability of the system that can actually be leveraged by an end-user and that I can estimate?" Therefore there is a genuine risk of trying to operate in the solution space before even the problem space has been explored well enough.

So, instead of opting for function point analysis when epics seem un-estimatable, I would rather suggest to break the epics down in such a form that a solid comparison with things that have been done before is possible. One approach to do this might be to at least name the stories on the next less abstract level. And additionally walk through a couple of user journeys.

Using planning poker to plan small increments of existing software

... on the other hand is a surprisingly good idea in my book.

The questions that have to be answered to get to the function point revolve around things like:

  • How many (already existing!) screens have to be modified and how complex are they?
  • How many tables are involved?
    (The data model and its physical representation usually also exist with existing, running software)
  • How many interface have to be touched? Are they inbound or outbound?
    Remember: The system is running already, so the interfaces are either already in place or an explicit part of the requirement.
  • How many functional blocks of what complexity are affected?

All of these issues are cleanly cut when adding small, well-defined requirements to an already existing system and thus can be counted quite easily. When implementing completely new epics, trying to put numbers to these issues requires at least the creation (a.k.a. design) of a conceptual data model and a functional decomposition of the requirements – things you would rather like to do during the discovery of the system, during and alongside the implementation.

My conclusion:
Function points can be really ugly critters – but used to the right ends they can be a tremendously efficient means.

'til next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Testing: How to get the data into the system

Even though the correct term for a lot of the “testing” going on would be verification let‘s just stick with “testing” in the titles for the time being...

General verification workflow

The general way to verify that a piece of software does what it is meant to do seems quite simple:

  • Formulate the desired outcome for a defined series of actions
  • Put the system in a known state (or the sub-system or the “unit” – depending on your testing goal)
  • Execute the aforementioned defined actions
  • Verify that that the desired outcome is actually achieved
  • [Optional] Clean up the systems [1]

While this process sounds simple enough, there are enough pitfalls hidden in these few steps to have spawned a whole industry and produce dozens of books.

In this post I want to tackle a very specific aspect – the part where the system is put into a “known state”.

Putting the system into a known state might involve several – more or less complex – actions. Nowadays, where it's possible to automate and orchestrate the whole creation and setup of machines with tools like vagrant and puppet it is even possible to set up the whole environment programmatically.

You might not want to that for each unit test, which brings us to the question of when to setup what wich I will try to address in some future post.

The problem with the data

However big or small the test-setup is, one thing that is very hard to avoid is providing data.

The state of the system (including data) if often called a fixture and having those fixtures – known states of the system with reliable, known data – is a fundamental prerequisite for any kind of serious testing - may it be manually or automated.

For any system of significant size if there are no fixtures, there is no way to tell if the system behaves as desired.

Getting the data into the system: Some options

In general there are three ways to get the data into the system

  • Save a known state of the data and import it into the system before the tests are run.
    In this scenario the important question is “which part of the data do I load at which time“ because the tests might of course interfere with each other and probably mess up the data – especially if they fail. Consider using this approach only in conjunction with proper setups before each test, amended by assertions and backed up by “on the fly” data-generation where necessary.
  • Create the data on the fly via the means of the system.
    Typically for acceptance tests this means UI-interaction – probably not the way you want to go if you have to run hundreds of tests. Consider implementing an interface, that can be accessed programmatically from outside the system, that uses the same internal mechanisms for data creation as the rest of the software.
  • Create the data on the fly directly (via the datastore layer).
    This approach has the tempting property that it can be extremely fast and can be implementing without designing the system under test specifically for testability. The huge problem with this approach is that it duplicates knowledge (or assumptions) about the systems internal structures and concepts – a thing that we usually try to avoid. Consider just not using this approach!

So, do you actually have fixtures? And how do you get to your data?

’til next time
  Michael Mahlberg


(One can either put the effort in after the test or in the setup of the test - or split the effort between the two places, but the effort to make sure that the system is in the correct state always has to go into the setup. Cleaning up after the test can help a lot in terms of performance and ramp-up time, but it can not serve a substitute for a thorough setup.

Friday, July 04, 2014

How to get to the value(s)?

Values! That's what the Agile Manifesto – and hence the whole agile software development movement – is all about! Or is it?


Do you know how Waterfall first came into life? There are many stories, but a lot of them start with an article by Dr. Winston W. Royce, presented at the 1970 WESCON.

There the classical waterfall approach is lined out on the first few sentences and pictures.

And for many a reader that was enough!

And so they missed, that he continued by stating, that while he believed in the principal idea [of doing analysis and design prior to programming] he thought the implementation to be „risky and inviting failure“. He used the remainder of the paper to line out a more iterative approach, which he recommended to his readers. If only they had read thus far...

So the straw man, that Royce set up just to knock him down, has become the foundation for the waterfall model as we know it, because (some? most?) people didn't bother reading far enough.

Same in agile

The funny thing I see nowadays is that the same starts to happen with the agile manifesto.

In a lot of conversations the agile manifesto seems to have been reduced to the underlying values. Which are handily presented on the first page of the manifesto. It is funny how the room falls silent very often when I start to ask about the second page of the manifesto with the principles...

Seems like a lot of people don't look further than the first page.

How to get the values across

To me, the fact that there is (way) more to agile than only the four value statements has always been a relief – after all, up until now, nobody has found a way to install values into someones brain directly. At least not to my knowledge.

From what I understood from the behavioral psychologists, with whom I talked about the matter, the accepted way to transport values is to let the target audience experience the values through practices.

Children learn about values from the way other people act – not by what others say is right. (Claiming “Chocolate is bad for you” while munching away on a mousse au chocolat usually doesn't work to well with children.)

And – as Uncle Bob pointed out – we also infer the values a culture holds high from the behavior we can observe in that culture.

A culture in this case can be as local as a single software development team.

Thus, when everybody on the team claims “We believe in high quality software” but they cut corners every time they have to deliver, one might infer that they don't really see value in high quality software. (Which would be a pity, since – in my opinion – Quick and Dirty is very non-Agile!)

Or, when the whole team claims to love tests but none get ever written, one might infer that "testing" is in fact not really in their value set.

The opposite is not quite as simple – if we observe a team that consistently writes test we would probably infer that they hold testing high, while in fact they might just be scared by their QA department.

Nonetheless, as long as there is no way to ‘inject’ values directly, just following the practices for a while still seems to be a very good way to get at least closer to the values.

While I have seen many a project fail where every member could quote all the values from the Agile Manifesto I have not yet seen a project that adhered to all the principles and still failed.

Although I have to admit that it is a lot harder to actually follow the concrete principles than to quote the values.

Try giving the second page of the Agile Manifesto a chance – it might be worth it!

‘til next time
Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, June 15, 2014

The conceptual Pyramid of Agile

Sometimes it helps to organize the different concepts that are common in lean and agile methods by the relationships amongst each other – kind of like in Maslows pyramid of needs

How to introduce a mindset

There is a discussion going on between different fractions in the lean and agile continuum about “the right way” to introduce new processes and mindsets. While one approach argues to start with the values, personally I’m more inclined to start with the practices (the same for Toyota btw, at least according to their European CIO and VP)

At least for some kinds of change-management it makes sense to view lean and agile approaches in a context like this:
Let’s have a look at the layers in this pyramid from the bottom up.


The foundation is built from the concrete techniques that are necessary to get the job done. This starts by simply knowing the syntax and semantics of the programming languages used and continues with specific techniques for analysis, design, implementation. Test Driven Development has it's place in this realm as well as continuous integration, automatic builds and build-servers (not the same as continuous integration by any stretch of the imagination), pair-programming etc.


Once you know how to wield a hammer and how to handle a screwdriver – and know the difference between the two –, you still need a bigger plan to build things of real complexity. That is where process comes into play. The same applies in the world of software development. Processes lay out how different steps of work are connected to each other, who’s talking to whom and about what etc.

Process Control

But then again process alone is just the beginning - a means to an end. As one manufacturer of tires once claimed "power is nothing without control."
While processes give a good indication on how to proceed from gathering requirements through to delivering tangible capabilities to end-users they usually say little on how to control the process itself. How to identify weak points, how to coordinate the work between different stations in the process and so on. This is where process control and process improvement come into play.

Examples for the more prominent approaches

XP - foundation for a lot of things

From what I see today in the agile space most techniques which are considered to be part of "common sense" or simple "agile techniques" actually stem from the original description of eXtreme Programming (XP). Test Driven Development, Continuous Integration, Pair Programming, Standup Meetings, On-Site Customers, Sustainable Pace, Simple Design, YAGNI, Planning Game etc. all where first made public via the XP-Website and even more so through the book eXtreme Programming explained (first edition!).

Consequently when I put eXtreme Programming in the pyramid it covers quite a lot of ground. It's the only lean and agile approach that I am aware of, that covers so many topics on the techniques level. And it still does a very decent job on the process level. It even has some very clear points on process control.

Scrum - Widely applicable, and not really software specific

At the time of this writing Scrum has a subjective market share of 92.6% and it appears that almost everybody who is not really part of the ‘inner circles’ of the lean and agile community assumes that Scrum and Agile are ‘almost synonyms.’ Of course nowadays many people claim that Scrum requires unit-testing, continuous integration, user stories and so forth. But if you look it up in the Scrum Guide you'll find nothing like that mentioned - after all it’s only 16 pages anyway. 16 important pages without question, but they don’t tell you how to implement Scrum.
And that’s by intent.
Scrum is like a template that you can and should build upon - but you have to flesh out the detailed workings all by yourself. And they are much more complex than the usual picture that fits on the back of a coaster. (I wrote about this in German a while back - even if you don’t speak the language I think the pictures give a good overview of the differences)

When I try to put Scrum in the Pyramid I end up with a very well defined approach to the topic „process“ – with some very small extensions into process control and techniques.

The Kanban Method - getting control

The Kanban Method for knowledge workers is an approach defined by David Anderson based on the way Toyota optimizes their processes.

While some people see Kanban as a different approach to software development – saying things like “we switched from Scrum to Kanban”. David Anderson himself points out that this is not the case, since The Kanban Method is “just” a way to run the process – what ever your process may be. You can (and should IMHO) even run Scrum using Kanban for process-control.

When placing The Kanban Method into the pyramid it fits nicely into the upper triangle, called “Process Control”, and has just a small, well defined extension into the “Process” layer.

Start with the foundation

A short while ago Uncle Bob wrote a very nice blogpost on ‘The True Corruption of Agile’ and argued in a similar direction - the practices form the culture and the culture is identified by the practices present. So, following this pyramid and Uncle Bob’s point of view, I think it is a good idea to make sure to have the foundation (the practices) intact and use all the concepts on the appropriate level of abstraction.

Where do you try to make changes happen?

’till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

P.S.: I introduced the German version of this pyramid as part of a (German) [podcast episode back in 2012][za-episode], as part of Maik Pfingsten’s Zukunftsarchitekten Podcast.

Monday, June 02, 2014

"The Sky's the Limit" ?

Limit the Work in Progress

That's the second of the core practices in the Kanban Method.

But is the Work in Progress really the only thing that should be limited?

Features in production can be unlimited - or shouldn't they?

Lot's of boards i have seen have unlimited "In Production" columns - or even feature an infinity sign (∞) above it.
Although I can relate to the Idea of having an infinite amount of room for features and capabilities that the world could use.

But then again there is a flip side to that coin...

When you have a product, you've got to support it!

In project work people – and yes, I have to admit, I'm one of them – tend to focus on the deadline – after all one definition of the term project is that it is a "... planned set of interrelated tasks to be executed over a fixed period ..." (emphasis added), so naturally this fixed time scope has an impact on our decisions – as it should.

But when we think in terms of products this focus has to shift. We have to think beyond the delivery date. All of a sudden all those features are potential entry points for additional feature requests, bug reports, support demands, documentation demand and all other kinds of work-generation.

So at least on the portfolio level I think, it is a good idea to make sure that you don't end up with too many things in production.

So, unless you're doing it already, what do you think about putting a limit on the Features in Production?

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

P.S.: Of course the number of bug-fixes in production is only limited by the number of bugs we put in the system - and since we have the chance to put new bugs into it every time we change one tiny little thing, that column (bugs-fixed) really should have a ∞ on it...
Same goes for the typical UHD (user help desk) tickets - even if it has a certain charm to limit the number of times a user may call after he killed his system, that kind of limit doesn't seem really feasible to me.
I'm really talking about product features at the portfolio level here.
And of course, as usual, YMMV

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Testing in Production?? Of Course! No Never! … ?!?

Recently I’ve come across a number of discussion on testing in production and whether this is good or bad.

Misunderstandings all the way down

Of course it all depends on your perception of what “testing in production” means. If it means delivering products that ripen at the client (what is called “Banana Software” in Germany) that’s quite different from when it means “being able to probe the running system without (too much) disturbance of vital funtions”

How do other professions handle it?

A little while ago I elaborated a bit more on the subject of testing and I also think most of the ideas from this earlier article are still valid. Testing should contribute to better, and more reliable solutions. Whether this requires testing at creation time, build time, roll-out time or during production, testing at the right level with the right approaches is a great thing – of course!!

What do you think?

’till next time

Sunday, May 04, 2014

The blackout version of “stop-the-line”

As the story goes:

“Whenever a worker in that Toyota plant saw anything suspicious or a fault in the product he worked on, he pulled a cord hanging from the ceiling and the whole production line stopped.”

This may seem counterintuitive at first, but actually makes a lot of sense if the circumstances are right. Consider for example a misalignment between rear view mirror and type label on the bonnet of the car, that is discovered close the end of the production line. If it is just caused by a misplaced label, stopping the line might be ‘a bit’ over the top, but if it is caused by misaligned mounting holes for the bonnet (drilled at the very beginning) which in turn leads to errors everywhere downstream from that station (bent hinges, torn padding, sheared bolts etc.) it might be a good idea to stop the line as early as possible and fix the root cause first.

But that’s not related to software, or is it?

This might seem to be less of a problem in software, but from my experience it isn‘t – quite the contrary. Let‘s just assume that a new function is introduced in the newest version of a library or framework and this operation is redundant (to an existing version) and also faulty. Not “stopping the line” and eradicating the problem at it‘s roots will probably lead to a widespread usage of exactly that new function. Sometimes in fact so widespread that the whole system becomes unstable – and a maintenance nightmare as well!

But how to do it in (software-related) development?

Most development teams with a “stop-the-line” policy tend to use another concept from the TPS, the andon, a system to spread important information by visualizing it excessively. A common example for this is a traffic light or a set of lava lamps.
But there is a problem with these approaches – they still require everyone to follow the agreement, that a faulty build means “stop-the-line”. Also they only work for faulty builds – not for conceptual problems.

A really cool (but slightly scary) version – The Blackout! …

… was recently brought up by a client of mine: connect the “stop-the-line”-Buzzers (or cords) with a dedicated power circuit for the displays… Thus effectively once someone hits the “stop-the-line”-Button all screens go dark!
Even though this idea came up as a somewhat humorous remark, I could imagine that this might actually work – at least for teams that have reached the high quality levels typical for ‘hyper-productive’ teams.

So – what’s your policy for defects? And what’s it going to be?

’till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Remember: to backlog (verb) means ‘to pile up’…

And the noun means

2. an accumulation of tasks unperformed []…“ – Merriam-Webster online dictionary

Translating the word to German makes it even worse: According to amongst the German translations there are:

  • Rückstand (lag, deficit, handicap)
  • Nachhohbedarf (a need to catch up)

So clearly there are some negative connotation with regard to the term backlog. Still it has become a term with positive connotations in the software development community within less than two decades.

Yet –regardless of the positive connotations–, time and time again I see backlogs used in a way that seems counterproductive to me, Accumulating more and more “undone work” in the “backlog” - whether it is called backlog or feature-list or ticket-store or any other name.

In these cases, the items in that list really become a “Rückstand” as we would say in Germany - a lag with a need to catch up!

Of course there are several countermeasures to this – Backlog Grooming probably being the best known. But lean approaches also point to another idea on how to handle this: be very well aware of what your backlog really is and what you commit to!

Backlog vs. Ready-Column

Little’s law tells us that the average time an item spends in the system is determined by the work in progress divided by the time it takes to work on one item.

If we trust in this formula, basic mathematics tell us that if we put infinity in the numerator the result will also be infinite.

Thus, if we don’t put a limit on our backlog, we do not have a predictable time to completion.

Let‘s draw a picture of that:

Very often task-boards, scrum-boards, informal kanban-boards etc. are organized like this:

An unlimited input column (in Scrum for example it is the product-owner‘s job to keep the backlog prioritized the right way, resulting in an ample amount of preselected work for the next iteration), followed by some columns for the different stations in the process and finally an unlimited column for the finished work. While one might argue about the last one – which would make a good topic for a post on it‘s own – in general there is nothing wrong with this setup.

The problem arises when people forget that they can‘t make predictions about the whole board. Since the first column is endless (i.e. not limited) the average time any item spends in the system implicitly also goes towards infinity.

Now for the simple solution:

Only promise what you can control!

Without changing even one stroke on your board, just by communicating clearly that the predictability begins where the control begins, a significant change in expectation management might occur.

(Of course this was originally part of most agile approaches - it just happens that nowadays it seems to be forgotten from time to time…)

Shifting to an input queue

While we‘re at it: Why not change the wording to reflect the difference? While a _‘backlog’_ is a – potentially endless – list of things ‘not yet done‘ what we really want to talk about is a list of thing ‘to be done in a foreseeable, defined future‘. For me, one term that captures this concept nicely is the _‘input queue’_ – a term frequently in use in the lean community. And while I‘ve seen many (product-) backlogs without a limit, I have not yet come across an input-queue without a limit.

’till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Some models don’t need to show off…

Bubbles don’t crash – or so they say.

As most of us know, this doesn’t apply to stock-market bubbles. Or housing bubbles. This adage – “Bubbles don’t crash” – is targeted to a kind of bubble that’s specific to the software world.

The argument that “bubbles don’t crash” refers to the ‘bubbles’ that sometimes are used when modeling system behavior – be it informally on a white-board of in a tool. It’s just another way of asking the wiscy-question: Why Isn’t Somebody Coding Yet. Both adages show quite clearly that not everybody sees a huge value in extensive modeling.

Even though my own enthusiasm for modeling everything has some very clear boundaries I do advocate building (visual) models as a means of communication, as a way to verify assumptions and for whole lot of other reasons. (And please use a standardized notation and put legends on everything that goes beyond that notation if you want to use at some point in the future. Like: in an hour from the moment you create it.)

So, yes, I do think that it’s a good idea to stop drawing pictures at some point and start putting things in more concrete representations, but what I don’t understand is why some people shy away from everything that is called a model with a rendition of ”Bubbles don’t crash“ on their lips.

The majority of models we encounter are much more than only a picture – the formula p * v = const for example is a model of the behavior of gas under pressure. It means that with twice as much pressure an ideal gas will have half the volume. This is called the “Boyle–Mariotte law” and one of the first models every Scuba diver has to learn. Because it also means that with half the pressure the volume will be twice as much. Which can have serious consequences if the gas is the air in your lungs and you are not aware of this model.

Of course in reality this model is not the way the gas behaves – there are numerous other factors (like the temperature for example) that also have an impact, but for the purpose of the context the model is good enough – and not graphic at all.

And there are a lot more models like this. The so-called velocity in Scrum is one for example. Just to get back to software development. And so is Little’s law, famed in the Kanban community.

Another “model” that we come across very often is the []state-machine]state_machine - known to some from petri-nets to others from the bare theory of information system and yet to others from the UML-state diagram. A lot of ‘cybernetics’ is actually done by state-machines and in many programming environments modeling behavior through state-machines is so ubiquitous that we don‘t even notice it any more. Actually every time someone implements the ‘state’ pattern from the Gang of four pattern book they build of model of desired behavior – even though they do not implement a state-machine (but that would be a topic for another post).

And even if it is not about programming, but about the process around it – building a model is quite helpful and makes it possible to verify your assumptions. You think you can complete twice as many features with twice as many people? The model for that could be features_completed = number_of_team_members * time. And that model can be verified very easily. (Or – as I would predict in this case, according to Fred Brooks‘ seminal book The Mythical Man Month: falsified…)

So, from my point of view, embracing models and the idea of modeling is quite helpful – even if most models are not visible.

’till next time

Sunday, March 23, 2014

In Kanban the kanban is not the kanban - What?!?

In Kanban the kanban is not the kanban - What?!?

In the early stages of the introduction of Kanban systems many organizations struggle with the implementation of the pull signal and how the cards represent the pull signal.
In my experience a lot of this confusion is caused by semantic diffusion and the fact that “The Kanban Method” (for software development and other knowledge-work) often gets over-simplified and is reduced to a lax translation of the word kanban and the original 3 rules for a Kanban (capital K) system.


Let’s look a bit deeper into this
As David Anderson points out in his famous blue book the word kanban means (more or less) «signal card» and such a card is used to visualize a so called pull request in a traditional kanban environment.

Now there is a lot of information put into one little sentence. What is a traditional kanban system anyway? What is a pull request? And what’s different in our Kanban (capital K) systems?

A “traditional” kanban system is the kind of kanban system that has been in use at the production plants of Toyota and the like to optimize the flow of physical work products through the factory. Here the upstream station – that is, any station that lies before another station in the value stream – gives out kanbans which represent their capacity. These kanbans act as tokens for the downstream stations to request new material – or, to pull the material.

But what is different in “our” Kanban systems? Well, the reaon for the capital K is the fact that we’re working with a different kind of representation in “The Kanban Method” (for software development and other knowledge-work). On page 13 of the aforementioned book David points out that

«… these cards do not actually function as signals to pull more work. Instead, they represent work items. Hence the term ‘virtual’» (emphasis mine)

Virtual pull signals

So what about the pull signal in this scenario? Isn’t it all about establishing a pull system? Well, it’s covered in work. Literally. Almost. But at least it can be covered by work as the following illustration shows.

A very simple board

A kanban board in use

Some work moved

A kanban board in use

More work moved

A kanban board in use
As you can see: you can’t see any pull signal - only the work.

That’s because the pull-signal is actually hidden behind the work and not really visible. At least not in this rendition. It is possible to make it visible, but only for very simple boards. All that’s needed here is a little annotation.

A very simple board with annotation

A kanban board annotated with pull signals
A kanban board annotated with pull signals…

Board filled with work

An annotated board in use step-1
The same Kanban board in use – all the pull signals hidden by the work. Looks quite similar to the non-annotated board, doesn’t it?

Some work moved into production

An annotated board in use step-2
So now, when the cards are moved, the pull-requests become real visual signs.

Work getting pulled all over the board

An annotated board in use step-3
And when the pull-request are fulfilled, that in turn reveals more pull requests and so on.

A more complex board

Actually most evolved Kanban board contain at least some queue-colums - often differentiating between “doing” and “done.” Now the annotation approach doesn’t work any more because the pull signal becomes completely virtual.

Let’s have a look at this as well.

The same work on a more elaborate board

Board with explicit “done” columns
Work in progess shows up in the doing colums of course

Some work is done

Board with explicit “done“ columns after some work is done
Even though some cards are moved around, no WIP-Limits are broken and no pull request issued (WIP-Limits in this example go accros doing and done)

Invisible pull signal

A pull signal is implied but not visible yet
Now that a work-item has left its WIP-boundaries a pull request is implied - but not at all visible.

Virtual pull request

The pull signal in Numbers
In fact the pull-request is only ‘visible’ by comparing the actual Work-In-Progress – in this case 2 – with the WIP-Limit, which is (3) in this example. Hence the pull request can be calculated but is not visible to the naked eye. Which fits in nicely with the notion of a “virtually signalled pull request”. This can be translated to “virtual kanban”. And of course virtual kanbans live on ”virtual kanban boards” in “virtual kanban systems”.

’till next time

Sunday, March 09, 2014

Don't be too SMART - Goals, Targets and Lighthouses

The idea of SMART goals has such appeal to many people, that they try to put everything in these terms. And I have to admit that I'm a big fan of the SMART concept myself.

Having goals that are:

  • S pecific
  • M easurable
  • A ctionable
  • R ealistic
  • T imed

is very helpful when I try to decide whether to start a certain task or not. Whenever I hold an operations review or a retrospective I remind people to think about the SMART acronym whenever they they refer to actions.

As an example from the software development world “We should clean up our code” is not a very SMART goal if you look at it. “We want to reduce the function size of every function to less than twenty five lines by applying ‘extract method’ until next month” may not speak very well to the non-initiated, but it surely is SMART.

Sometimes I may overshoot in this quest for clarity. Not all goals have to be perfectly SMART. Especially with long term goals it is sometimes a good idea to aim for a “goal” that is not really reachable but that can show the way nonetheless. Some goals are targets that you want to hit, for some goals you want to pass between the goalposts (or over the finish-line for that matter).

Some goals really should be treated more like lighthouses by fishermen. You want to move towards them when it's appropriate but you can never reach them and probably don't even know their specifics – but they still help you find your way. (Besides: when your in a seagoing vessel and do reach them bad things happen, but that may be pushing the analogy to far)

So the picture in my mind has changed over the years and nowadays I try to use the SMART concept whenever I deem it appropriate, but I also try to find enough lighthouses on the way.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Blocked by multitasking

Blocked by multitasking!

Teams who struggle with delivering software seem to share one common characteristic that has turned out to be a recurring theme in my consulting work - the tendency to multitask.

As I mentioned earlier it is very easy for a team to be busy all the time – even so much that they might be on the verge of a breakdown – while a lot of the work products go stale because they sit around idling for extended periods of time.

Chris Matts and Olav Maassen do a wonderful job of debunking the myth of «effective multitasking» in their graphic Novel Commitment. When they talk about hidden queues they explicitly mention that multitasking is just that - a queue of things unfinished. In fact, at least from my experience, the queues created by multitasking with the best of intentions (I can't finish task A so I'll just start on task B until I can work on task A again so that I don't have to idle an burn precious development time) are much worse than defined queues in the process because they tend to be barely visible. On one hand these concealed queues hide the fact that Task A is blocked. On the other hand the have to be managed in the back of the head which adds to the cognitive burden of the person working on the task(s). This more often than not this leads to “I can't finish task L so I'll just start to work on task M... oh, wait task D seems to be workable ... hmm but so is task H ... ”.

So, if you want to do yourself and you colleagues a favor, please apply the hackneyed but true optimization rule to multitasking: "Don't do it" ... or switch to the advanced Version of that rule "Don't do it – yet".

Make blockers – which would drive you to multitask – explicit and squelch them as soon as possible. And visualize any kind of queue you start to create, so that you and others can manage it.

'til the next time

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Let's Scale the Small Team Approach?!?

After the chaos report came out in the mid nineties and made the public statement that 53% of evaluated projects where "challenged" and only 16% of them could be considered "successful" a lot of people started to focus on the errors that supposedly had been made in the 53% of challenged projects. And from the tries to eradicate those errors from all future projects a lot of the so called ”heavy“ processes where born. For the curious: the remaining 31% of projects got cancelled before they ever saw the light of day.

Yet some people focused on the question what the 16% of successful projects did differently – in line with the old coaching mantra of "catch them doing something right." Amongst other things a lot of these projects followed what today would be called an agile approach - kind of living and breathing some of the principles behind the agile manifesto even though that didn't even exist at that time.

Although the principles could be weighed differently one of the key concepts in my perception always was

The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a development team is face-to-face conversation.

which also requires the teams to be of manageable sizes – the magic number 7 ( plus or minus two ) comes to mind.

Because the number of required communication lines grows exponentially with the number of team members it quickly gets impractical to have face-to-face conversations with larger teams and this in turn contradicts the whole idea of "scaling agile."

Of course it's possible to develop software in an agile manner with more that just one team, but then something else has to come into play. At least "Agile" as defined by the agile manifesto doesn't account for scaled agile. Scrum tried to address this topic with the Scrum-of-Scrums, but I think nowadays there are more obvious ways. Like integrating agile teams via a lean organization. You might want to give it a try.


Sunday, January 26, 2014

Busy Products - Idle Workers

Once you start investigating workflows from the point of view of the work-items instead of from the workers perspective interesting things start to show. One tool to do this is the "value stream analysis" – one of the tools in the lean approach.

One of the fascinating things that came up again when Tom did that in a simulation at the Agile BI-Conference in December '13 was this same fact, that is often the root-cause of a certain kind of workplace unhappiness: the difference between the idle-time of the person doing the job (nearly no idle time at all) and the idle-time of the ‘item under construction’ – or product – which might easily approach or even exceed 80%.

If we take one requirement as the work item and map out its way through two weeks of development in a simple two-state graph we see that there are only small peaks of work while the work-item itself is idle most of the time.

The workers on the other hand – who try to fit as many requirements as possible in their time-box – are always in a busy state!

So, if it takes forty days to deliver a net worth of one workday it is no wonder that perceptions of workload might differ 'a bit' depending on your vantage point.

After all: however busy I may feel, as soon as I try to do five things in parallel, this also means that whenever I work on one of them, four of them must lie around idling. Totaling an average of 80% idle-time per Item. When I think about this it makes me want to introduce more measures to limit my work in progress every time!

So, have a good time mapping out the value-streams of the work-items that are most important to you – you never know what you might find out.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Not all simulations scale

I really like simulations as a way to introduce engineering practices. According to the old proverb I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand, there is hardly a better way to teach the concepts and mechanics of an approach than by actually living through it.

But some parts of simulations can be extremely misleading. Some things scale down very nicely other not at all. Even in physics it's not possible to really scale down everything - that's why wind-tunnels can't always be operated with normal air but need special measures to achieve a realistic environment.

But back to simulations in the field of knowledge-work...
I ran the getkanban simulation (v2) a couple of times now and found that it does a very good job of scaling down the mechanics and at the same time illustrating some of the concepts in a ver tangible manner. Except for the retrospectives or operations reviews.
With the Kanban Pizza Game the effect was even stronger. When we ran it at the Limited WIP Society Cologne(German site) we really liked the way it emphasized the tremendous effect that can come from limiting the work in progress and other aspects of the Kanban Method - except for the retrospectives.
With 5 Minutes for a retrospectives and given the fact that speedinguptheconversationdoesntreallywork (speeding up the conversation doesn't really work) it is hard to hear everyones voice in a retrospective. And of course – as Tom DeMarco points out in "The Deadline" – people also can't really speed up their thinking. It takes a certain amount of time to process information.
What's more: Scaling down retrospectives or operation reviews this much gives people who never experienced a real retrospective a wrong impression – and totally contradicts the concept of Nemawashi!

And this is true for most of the aspects that involve human interaction – root cause analysis, value stream mapping, A3-reporting, designing Kanban systems (as opposed to using them) etc. This is one of the reasons Tom and I designed the Hands-on Agile and Lean Practices workshop as a series of simulations alternating with real-time interjections of the real thing (e.g. a 30 minute value-stream mapping inside a 20 minute simulation, so that people really can experience the thought-process and necessary discussions).

Nowadays I try to balance my simulations in such a way that the systemic part of an aspect is displayed and emphasized through the simulation while the human aspects are given enough space to be a realistic version of the real thing.

What do you think?