Scrumboard

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Scrum of Scrums detailIn Scrum, the “Scrum of Scrums” is a way to ensure alignment and coordination across different teams, or among different sub-teams of a large Team.

How big is the Team?

A Team is a group of people collaborating towards a common goal. Sometimes it’s not that easy to pick your goal, and thus figure out who the Team is, or who it should be. On one hand, small teams are good. Small is simple, small is beautiful.  So maybe you should pick a small goal, and make a small Team.

On the other hand, you should try to look at the system as a whole. This could mean anything: a project, a department, the whole company… What is the ultimate system, but the Organization itself? Your whole company is the Team, from the Systems Thinking perspective. Especially for small companies. So maybe you should think of a large Team.

Most likely, we need to strike a balance between these two dichotomic approaches.

I have found my comfort zone with a simple, practical definition: One Team, One Backlog.

Splitting it up

Banana SplitLet’s assume you found your definition of Team, and you have more than ten people in it.  Since the ideal team size is 5 to 9, you probably want to split them up. But you don’t want to lose the concept of  one Team. The recommended approach is to break them up into sub-teams. I will discuss some ideas for creating these sub-teams and for visualizing their work, while trying to keep and respect the spirit and vision of the one (big) Team.

Feature teams

Using the same logic regarding why it is interesting for team members to be as cross-functional as possible, the best strategy for making sub-teams is to create cross-functional feature teams, as opposed to ‘component’ teams or -god forbid- teams that specialize in a certain technology or skill (like  ‘QA team’ or ‘.Net team’).

Feature teams are teams that work on features, i.e. stories. Pieces of business value. They are value-driven teams, whereas other sub-team splitting strategies (component, skill, etc) create function-driven teams that invariably fail to deliver business value and create local optimizations and waste.

You create your feature teams by spreading out the knowledge, skills and experience equally. The goal is that any team can do any story in the backlog.  You should stress that the “real” Team is the big one. Sub-teams are just created for communication and coordination purposes. In my opinion, they should not develop too strong a team identity. For example, I would not measure sub-team velocity, and I would make sure people rotate from sub-team to sub-team a lot.

You can then work with a single, large backlog and distribute stories in round-robin fashion.

Colored teams

I like to give sub-teams a color for a name. E.g “Red team”, “Blue team”, etc.  Colors are very visual and we will be able to use this to our advantage. For example I use electric tape of the same color to create their taskboard, which gives them an immediate strong visual identity (see picture below). Another reason colors are good is that they are non-hierarchical, and people don’t attach themselves that much to a color.

colored_boards_small

The Black team

In large projects, particularly in transitioning organizations, there are always some people left floating around that are not doing any actual work at team/trenches level.  I put them in the Black team. This is a pseudo-management team that mostly combines the responsibilities of Product Owner and Scrum Master (in the same team, not the same person!) and any other role that you either want to share across teams or that you simply can’t get rid of.

Typical examples of people who we have put in the Black team include:

  • all the ex-Project Managers, who now had to remove impediments full-time (they also had a lot of administrative work to do: fake Gantt charts, fill in timesheets, useless reports, etc)
  • the Agile Coach
  • the Product Owner(s)
  • an Architect from Architecture (we later convinced him to move into the trenches with the real teams)
  • a QA Team Lead who didn’t want to test (we later got rid of him, once the testers he used to C&C were doing agile testing)
  • a Release Coordinator, whose job was to beg to Infrastructure to deploy our app into production (this was a full time job)
  • etc.

As you can see these were mostly roles that existed because we were doing Scrum within a traditional large organization. In any case, the idea is to group all these people into one “team” so as to not leave any loose ends. Ideally they will jell and work cooperatively, otherwise at least you can visualize their work by putting up a taskboard for them. For example on this picture below, most tasks are either impediments or things that have to be delegated to people outside of the Team. The horizontal lines are not stories but simply priority slots, i.e. High Priority, Medium and Low. If I would have known at the time, I would have put WIP limits, because nothing was ever getting done here. :D

Scrum Black Team

The Scrum of Scrums

Ok, let’s move on to the interesting part. Each sub-team has their scrumboard with the stories they have selected for the current Sprint, divided into tasks as usual. How do we visualize what is going on at Big Team level? How do we keep track of so much work? We need to change the level of granularity. In the Scrum of Scrums, you only visualize stories. You create the “Scrum of Scrums storyboard” where every story that is currently open is visualized, with the team that has it and the current status indicated. The picture below shows such a board at the beginning of a Sprint. Click on the picture for a larger version. Note: This is actually the same physical whiteboard as pictured above… you are just looking at the other side! The Scrum of Scrums side is pointing towards the hallway, so passer-bys can look at it.

Scrumboard Scrum of Scrums 1

There are only two columns: “Story” and “Status”. Story has a copy of the story card that is on the team board. Status is normally “not started, “in progress”,  “done” or “done-done” (a curious distinction between “we think we’re done” and “we’re sure we’re done”). This last done-done was indicated with a red star. Each story has a little magnet indicating which team is working on it, but we also experimented with other visual elements like creating status tags of the color of the team. In this example you see both at the same time: a Green Team story will have a green “in progress” tag, and also a green magnet.

The mechanics for the Scrum of Scrums are simple: after the daily Scrums, each team sends a rotating delegate to give a brief status report on each of their open stories to the other delegates and the Product Owner. The delegate is then responsible for updating the rest of his sub-team members on what’s going on at project level (something that never happens, but oh well). Of course sometimes a lot more people show up during the Scrum of Scrums. Anybody who is interested in knowing what’s going on at Big Team level goes.

Note: The black and blue tape indicate nothing in this case, we simply didn’t have enough tape of the same color, and our boss was a fan of Club Brugge (whose colors are black & blue), so we made it for him.

This is how the board might look like towards the end of the Sprint, on a good Sprint where lots of stuff got done. (Click for large version)

Scrumboard_Scrum_of_Scrums_2_small

Note how you can quickly visualize different types of problems.

  • Several top priority stories are not getting finished. In particular the #1 top priority story.
  • The yellow team seems to be in trouble. I see 3 yellow “in progress” and only red star with yellow magnet. Also comparing yellow to green, red and blue you can see the difference.

If you looked at the large version of the picture, you probably noticed those white horizontal lines that say for example “End of Sprint 9 Demo: 8/Sep”. This is a visual way of indicating what was the scope taken for Sprint 9. The point here is that this was a Team that was not delivering all they started, and was dragging along open stories. Some stories were blocked, others underestimated, some teams had sick people… for whatever the reason work wasn’t getting finished, and since it was not possible to limit WIP for political reasons, we just let the teams take more work, keeping existing stories open. But with this board at least the situation was kept clearly visible and the Product Owner knew perfectly well what was going on.

A last picture with some comments, in a style similar to my original “Scrum Board with Comments” picture:

Scrumboard Scrum of Scrums with comments

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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.

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