“Unplanned items and legacy issues” is the top row on my scrumboards. Instead of a story, it is a placeholder for:

  • Unplanned work: stuff that we suddenly have to do and we can’t plan (meaning we cannot put into the backlog as a story). A typical example is reinstalling a PC after a hard drive crash. You might spend all day at this, and you are obviously not going to wait until the next sprint to fix your PC.
  • Legacy issues: this is any bug or issue that belongs to stories already delivered and accepted, and should be fixed.

Why do I put this on top? For unplanned items it’s rather obvious: this is for things you are doing anyways, and are not part of any story. Most teams simply don’t visualize this type of work, but I like all work to be visible, even if it doesn’t add value. Otherwise the day is gone and “nothing” was done. This way at least everybody knows what you are doing.

Regarding legacy issues, a general best practice is to fix bugs before writing new code, and implement all feedback from the Sprint Demo before starting with new stories. If you follow those guidelines, legacy issues should have priority over new work.  (If for any reason it doesn’t, then put it either in the backlog or in the parking lot).

In both cases, we are assuming the work is relatively small. That means tasks, not stories. At most a couple of days of work.  For example, during the Sprint demo, the customer might make a small observation that takes one or two hours to fix. A small change request if you want.  How are you going to manage this work? Are you going to create a new story for this? Too much overhead… just put up a task (a post-it) in Legacy Issues, get it done with and forget about it. But be careful with this and always use common sense. If it is story-size work, there is really no excuse not to plan it, it is the PO’s responsibility to tell the customer it will go in the backlog and the best he can ask for is top priority for the next sprint.

legacy_unplanned

Tags: , , ,

Visual management is not just about having visual elements, how you use them is equally important. A bad process can render a good idea useless. And some trivial ideas, with a good process behind them, can produce interesting results.

The DONE status tag is a process related idea. It is a creative way to visualize flow, give teams a moment to celebrate their achievements, and to ensure team alignment and communication; all on a daily basis.

The DONE tag

The concept is simple. During the day, team members work on tasks that are in the “In progress” column of the task board. When they finish a task, instead of immediately moving it to the “Finished” column, they slap a DONE tag on it. And there it stays for the rest of the day, broadcasting to the world that the team has finished some work. This is the flow part: at a glance, at the end of the day you can “see flow” by scanning the boards for DONE tags. The more blue, the more flow. Managers and Product Owners like this.

The celebration part comes during the daily standup. Here, the team gets to move all their DONE tags to the Finished column, creating a small daily moment of pride. Naturally it should be the person who finished the task who talks about it and moves it.

What about alignment and communication? By moving all DONE tasks at the daily standup, you basically ensure that everybody in the team is aware of what is getting finished and by whom. This is actually how the idea came up. Team members were moving tasks to Finished during the day, and then at the daily standup they would forget to talk about stuff. With lots of tasks in the Finished column, it was getting difficult to remember which ones were new from the day before. And if you have One Day Tasks, believe me, this is going to happen, especially with the most prolific developers who get a lot of stuff done. The idea was to come up with a foolproof process that would guarantee people would talk about everything they finished the day before without requiring a special effort on their part. This worked, and people liked it.

So the general guideline for using the DONE tag is:

  • You should only move tasks to the Finished column during the daily standup.
  • You should only move tasks that have the DONE tag on them and you did yourself.
  • Once you move them to the Finished column, remove the DONE tag.

Another curious thing I discovered is that sometimes team members forget to talk about something they finished the day before, even if it is in the “In progress” column and has a DONE tag on it. But in this case it is easy to detect: if after the daily standup there are still DONE tags remaining, either they forgot to talk about it, or it was done by a team member that is absent that day (in that case, unless he went on holidays, teams normally wait for him to come back so as to not steal his achievement).

Can you quickly spot the finished tasks?

Can you quickly spot the DONE tasks?

Why blue tags?

The truth: no special reason. I just randomly chose a nice looking color. But then I found out that blue represents “good” in japanese, so -being these tags a Lean idea- this actually gave it some meaning. (For the curious: I learned this through a lengthy debate with Kohsuke Kawaguchi, the author of the Hudson CI engine. Hudson displays a blue screen instead of a green screen when the build is OK.) Blue also has very good contrast with yellow, making it easy to visualize finished tasks from afar, as you can see in the above picture. But there is no special reason for blue, and I have seen that some teams prefer using green for DONE.

Tags: , , ,

Last Thursday I tried out for the first time my session proposal for Agile 2009, thanks to my friends at iLean who invited me to give their free monthly iLearn session in Kontich (near Antwerp). In this workshop participants are divided into teams and challenged to come up with the “ultimate taskboard” for the newly appointed CEO of their company. After a first iteration where basic boards are built, the work is criticized by the CEO and then it’s back to the drawing board as more requirements are added.

Asides from the basic “who’s doing what”, teams are expected to come up with creative, visual ways of showing daily project issues such as “a team member’s hard drive crashed and he spent all day reinstalling his PC” or “a team member is sick”.

Thanks to all the people who participated! Workshop pictures follow.

Red team building their board

Red team building their board

Green team building their board

Green team building their board

Blue team presenting their board

Blue team presenting their board

The jury is out on this one...

The jury is out on this one…

Finished Red team board

Final Red team board

Final Green team board

Final Green team board

Final Blue team board

Final Blue team board (click for large version)

The purpose of nametags is to be able to quickly and easily see who’s working on what. I love nametags. I haven’t been able to come up with a simpler, more practical and more flexible way of achieving this level of transparency and visualization.

Nametags

I like nametags because:

  • Nametags are extremely self-explanatory.
  • Nametags are very readable if written nicely.
  • Nametags are small and unintrusive, but highly visible at the same time.
  • Nametags can be of different colors which adds some clarity without creating visual pollution.
  • Nametags are cheap and can be made in 10 seconds. And they last practically forever.
  • Nametags are flexible. Placing one is a snap. You can easily remove them. You can put one on top of another. You can bunch them together. They can overlap, hang out, or on the side of task and status Post-it’s.

Usability is very important when designing your visual elements and processes. It is important to distinguish between nice and usable. Both are good, but usable is more important. Let’s examine a couple of other ideas for achieving the same goal, and see how they fare against nametags.

Idea 1: Scribble the name or initial of whoever is working on the task, on the task itself.

This is the “default” method that many teams use. I don’t like this idea at all. It’s neither nice nor usable. It looks bad, is not very readable, and in practice it is never maintained. What happens if you get blocked? Do you cross your name out? And what if another person starts working on the task, with or without you? Do you add his name? What do you do with your name? And what do you write, your full name or your initials? Initials are not very readable.

bad_nametags

Idea 2: Small round magnets that have a picture of each team member (this also applies to magnets with initials, or any other physical artifact that represents a team member)

This is a typically nice idea. It probably looks great and it’s kind of  funny. You would see people’s head all over the board. Wacko! I like this idea, and one day I will try it out. Although I suspect that looking at a picture of someone’s head is not as simple as reading a name. (You still have the pictures of team members on the board in case you want to see who the person is. But I haven’t talked about that yet). Obviously team members know who everyone is, but for people outside of the team, this is not the case. So using pictures to indicate who is working on what might actually makes the board less readable to people outside the team. Gotta be careful with that. And if you are using initials or color coded magnets or little cute pokémons, it’s even less readable. Too many mental connections to make to see who’s doing what.

pokemon

Hello, I’m Alex! Check out my tasks!

But the main reason I haven’t tried these picture-magnets is practical. It takes time and money to build little magnets with team member pictures on them. And how many do you make? What’s the maximum number of tasks people will be working on in parallel? You would be surprised. No matter how much you encourage people to not parallelize, all kind of stuff happens in reality, and you need to have a flexible process or people will not follow it. People start stuff and get blocked, or have to wait, or the task needs to be worked on by two people, or suddenly you realize three different tasks defined during sprint planning are actually the same and should be done as one so you check them out at the same time.  Magnets, magnets, magnets. You’re probably not going to have enough.

Materials

nametagsHow to build the nametags:  these are actually Post-It “Notes Markers” (product code 670/5) with a little bit of Magic Scotch tape at the end (because they’re not Super Sticky – just like status tags). They cost next to nothing and you get 100 of each color. They are 15 x 50 mm.

You can also cut nametags yourself out of colored paper, but why would anyone go through the trouble. I would only do that in countries where you cannot find these post-its.

Tags: ,

“Less is more”. You heard this before, right?

This applies particularly to visual management. It is very easy to generate noise by creating visual elements that are not strictly necessary. When designing our information radiators, we should always be careful not to create waste. And any visual element that doesn’t add value is waste.

Of course, sometimes it’s not that easy to figure it out. For example: suppose you run out of yellow Post-it’s, and you see some green Post-it’s lying around. Should you use them, or is this waste?waste

By using another color, you are creating “something”. There used to be one color, now there are two. People will look at the board and wonder: “What does green stand for? What’s the difference between green and yellow?”. And there is none, you were simply out of yellow. So in this situation, using green is waste. You are also killing off your possibilities of giving green a specific meaning in the future, which you might will need.

But on to status tags and the three columns, the main topic of this post. It’s time to design your taskboard, and you have to decide the most basic of things: how many colums do I make, and what do I call them?

If you are doing Scrum, and you agreed with One Day Tasks, you will probably be tracking the flow of tasks (not stories) across your board.

What’s the simplest solution that will work?

A unit of work can have three basic states: “Not Started”, “In Progress”, and “Finished”. Most taskboards that have more than three columns are breaking up “In Progress” into intermediate, sequential phases. Typical example: “To Validate”.

There are many reasons why I would try to avoid using additional columns. It promotes specialization and local optimization. It creates two processes and a buffer where there could be a cell and single piece flow. It’s waterfallish.

But the most important reason -from the visual management perspective- is that it creates extra visual elements (more columns). It also uses more taskboard real estate, which can be scarce. All this is waste.

Blue team board

A good way to eliminate the need for extra columns is to use status tags.  For example, instead of adding a “To Validate” column, we can solve the same problem with a PLEASE TEST status tag that you stick on the task. Practically any sub-state of “In Progress” can be represented by these status tags; which are smaller, less intrusive and more flexible visual elements than columns. They are also color-coded which makes them even more powerful from the visual perspective.

So unless you’re into Kanban and you really know what you’re doing, I highly recommend you stick to the basic 3 columns. (And we’ll discuss Kanban another day, because I think status tags and the 3 columns might also be applicable there. For example, you can limit work in progress by limiting the number of available status tags.)

Status tagsThe Post-it’s I use for status tags are product number 653, 51 x 38 mm in size. I use two different color sets, that gives you around 6 total usable colors (there is some overlap between sets). I also put a very small piece of Scotch Magic tape on the top, because they are not Super Sticky.

The status tags I use will be discussed individually in separate posts.

Tags: , ,

One day tasks are tasks that take -in theory- up to one day to complete by one person, or by a pair of people in the case of pair programming. Creating tasks of one day maximum size gives two benefits to the team. The first is that under normal conditions it creates visible daily flow. Meaning that if nothing goes wrong, one task will be finished (on average) per team member per day. So if a team has 8 members, theoretically they should finish 8 tasks per day. But in Agile teams, people work in pairs a lot, either pair programming, or a coder/analyst-tester pair, so in practice it should be around half of that that gets finished. And effectively, my experience is that in healthy 8-member teams, you should expect to see around 4 DONE tags per day.

Without one day tasks, you will end up with a story with only one or two Post-its, where nothing ever moves and during the daily Scrum a team member says “I’m still working on this… yep… still some work to do, still working on it.”

BAD: Only one task

The other advantage of having one-day tasks is that it is great way to see if the team has really analyzed the story or not. Sprint planning blues? Having one day tasks forces the team to think about what they really have to do to finish that story, to a good level of granularity that is later on easy to follow up. The big effort is not in writing the Post-its, it’s in thinking what has to be done in those 1-day chunks.

GOOD: Lots of tasks

Tags: ,

Introducing the Visual Management Blog, a space for the discussion of ideas and examples of Visual Management applied to Agile teams and project management.

What is Visual Management?

Visual Management is the practice of using information visualization techniques to manage work. A simple example is using sticky notes on a wall to manage a list of tasks, a better (and more complex) example is kanban. Many visual management ideas come from traditional Lean thinking and Toyota, but these techniques are also very popular within the Agile Software Development community.

Benefits of Visual Management

Visual management is generally regarded as a clear, simple and effective way to organize and present work . It can also be perceived as fun, since visual elements bring color and life into an otherwise boring office environment. Another benefit of visual management -often overlooked- is that it can positively influence the behavior and attitude of team members, managers and stakeholders. How? For example, by helping build transparency and trust.

Information Radiators and Visual Management

red lava lamp

“Information Radiator” is a popular term invented by Alistair Cockburn that is used to describe any artifact that conveys project information and is publicly displayed in the workspace or surroundings. Information radiators are very popular in the Agile world, and they are an essential component of visual management. Most Agile teams recognize the value of information radiators and implement them to some degree in their processes. The three most popular information radiators are Task Boards, Big Visible Charts (which includes burndowns and family) and Continuous Integration build health indicators (including lava lamps and stolen street lights). In this article I will focus on task boards, since I find them the most critical and least discussed information radiator.

Task Boards

The most important information radiator in visual management is the Task Board. (When doing Scrum, I sometimes call task boards Scrumboards). The task board has the mission of visually representing the work that is being done by the team. They are the most complex and versatile artifact: a physical task board is a “living” entity that has to be manually maintained.  I believe boards are being undervalued by most agile teams today. This might be because there has not been a lot of focus on their potential, or perhaps there are simply not many examples around on what makes a great task board. In any case, it’s time to take task boards to the next level. [1]

What makes a great Task Board?

A good task board should be carefully designed with readability and usability in mind, and the project methodology should actively rely on it. This implies that the use of the task board should be standardized and form part of the process. If task boards (and other information radiators) are not an integral part of the project methodology, maintaining them might be perceived as overhead or duplication of work. This results in boards not being updated and becoming out of sync with the work actually being done. An incomplete or stale task board is worthless. A task board is a living entity and should be kept healthy.

scrum task board

You have a great task board if…

  • Team members never complain about having to use it.
  • The daily standup happens against it.
  • Random people that pass by stop to look at it, expressing interest and curiosity.
  • Your boss has proudly shown it to his boss.
  • You see team members updating it regularly during the day.
  • It passes the hallway usability test: a person who has never seen it before can understand it quickly and without explanations.
  • You catch a senior manager walking the floor and looking at it.
  • It just looks great!

Visualizing waste

When designing the process to be used with the task board, two important factors should be taken into account: the first is how to visualize work that is not directly associated with the value-added activities being performed (i.e. in Scrum, tasks that do not belong to any story within the current sprint). Visualizing waste can sometimes be as important as visualizing value-added activities. So it is desirable to come up with a system that will visualize any work being performed. As an example on how to achieve this, I dedicate the top row of each board to “Unplanned items and legacy issues”, a placeholder for any task that does not belong to a current story. Bugs that come up (belonging to stories already delivered) go there, random tasks (e.g. “reinstall Windows”) too.

Work granularity

The second important factor is the level of granularity we will visualize. In my experience the ideal size of tasks is one day. (This is only a guideline and should be taken as such. As long as the average task size is around a day, you should be OK.) The goal is to see regular flow on a daily basis. Sometimes people don’t see the benefits of having 1-day tasks and go for much bigger lenghts. It seems difficult to achieve the benefits of visual management with work units of that size. The granularity is simply too big; not enough movement will be seen, not enough detail will be shown.

Aesthetics and Usability

Most task boards are set up without giving too much thought to aesthetics and usability.  They are hastily made, using available materials and without putting much attention to detail. As an example, in many boards columns are hand drawn with whiteboard marker, and tasks written in ballpoint pen or pencil on whatever material is available (large post-it, small post-it, index card, etc). There are no guidelines regarding the use of colors or materials, and no defined process for using the board. All this makes for very low readability and poor usability in general. If you are standing two meters from such a board, it looks sloppy and is rather illegible. With some effort, we can clearly do better than that!

blue_detail

I would like to emphasize the value of task board design and usability, and of implementing a standardized process regarding how to use it (which implies using standardized materials). This has really been a key success factor for me, helping me smoothly introduce Scrum to new teams that were at the Shu level.

I will be publishing illustrated examples of the task board best practices I have gathered over time in the series Elements of  taskboard design.

Results of applying Visual Management

In my experience, quality information radiators can become central to an Agile software development process for co-located teams. Most daily activities revolve around the task board. The burndown and backlog show project status at a glance. Build health is clearly displayed. In many cases good task boards result in teams not needing a bug tracking system anymore. Managers are at ease. Product owners claim to be able to sniff trouble coming up immediately, by visualizing trends on the boards. And the most important result: increased transparency and trust created among all parties.

Effect on team members

The main effect I observe among team members is increased accountability. High visibility and clear guidelines ensure team members cannot hide work (or non-work) from each other. This tends to expose things, but it is done with ground rules that people find quite reasonable. Thus accountability is achieved in a smooth way. This builds transparency among team members, which in turn builds trust.

This is also a good way for team members to learn to define and select their own work instead of having work assigned to them. Many transitioning teams struggle with this step, especially since it might imply a loss of perceived authority by the former manager or team lead.

Behavioral changes in Management

Project management and the Product Owner might perceive a decrease in risk: all work being clearly visible, there is less chance of issues going undetected and of people slacking off, and it is easy to keep track of progress.

Another benefit for people in positions of responsibility is that they can obtain the peace of mind sensation they would theoretically get from “micromanaging” a team, without any of the drawbacks.  They know that at any moment, if they would want to, they can go and see exactly what everybody is doing and the status of every work item, to any desired level of detail, with zero overhead and without causing any discomfort to anyone. The goal here is that managers, whenever they feel that need for control tickling them, will go to the task board instead of to the team members. This is especially good for enabling teams transitioning to Agile to self-manage.

Appendix: Lean / Kanban development and Visual Management

Visual management is an important part of Lean. As I mentioned in the introductory paragraph, there are several examples within the Lean literature on using visual tools in production or factory settings. These ideas also extend to Lean Product Development [2], but there are not that many examples or pictures out there.  The Kanban development movement -which is a relatively frontier area at the moment-  explicitly takes a visual approach to managing work, and everything I have seen features strong visual management aspects. But, understandably, most of the focus of Kanban at this point is being put on describing the more important Lean aspects of the methodology such as cycle time, single piece flow, limiting to capacity, etc. and not on usability or design of the boards themselves. I hope this article will help introduce some ideas on task board best practices to the Lean/Kanban movement, since they already have a strong bias towards visual management.

kanban board

Footnotes

[1] Researching this article, I found a very good post specifically focused on task boards, but it is mostly introductory and surveyal: Tom Perry’s Task Boards: telling a compelling story . There is also a great article out there that comes from a Lean practitioner and is very similar in spirit to what I wrote here (including what I consider a very nice -albeit simple- board): Visual Management and Self-Reliance by Peter Abilla. BTW, this guy also interviewed Mary Poppendieck! Coincidence?

Some other articles touching the subject:

  • Lisa Owens wrote a short article on the Scrum Alliance website with a promising title but unfortunately not that much content and no pictures: Attractive task boards.
  • Maarten Volders, who was part of my first Scrum team and helped develop some of the tecniques used in my task boards, complains about his current employer’s “task boards gone wrong” but apparently couldn’t get any pictures of them.

[2] Morgan/Liker in “The Toyota Product Development System” dedicate a paragraph (page 262) to Visual Management when describing the obeya room, saying “Visual management is key to effective communication[…]”. Mary and Tom also talk about the importance of the “Visual Workplace” in one of their books.

Tags: , , , ,

Newer entries »