Estimation is waste?

There is an ongoing debate about whether or not to use Estimates in your software development process, largely fueled by #NoEstimates, but as is often the case the battle has been picked up by many that have become over zealous without fully understanding but with great certainty tell you that you should never estimate.

There are many good explanations as to why estimating may not help you and some great explanations of alternative ways to get the information you need, or to help you understand why the information was not needed. But I want to focus on one of my pet-peeves – Thou shalt not estimate because estimating is ‘waste’ Every time I see that I shudder, and quite often I am left with the feeling that the person writing doesn’t understand either Lean or #NoEstimates.

Thou shalt not estimate because estimating is ‘waste’

What is Waste?

First of all the statement makes it sound like waste is bad, in fact the word does seem to imply that waste is bad.  However, Lean is a lot less emotive with the term, Lean is often confused and simplified into simply the reduction/removal of waste.  But this is a very lazy and incorrect interpretation.

Lean is about productivity first and foremost, and is about reducing ‘waste’ ONLY when AND if doing so does not impact the system productivity. In other words, in Lean ‘waste reduction’ is far less important than system improvement, but for whatever reason we get hung up on waste – especially when bashing others. We reduce waste to improve the system – waste reduction is not our goal it is just a tool to help us.

Is Estimation waste?

Is Estimation waste?  The short answer is yes, but that is only part of the truth.  Lean considers waste to be activities that do not directly add value to your product and can be considered either ‘Necessary Waste’ or ‘Pure Waste’.

Waste covers a whole host of things, but waste includes: Planning, testing, reporting, breaks, vacation, sickness, and a great deal of other things far too many to mention.

So calling Estimation ‘waste’ is akin to calling Planning ‘waste’, if we were to eliminate say planning and testing in an effort to reduce waste, we would very likely cause more and worse waste by producing the wrong thing (over production waste), in the wrong order(over production), or poor quality (rework waste).

In other words not all waste is bad and not all waste should be removed – simply calling something ‘waste‘ does not help the conversation.

Sometimes a little waste now can save a lot of waste later.

8 wastes

Is it beneficial?

The real question is whether the activity helps the system? and as a follow-up, is there a better way of achieving the same thing?

Questions to ask when considering waste:

  1. Does this activity help the system to be productive now and in the future? (Would removing it impact our productivity)
  2. Is there a better was to achieve the same outcome?

I can’t answer the question of whether Estimation is beneficial in your system, because every system is unique, if you are using estimation for forecasting purposes then I’d suggest that there may be alternative solutions that are better and #NoEstimates may be a good place to start.  But forecasting is only one use of an estimate, your system may find that estimates are beneficial it is for you to decide.

Next time you see someone use blanket statements that eliminating ‘waste’ as an absolute and unqualified justification for not doing something, please challenge them to qualify their statement. Remember that waste is often necessary, our goal is more often to improve or understand the wasteful activity rather than eliminate it entirely.

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Let’s consider a world without waste

If you are still unsure think what would happen to your system if you abolished all wasteful activities:

  • Vacations – typically 10% of your productivity lost.
  • Coffee breaks – 10 minutes every 2 hours = another 8% productivity lost
  • Toilet breaks
  • Stand-ups – yep they are waste too.
  • Demos, Retrospectives, Planning, all are ‘waste’

Just imagine how productive you would be with no direction, no feedback and no staff?

 

 

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Forecasting, asking the why? behind the When?

A Product Owner, or development team will often be asked for an estimate or a forecast for a product; a feature; an iteration; or a story.  But when you go to a team member and ask them it is not uncommon for the colour to drain from their face, twitching to start, and their pulse to race. Past experience says that the next words they speak will haunt them for the foreseeable future, maybe even for the rest of their career. It is only a rough estimate you say to reassure them, but they just know you have other plans and the fate of mankind lies in the balance. Or so it seems.

dilbert estimate

The difference between a forecast and an estimate.

For most practical purposes there are only subtle differences, the main one being that a forecast deals exclusively with the future. When I think of the two I tend to think of an estimate as information and a forecast as expectation. It is likely that I will use estimates to create my forecast and I may use multiple estimates and even apply other factors to derive my subjective forecast. Whereas an estimate is generally an isolated objective assessment.

Both have huge degrees of variation; accuracy; precision; and risk factors, but in some instances it may very well be that my estimate and my forecast are the same for all practical purposes.

For example, If I was asked to estimate a journey, I may say that it is between 15 and 45 minutes and on average it is 30 minutes.    If I am asked to forecast when I will arrive, that requires knowing not only the estimate but the time the journey starts and if there are other factors such as a need to stop to get fuel, or food. I may also add a certain weighting to the journey based on the time of day. Thus my forecast, whilst based on an estimate may not be the same as the estimate.   Other times though I may simply take the estimate and it will become my forecast.

In practice though the terms are used interchangeably and likely it really makes very little difference, except when it comes to expectations. If I ask “How long will this take” I am asking for an estimate, if I ask “When will this be done” I am asking for a forecast, both are fine so long as everyone knows what is meant by the question.

Forecasting is misunderstood

Forecasting is guesswork, it may be scientific guesswork and it may be based on past experience and metrics and clever projection tools, but it is a guess. You will be wrong far more often than you are right. The more professional and clever and precise the forecast looks the more confidence you may instill in that guess. But it is still a guess, and when your audience gains undue confidence in your guess they have a tendency to believe it as fact not forecast.  It might be that a guess is all that is needed but dressing a guess up and delivering it with confidence may create a perception of commitment.

A forecast is commitment (in the eyes of the one asking)

In normal circumstances by giving a forecast there is an implied commitment, even if you give caveat after caveat, and at any point where you even hint at a commitment to delivery to a fixed scope, fixed cost AND fixed date you are setting yourself up for disappointment.  And sadly that is what a forecast is seen as by most people.

By all means work to a budget or a schedule or even a scope (although that is very likely to vary) but ideally ONLY one and never all three.

Understanding why a forecast is needed.

There are many reasons why people ask for forecasts, and the why is the most crucial aspect of the process. Understanding the why is the first step to providing the right information, and hopefully changing the conversation. Forecasting for stories and features is both more reliable and more accurate but the project/product level forecasting is where there is the most confusion and least understood purpose.

If possible, try to change the question of “When?” in to an understanding of “Why?”

Generally speaking we gather information to help us make decisions. If the information will have no bearing on our decisions then the gathering of that information is wasteful. Forecasting all too often falls into this category.  We take time and effort to produce a forecast and yet the forecast has no bearing on any decision, that effort was wasted, or more often the level of detail in the forecast was unnecessary for the purpose for which it was used.

Making predictions of unknown work based on incomplete information and a variety of assumptions leads to poor decisions, especially when the questions being asked are not directly reflective of the decisions being made.

In my experience the Why? generally falls into three broad categories:

  1. How long will this take?
  2. How much will this cost? and
  3. simple curiosity/routine.

But most people don’t ask why, they spend time creating a forecast and present it without knowing how it will be used. Some people asking for a forecast/estimate may not even know why they are asking, they just always get a forecast. But let us delve a little deeper.

How long will this take?

Why do you need to know?   Some typical answers are:

  1. I need to plan
  2. I have dependencies
  3. I need to prioritize
  4. I have a deadline

How much will this cost?

Why do you need to know?   Some typical answers are:

  1. I want to know if I will get a good Return on Investment
  2. I need to budget
  3. I need to prioritize
  4. I have limited available funds

Curiosity/routine

  1. We always ask for a forecast, I need to put something in my report
  2. I want reassurance that you know what you are doing
  3. I want to know if my project is on track

What you will notice about these questions is that when you ask why, the first request for a forecast suddenly doesn’t make sense anymore, they are not really interested in the forecast itself, but in some other factor that they can infer from the forecast. If the intent is clear then the question can be tailored to get the required information in a better way.

e.g.

I need a forecast – Why?… I need to know when I can allocate staff to the next product/project.

In this case would a simple high level guess be sufficient? I feel confident that staff won’t be available for the next 3-6 months, in 3 months let’s review, I’ll have a better idea then…

I could put a lot of effort into a detailed forecast but an instinctive response may give all the information needed, saving us a lot of trouble.

or

I need a forecast – Why?…  I want to ship this to maximize the Christmas shopping period – or I want to time the launch for a trade show etc.

This isn’t a request for a forecast, this is a request for an assurance that there will be something suitable available for a particular event/date.  I can give you an assurance and confidence level without a detailed forecast, I may even change the priority of some features to ensure that those needs are factored into the product earlier. Or can de-scope some features to meet a certain date.

or

I need a forecast – Why?… I have limited funds available, and I want to know when I can start getting a return on this investment.

This isn’t a request for a forecast, it is a request to plan the product delivery so that revenue can be realized sooner and for the least investment. It may be possible to organise delivery so that future development is funded from delivering a reduced functionality product early. Or that development is spread over a longer period to meet your budget.

or

I need a forecast – Why?… I need to budget, The way this company works I must get approval for my project expenses and staffing in advance so I need to present forecasts of costs and timelines.  This answer is twofold, first – can you challenge the process? It might be better to have a fixed staffing pool and prioritize products/projects such that the most important ones are done first and then move on to the next, in which case the forecast for this is irrelevant, it is a question of prioritization.  Or if the issue is ensuring staffing for the forthcoming year could I simply say whether this product will not be completed in the next budget year?

or

I need a forecast – Why?… I want confidence that you know what you are doing.  This is not a request for a forecast it is an assessment of trust in the team. There are many more reliable ways to ascertain confidence and trust in a team than asking for a forecast.

or

I need a forecast – Why?… I have a dependency on an aspect of this project.  This may not be a request for a forecast of this project, but more a request to prioritize a dependency higher so it is completed sooner to enable other work to start.

or

I need a forecast – Why?…  I want to know if my project is on track.   Essentially what you are saying is that I want to track actual progress of work done, against a guess made in advance that was based on incomplete information and unclear expectations.  And I will declare this project to be ahead or behind based on this.  I am sure those of you reading this will know that what you are measuring here is the accuracy of the original guess, not the health of the project. But we have been doing that for decades so why stop now?

finally the closest to a genuine need for a forecast

I need a forecast – Why?… I need to prioritize or I want to know if I will get a good Return on Investment.

Both of these are very similar questions, but are really requests for estimates not forecasts a rough estimate helps me gauge the cost and when I evaluate that against my determination of the value expected to be gained from the project it may help me decide whether the project is worth doing at all or if there are other projects that are more important. E.g. If it is a short project it may impact my decision on priorities

But even here it not the estimate that has value it is just information that helps me evaluate and prioritize. If I already know that this project has huge value and will be my top priority does forecasting aid with that decision?

When does it make sense to forecast?

Listing those questions above it seems like I am suggesting that a request for a forecast is always the wrong question and is never really needed. And it is true that I did struggle to come up with a good example of when it makes sense to do a detailed project level forecast that included dates or any type of scheduling expectations.

It may be necessary for a sales contract, to have a common set of expectations. Although I would very much hope that sales contract for agile projects are for time and materials and are flexible in scope and dates, if not cost too. So for the purposes of setting expectations and in negotiations I can see that there is value in an estimate, although I do still wonder if a detailed forecast adds anything here that a reasonable cost estimate doesn’t cover.  If possible I would rather work to an agreed date or an agreed budget than suggest a forecast that may lead to false expectations.

But the reality is that sometimes your customer does want one and wont tell you why, or doesn’t know why.  Some customers (and managers) are willing to accept that a forecast will cost time and money and the more detailed it is the more it costs, and of course being more detailed may not make it any more accurate.

More detailed investigation for your forecasting is likely to build greater confidence but may not be more accurate and you should ask the question “will more detail  have a material impact on your decisions?”, and if the extra effort wouldn’t affect your decision then it is just waste.

I would caution that if there is no other alternative and a forecast is made, that it is revised regularly and transparently, the sooner the forecast is seen as variable the more useful it is. There is so much assumption tied to a forecast that it becomes a ball and chain if there is not an expectation of it changing and so it must be refreshed regularly to prevent the early assumptions being seen as certainty, or they will lead to disappointment later.

Short term forecasting

The real value in forecasts is when the forecast is for a short frame of time.  Over the short term we can have much more confidence in our forecasts, especially if we have been working on this project for a while and have historic information we can base our forecast on.  There are fewer assumptions and less variables.

  • Can you forecast which features are likely to be included in the next release?
  • If I add a new feature now can you estimate a lead time for this?
  • Can you give me an estimate of how much this feature would cost?

By limiting the scope of the forecast to an areas where we have more confidence in our expectations the forecasts become more meaningful and whilst there is still a danger they are seen as commitments the risk is mitigated by the shorter time frame.

Alternatives to forecasting

Many of the questions above could have been resolved with much less effort than a detailed project level forecast. In most cases we could achieve sufficient accuracy for decision making with a high level estimate. E.g. A product like that is similar to ‘x’ therefore I’d estimate 4-8 months for a small team. Or as a rough estimate 12-18 months for two teams and calculate costs accordingly.

These estimates are certainly broad but if you have confidence in your teams and you believe they will use Agile principles to get value early and are able to communicate progress and be transparent with issues then I see no issue with broad estimates. It is sufficient to allocate staff and resources, to prioritize, to schedule and to determine Return on investment decisions.

For the other questions you may achieve far better answers through the use of Product/feature burndown charts, user story mapping, or even simple high level Road maps. These tools provide useful information which can be used for managing expectations, identifying dependencies and visualising the progress of a product. And crucially – aid in setting priorities and keeping the progress transparent.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

John Yorke is an Agile Coach at Asynchrony Labs. He assists with the company’s development teams improve, and is a former Scrum Master with more than 20 years’ experience in software development.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lies; Damn Lies; and Forecasting…

NoEstimates in a Nutshell

NoEstimates has made a lot of traction over the last few years, with good reason, it is primarily about adopting Agile properly, delivering the valuable work in order of priority and in small chunks, and by doing so eliminating the need for a heavy duty estimation process.  If we are only planning for the next delivery we can reliably forecast.

But sadly that is generally not good enough and some level of forecasting is often requested.  So NoEstimates came up with a very useful and low cost method of forecasting. However, it has brought with it a whole host of misunderstandings, most of which are not from the book. The author must be as frustrated as anyone by the misinterpretation of his proposal.  This has led to resistance from many (including me) to adopting this method for forecasting.  I am all for delivering value quickly and small chunks or prioritized work, but slogans that are used to excuse bad behaviour are damaging and hard to resolve, especially when they seem so simple.

My biggest bugbear and one I have covered previously is that many have interpreted NoEstimates as an excuse to skip story refining entirely, this was not in the book but nevertheless you can see any number of articles on the internet professing how adopting NoEstimates has saved them from wasteful refining meetings, the misconception is that if you don’t need to estimate the story then the act of understanding the story is no longer required.  When actually the author was suggesting that you don’t need to refine all work up front and could defer deeper understanding until it became relevant – the last responsible moment.

planning dilbert

Story Writing and being Estimable

I encourage those writing stories to use the INVEST model for assessing the suitability of a story and in that: the ‘E’ is Estimable,  but that doesn’t mean you must actually estimate the story, just that you ask yourself whether the story is clear enough and well understood enough to estimate if asked – are there open questions? is it clear what the acceptance criteria are and that these can be met?  There may be a subtle distinction there, but NoEstimates does not offer an alternative to writing and refining good stories. It is just a method for simple forecasting and encouraging deferring effort until it is necessary.

How does NoEstimates work?

Caveat aside I will try to give a very high level summary of how NoEstimates forecasting works, and when and where it doesn’t work. I shall do so via the medium of potatoes.

Preparing Dinner

I have a pile of potatoes on the side and I am peeling them ready for a big family dinner.  My wife asks me how much longer will it take me?  By counting how many potatoes I have peeled in the last 5 minutes (10) and by counting the potatoes I still have left to do (30) I can quickly and simply calculate a forecast of 15 minutes.

That is NoEstimates forecasting in a nutshell, it really is that simple.

Assumptions

However, the mathematics requires a certain set of assumptions,

1. I did not apply any sorting criteria to the potatoes I selected- e.g. I wasn’t picking either small or large potatoes, we assume my selection was random or at least consistent with how I will behave in the future.

2. That the team doing the work doesn’t change, if my son were to  take over to finish the job he may very well be faster or slower than me and my forecast would not be useful.

3.  We also assume that I will not get faster

4.  We assume that all potatoes in the backlog will be peeled, and no others will be added. If my wife asks me to peel more potatoes or to do the carrots too, the forecast will no longer apply and will need revising.
So there we have it, a very simple and surprisingly accurate method for forecasting future work.  But do you see any flaws to the system?

Flaws in the system

Flaw 1. Comparing potatoes with potatoes

The first flaw is that I am getting potatoes ready for roasting so I want them to be broadly similar in size, so when I get to peel a potato I am also sometimes slicing it, some potatoes only need peeling others may be sliced once and others more than once.  Some potatoes are bad and I throw them away.

If my wife comes along and sees my pile of potatoes and asks how much longer it will take? I can look at my pile of potatoes I have completed in the last 5 minutes (18)  and I can count the potatoes I still have left to (30). The problem is I don’t know how many unpeeled potatoes were needed to produce those 18 peeled and sliced potatoes, I am not comparing like for like.   To be able to give this estimate I would have needed to count how many unpeeled potatoes I had peeled, information I don’t have.  Maybe I could take a guess and then use that guess to extrapolate a forecast, but that sounds like guesswork rather than forecasting.

Flaw 2. Forecasting an unknown

Let’s assume that I am producing 10 peeled potatoes in 5 minutes, and I am asked to give a forecast as to when I will be done, but so far I have been grabbing a handful of potatoes at a time, peeling them and then going back for more, one could say that my backlog of work is not definitive, We have a whole sack of potatoes but I won’t use them all for this one meal.  I am simply adding work as I need it. My aim being to judge when I am satisfied I am done and start cooking.  It is very difficult for me to judge when the sack will be empty or when I have prepared enough for lunch.

Flaw 3.  Changing and evolving work

It is a big family dinner and uncle Freddie has just called to say he will be coming so we need to add more food, Aunt Florance eats like a bird so probably not worth doing a full portion for her.  And the table isn’t really big enough for everyone, so maybe we should do an early meal for the kids first.  The point here is that simple forecasting only works if you have a reasonably good assessment of what the work is still to be done, if your backlog of work is evolving, work being added or removed then the forecast will be unstable.

Flaw 4.  Assuming consistency

When selecting work to do next I have a tendency to choose the work that will bring me the most value for the least effort.  The highest ROI, so in this case I may choose the small potatoes first, less peeling and less chopping.  But that means that if I count my competed work and use that to forecast my future work I will end up underestimating how much is left, the backlog has some really big awkward shaped potatoes that will take far longer to do. But my forecast is based on only doing small simple potatoes.

Doesn’t this apply to all forms of estimates and forecasts?

Flaws 2 and 3 apply to any form of forecasting, they are not unique to NoEstimates. Flaw 1 and Flaw 4 could potentially be mitigated with the use of T-shirt sizing or story points, but to do so requires a level of upfront effort.  Effort that is not spent on peeling potatoes, so may well be considered waste – that is unless you see value in a more reliable forecast.
For me Flaw 1 is my main objection to NoEstimates (beyond the belief that refining is unnecessary)  When stories are refined and better understood it is normal to split or discard stories, and often add stories as the subject becomes better understood. So any forecasting tool that uses a metric based on counting refined stories to predict a backlog of unrefined stories is risking over simplification of the problem. But because the maths is so simple it can lead to a confidence level that exceeds the quality of the data.  These assumptions based on flawed data gets even worse when you use a tool like Monte Carlo forecasting which applies a further confidence level to the forecast. By giving a date combined with a confidence level adds such a degree of validity and assurance that it is easy to forget that a forecast based on duff data will result in a duff estimate – no matter how prettily we dress it up.

Summary

Forecasting is risky at the best of times, especially in Agile where it is our goal to have the work evolve and change in order to give the customer what they truly want. Forecasting needs to be understood by both parties and accepted that it is an evolving and changing metric. Anyone expecting a forecast to be a commitment or to be static is likely to be disappointed. Just take a look at the weather forecast, the week ahead changes day by day, the further away the forecast the more unreliable it becomes.  Understanding the limits of the forecasting method is crucial, a simple tool like NoEstimates is fantastic IF the assumptions can be satisfied, if they cannot then the forecast will be unreliable.

It is probably also true that your forecast will improve if you spend more effort understanding the work. Time spent refining the stories will improve your knowledge. But no forecast can reliably predict work you do not yet know about.  The question as always is “What problem are you trying to solve by forecasting?” That will guide you in determining whether the up front effort is worth it.
Related articles:

Why I think estimating isn’t waste
Demystifying story point estimation

I do not think that word means what you think it means…

As an Agile Coach I naturally talk about agile practices very frequently, and participate in a variety of discussions with people of varied levels of understanding of agile principles and practices.  But there are certain words that I notice are used with a disproportionate frequency, and used to describe different things. One word in particular gets used very frequently with emphasis and rarely in the right context, that word is Efficiency.  And just for the record, I have been know to misuse it and am making a concerted effort to find the right word for the context, to that end I will try to clarify some of the situations where a different word may be more appropriate.

Efficiency seems to be used to convey such things as. Utilization, Productivity, Effectiveness, Velocity, and sometimes even Efficiency. Naturally I am not suggesting that people are not using English correctly, or that they don’t know what ‘efficiency’ means, but when you look at the examples below you will see that whilst they use the word efficiency in a way that is syntactically correct, they are missing the depth of their question or statement, and often the context. The preoccupation with efficiency results in behaviour that reduces the effectiveness of the team.

For example:

  • Isn’t Pair Programming less efficient than working solo?
  • Isn’t it less efficient to have a developer testing software?
  • Isn’t it inefficient to have the whole team doing story writing (or backlog refining, or stand-up, etc)?
  • Isn’t it inefficient to attend all these meetings, we’d be more productive here?
  • Wouldn’t it be more efficient if I specialize in this one area and all tasks come to me?
  • Wouldn’t we be more efficient and increase our velocity if we ignored technical debt or skipped testing?

I previously covered an example where maximizing utilization of resources was seen as being efficient, but that efficiency was at the expense of the profitability of the business. I think you are missing the point…

In most cases these questions are simply missing the bigger picture, or the larger context.

In KanBan there is a saying that any efficiency improvement on anything other than your primary constraint (your bottleneck) is just an illusion.

If something isn’t on your critical path then it shouldn’t be your focus. Of course as you make improvements to flow and address one constraint the critical path may change, but you should stay focused on the critical path. Identify your constraint and put your efforts there.

Isn’t Pair Programming less efficient than working solo?

The Efficiency of Pair Programming is a recurring question, and one that I likely will not quash here, and that is not my goal. The issue is whether the question of efficiency is the right word, or the right focus for your efforts.

The definition of Efficiency is:  “achieving a goal with the least effort or least waste.” 

Pair Programming assumes two developers at one workstation, and the implication of the question is that more can be achieved with less waste by working independently in parallel.

The problem with Efficiency is understanding what’s it is that you are measuring – what is your goal, and identifying whether this particular activity is your constraint in achieving that goal.

Let us take a car journey as a very simple example: What is the most efficient journey?  Is it driving at 50mph so as to use less fuel? Is it to get to the destination in the shortest time to reduce utilization of the vehicle, or could it be driving in the middle of the night when the roads are clear and the vehicle is not needed by anyone else?

In all of those examples we are focused solely on the individual journey itself and even then we still have ambiguity of which efficiency we are concerned with.  But very likely the reality in that situation the destination is just a step towards the goal. That isolated Driving journey is unlikely to be entire goal in itself – unless maybe I am a taxi driver, and even then I suspect my constraint is maximizing fares rather than reducing costs, so likely maximizing the number of fares rather than driving efficiently is my goal. Driving efficiently only at 4 am may not be the ideal business model.

The road less travelled…

If for now we assume that we are driving efficiently to use less fuel, because fuel is expensive and money is more of a constraint than our time. Then possibly the most efficient journey would be to combine multiple journeys into one (car sharing, or batch delivery), or make a phone call, in this context a journey not taken(or shared), is far more efficient than the most efficient journey.

I glossed over that fairly quickly, so take a moment to think about it. Efficiently doing an unnecessary task is just waste.

Efficiently doing an unnecessary task is just waste.

Time = Money

But hold on, the most efficient journey for me could simply be one that gets me to my destination on time, regardless of cost or duration. My time and the appointment are more important than the cost efficiency of the journey.  Sure I would prefer the journey to be shorter and cost less if that can be achieved without impacting on my goal, but my priority is being there at a particular time. A super efficient journey that gets me to my destination 10 minutes early so I can sit idle for 10 minutes does not help me to my goal, the efficiency gain is just an illusion.

For a while I used to car share, and it saved me quite a lot of money, but I was tied to a schedule and my journey was much longer. After a while I realized my constraint was time and not money. The ability to be flexible over my schedule was a much bigger constraint. My journey became more expensive but I needed flexibility to reach my goal. In other words efficiency in one area may not just be an illusion it may actually cost you more elsewhere as a consequence.

This is a far too common situation in business, a business will often go on an efficiency drive and look to cut costs without any consideration to the larger impact that the efficiency savings are causing. The focus becomes narrow and they delude themselves and often others that they are being efficient, when actually the true constraint is ignored.  The cost cutting creates larger costs elsewhere.

Why? What is the goal?

I don’t mean to labour the point, but to be able to understand efficiency we must first understand the true goal, and it is very likely that the true efficiency we are interested in is related to a goal at a higher level.

Let us revisit the Pair Programming.  Our goal in programming is to deliver a software solution, likely a quality solution that meets the client’s needs, with minimal support requirements. It is likely that they are also interested in maximizing return on investment.  So where does the issue of efficiency for programmers come in?

Pair Programming as an activity shares and grows knowledge, it often enables more creative solutions, the quality is higher, there is an inherent in built code review and QA in to the process. So the question isn’t so much whether Pair Programming is more or less efficient in terms of number of lines of code written; or stories coded; or bugs found; but whether it is producing a better return on investment overall in the context of our true goal: in terms of quality, support and meeting the client’s needs.

I don’t plan on answering the question to the satisfaction of the skeptics but I suspect my opinion is fairly evident.  My point is not to directly answer the question, the point is that the real issue is not what it first appears to be when the question was broached.

If your team is dealing with support issues, bugs, deployment problems, getting features to customers quickly and so on. Then it is possible that ‘coding time’ is not your primary constraint.

In this case the response to the question of efficiency is:  What are you measuring to determine efficiency? Or…   Is efficiency of one singular part of the process our primary goal or is it just an illusion? Would being more efficient help you to be more effective at achieving your goal?

Summary

In this example the word efficiency is taken in a context to justify behaviour that possibly diminishes the effectiveness of the team.  Lean principles do look to minimize waste and to be more efficient, but lean looks at the end to end flow and is only concerned with efficiencies when it is applied to the critical path or a bottleneck and ONLY when those efficiencies are removing waste in the context of our overall goal, not simply a small part of the flow.

If we improve efficiency at a point before a bottleneck all we do is pile up work faster, if we improve efficiency after a bottleneck or anywhere not on the critical path we fail to see the benefit because the flow is already limited by an earlier bottleneck, there is no net gain to our efforts. Our efforts are just an illusion.

As a very generalised statement we as individuals find it inconceivable! (Had to include it somewhere) to view our work as part of a larger scope, our desire to be efficient in our own little bubble often leads us to behaviour that is inefficient for the larger scope that we are part of.  We should be less concerned with being efficient in our roles and more concerned with doing what is effective for the larger system or team we are part of.

Efficiency is not the same as being Effective

Prefer being Effective over being Efficient. Make sure you are effective at achieving the goal first and foremost before even looking at efficiency, and then only if increasing efficiency does not come at the expense of being effective.

Visualising our work in that larger scope is one of the best ways of understanding where we are struggling to be effective and to highlight where the true efficiencies can be gained.  But try to see the whole process not just your part of it.

 

 

 

 

Why do we use WiP limits?

I participated in a great discussion this week on the use of WiP limits.  For those that don’t know, WiP stands for Work in Progress, and is a measure of how many activities you have started but not completed.

It is important to note that this is not a measure of how many tasks you are currently actively working on.  If I started a task but have become blocked, so I start another then my Work in Progress is 2 – even though I am only actively working on one. WiP is a measure of how many started but incomplete tasks I have.

For example: call-waiting or being put on hold during a phone call:  You are talking away and get another call so you switch to the second call without hanging up, and when you get another call you take that too, how many people can you have on hold at once?  You are only working on one call at a time, although you must remember the content and context of all those other calls. For the people still on hold while you have all these conversations I expect they are wishing you had a WiP limit.  Your WiP-Work In Progress is the sum of all active(incomplete) phone calls.

Limiting WiP

There are many reasons for limiting Work in Progress not least because I hate being put on hold.  I will go in to some later and it is likely that if you follow any type of Agile framework you already limit WiP although you may not be consciously aware of it.

If you have a backlog, then you are limiting WiP. You are consciously choosing not to start new work immediately but are prioritising it and organising it to work on later. It is likely that you are informally limiting your WiP according to what you feel you or your team can manage at a given time. It is important to realise that this is a WiP limit even though it may not be conscious or scientific.

If you follow Scrum: WiP is consciously and explicitly limited at Sprint Planning, often by estimating effort, or counting stories or calculating story points. The limit is generally set based on Velocity – our average achieved over previous sprints. If on average we finish 10 stories a Sprint, or we average 35 points, then that average is generally taken as the starting point for our WiP limit, we may choose to push for a few more, or if we are expecting to be slower due to vacation time, or known issues we may choose to commit to less. But in Scrum we don’t usually refer to it as a WiP limit. But that is exactly what it is.

KanBan is actually very similar, if we on average are completing 10 stories a week, then it is likely that we will consciously or subconsciously limit ourselves to only take on 10 new stories within a week, although in the case of KanBan this is not done in a Big Bang explicit decision but gradually over the measured period and is more a consequence than a plan (A Pull rather than a Push). We pull stories when we are ready and we pull at the pace we are working at, that just happens to be 10.

Slightly off-topic, but one of the crucial differences between Scrum and KanBan is that Scrum is a ‘Push’ model and KanBan is a ‘Pull’ model.  In Scrum we Push an amount of work to the board and spend the Sprint working to Remove(complete) it.  With KanBan we are aiming for a more steady amount of Work in Progress and will pull new work as current work is completed, which creates a smoother flow, but conversely lacks a unified time based goal or target.  But it is important to understand that both frameworks limit WiP and both focus on ‘completed’ work being the primary objective.

Why do we limit WiP?

I’d like to think it was obvious by now and I think the basic principle is, but there are nuances that may complicate things which may be where the cause for debate comes from.

At it’s simplistic level if I can only complete an average of 10 stories a week/sprint then starting an average of 20 a week without changing anything else is nuts, all that will happen is that on average 10 or more of those stories each week will remain incomplete and stay ‘in progress’ by the start of week 4 we will still have completed 30, but will have 50 now in progress.  Chances are by now we will actually go slower because we will be distracted and falling over ourselves trying to juggle more than we can possibly achieve.

Think of all those people on hold, growing frustrated at being ignored, and you trying to remember all those conversations, the phone rings again, can you cope with another caller on hold?

We limit WiP because we understand that by working only on what we can achieve, we can focus and be more effective.

Limiting WiP and WiP limits

“Ah but you have talked about Limiting WiP but you haven’t mentioned WiP limits” I hear you say…

And this is where I think the conversation really stems from and where we get into nuances.  KanBan began in manufacturing where work was passed from one workstation to another and there was a measurable flow through the system.   Limiting the production on one workstation so that it maintained pace with the entire system limits waste. Having one hyper-performing efficient widget maker that can produce widgets 4 times faster than they can possibly be used is wasted effort. And the same applies to a software process, we use WiP limits to regulate one part of the flow to maintain pace with the flow as a whole, the goal is to visualise bottlenecks and by visualising bottlenecks we can take steps to increase the flow of the whole system.

Other forms of WiP limit

But WiP limits can take many forms and are applicable to almost all aspects of life. The most common example used is a highway, when a road gets busy it slows down, when it gets very busy it grinds to a halt.  Limiting access actually speeds things up for everyone on the road, and ultimately more cars can get through far quicker.

But there are other less obvious WiP limits. A long-distance runner wants to increase her times, she starts fast but she runs out of energy and is slowing down near the end of the distance. By setting herself a slower time per mile early on (Pace is a form of WiP limit) she has a consistent speed and reserves energy so is able to run the full distance faster by slowing down during the early part of the race.

Are you dedicated to a single product/project?  That is a very low WiP limit of 1 project.

Do you use a calendar and try not to book two meetings at the same time, that is a very tight 1 item at a time WiP limit.

What about a budget?  Do you manage your finances as an individual or company. A budget is a WiP limit for your money, by limiting money spent on beer you have more available for clothes. By regulating your spending you can save for a holiday.  By remaining in credit at the bank you do not have to pay interest and so on.

Example of how to choose a WiP limit in a workflow

In the case of the widget maker, if the system can only use 10 widgets a day then we may set his WiP limit to 10, when he gets to 10 he is free to go and help someone else.  Suddenly rather than unused widgets we have an extra pair of hands to do other work.   But hold on! these widgets are easy to make and only take a short while to do, we could probably limit WiP to a lower limit and jump on the workstation as an when needed to produce more.  So how do we set the WiP limit?  My advice is not very scientific at this point.  Start by continue doing what you currently do and just watch, if your workstation/activity columns are sub divided in to doing and done, take a look on a regular basis and see where the biggest stacks are. If one column regularly has more cards on the done column than doing, it ‘may’ be a sign that you should reduce your WiP limit for that activity. Try it and see if it improves your flow.

The largest queues of done work are usually the area that needs limiting, but be aware of ‘bursts’ of activity, for example there may be a workstation that is only available for one day a week, in which case the queue for that workstation may need to be longer – or maybe you should be asking for more regular access to the workstation. But when imposing limits do it gradually and monitor to see if it improves the flow.

Anything in a done column is normally waste, if it is done and not in production that effort cost you money and is just sat there.  Sometimes that makes sense but the car industry learned that complete cars sat in storage amounted to $millions of wasted investment, that components stockpiled in advance was essentially big piles of cash that could be used more effectively, we can learn the same.

What I am saying is that a WiP limit being reached is a conversation trigger, a long queue is a conversation trigger, and so on. With so many things in Agile we create early warning systems to create conversations and make decisions when it is necessary.  We make small changes to the process and watch, we see what changes and if it is better we carry on, but look for another new small improvement.

Summary

WiP limits are not unique to KanBan, and like it or not you are already limiting your work and activities in all aspects of your daily life, you just perhaps didn’t realize it.  In the context of a KanBan board we do not arbitrarily impose a WiP limit because we can or because it is fun. We impose a limit when we feel it adds value, normally where we see a queue of completed work growing faster than it is being consumed. We limit various stages of the work because our goal is the output of the system (the whole team) and not the perceived utilization of individuals.  One team member being 100% occupied all day producing something that will sit untouched for a week is not efficient.

We are not trying to manage a system where our goal is to keep busy a group of individuals, our goal is to create a cooperative and coordinated team working towards a common purpose in the most effective way possible. A WiP limit is just one of many tools that can be used to enhance the prioritisation of work and focus the team on the true goal.

 

 

 

Reading a Cumulative Flow Diagram

This is a very brief introduction to Cumulative Flow Diagrams, at the end I have included a link to a more in-depth explanation.

A cumulative flow diagram is very simply a fancy way of showing the status of a TO Do list or in Agile terms: a backlog of work – but is in reality just some very basic information in a pretty graph format.

Take a simple To Do list. I have 10 tasks, they can be “To Do”, “In Progress” or “Done”

We represent this by turning these blocks 90 degrees clockwise and stacking them: 

What does it tell you?

Ideally the graph will trend upwards, with the Done section ever increasing until all tasks are complete. The axis show number of items on the y, and time on the x

We are interested in how steep the done section is as this tells us our true progress and our task completion velocity (not to be confused with Story Point Velocity). In theory we should be able to draw a line based on the trend line to predict when the remaining tasks will be done. However…

We are also interested in the rate of increase in the ‘To Do’ section, if we are adding tasks to the list faster than we are completing them the list will never be completed. So we are watching for the ‘To Do’ to level off and eventually stop increasing or at least be slower than the done. Otherwise we will have to draw a metaphoric line in the sand and say this is all we will do. In the previous example we had a fixed task list, but normally we do not.

In Agile projects we often analyse requirements and write stories as we progress – “just in time”, stories are added all the time to cover the next few days or weeks ahead and so you will often see the To Do section rising in line with the Done, but at some point the project has to end and at that point we stop adding stories and will complete. This is likely the most efficient way to get work done but make forecasting difficult. Too much up front planning is likely wasteful.

Finally we come to the most important part of the graph, the “In Progress” section. It is a measure of efficiency of a team how few tasks are in progress at once, lean techniques will sometimes measure the average ‘flow time’ how long tasks are in progress or the ‘Mean cycle time’

Teams should be striving not only to get things done, but to limit the Work In Progress,


In this graph the team were taking on more tasks, they look busier, but as you can see from the Done section, the slope of the Done is more shallow, ‘Doing’ was as the expense of ‘Done’

If you look at the graph the average time to finish a task at the lower point was around a week, but then by week 4 tasks are taking an average of over 2 weeks, it might be that they are bigger tasks or it might be that they are multi-tasking which is slowing them down. Watch for teams that take on more ‘In Progress’ it is a sign of problems, the team should be consciously aware of how much ‘work in progress’ they have and that it is manageable.

 

The real world

Graphs like that are rarely seen, most projects have a change of scope and will fluctuate, below is a graph taken from a real team:

cfd1

The first comment that needs to be made clear is that this graph shows all items in the To Do list, some are very small tasks, some are huge, the size is not reflected, only the quantity. A small 2 hour spike and a large 20 point story are measured the same.

In this example we have two ‘In Progress’ states, the first is Approved, this means the story has been written, broken down, refined and in some cases estimated by the team and Approved as being suitable to work on. The ‘Committed’ state is work that is currently being worked on by the team.

‘New’ is the To Do list, and as you can see it is steadily increasing, or was until recently and then it took a dip, the dip wasn’t reflected in either the In Progress or Done sections which means there were stories removed, likely they were not relevant to the goal at hand.

You can see from the graph that tasks started to get moved to Done after the first week or so and have steadily increased apart from about 50% of the way through the graph when there was a notable dip in the Done section. Under normal circumstances Done only ever goes up, so this is a cause for interest for someone reading the chart. It is likely that a story was either thought to be Done but wasn’t and was moved back, or the solution was deemed unwanted and removed, either way it deserves comment.

The ‘In Progress’ is fairly consistent, a few times the ‘committed’ is widening and this may warrant exploring why but generally it is pretty steady. The number of items “Approved” is very narrow and may be a reflection of a problem, if there are insufficient stories available for maintaining pace. It is important when doing “just in time” preparation to get the balance right between having enough to sustain pace and too much so that there is waste.

Summary

As you can see the graph, like most graphs doesn’t give all the details. What it does do it prompt the need to ask questions when it deviates from the norm. It is unlikely you can determine the answer to your questions from the graph, further information will generally be necessary, but it can help you form the right questions.

if you are interested in reading a more in depth description of how these diagrams work please ready this Blog

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Is Agile a Quantum Leap for a Project Manager?

I have been asked why you can’t have Project Managers in Scrum, and there are a number of discussions on boards that have entertained me, where there is a question about whether there is such a thing as an Agile Project Manager?

The problem for me is that Project Managers are measured on the wrong things, their objectives conflict with Agile goals they are almost always put in a position where they are pressured to conform to a dysfunctional notion.  I see them as a sort of dysfunctional Sam Beckett from Quantum Leap “…striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that..” well you get the picture. There is a notion that the plan in their mind is more important than the reality in front of them.

But in Agile we value “Responding to change over following a plan”

At it’s heart, the job of a Project Manager is to plan a project – usually in fine detail, and then to manage the project to ensure it doesn’t deviate from the plan, and when it does deviate, which of course all but the simplest projects do, the PMs job is to take corrective action to get a project back on plan.  It is about dates, and deadlines and the all-important plan. (cue lightning, harsh shadows and ominous Gantt charts).

All we need is a strangely dressed hologram saying “Ziggy predicts that if we skip all testing of the software there is a 93% chance that we will meet our deadline and the software wont devolve in to a pile of un-maintainable junk for 9 months and 3 days.”

Al_Calavicci_Handlink

The project Manager then gets to ‘Leap’ to a new project without having to stick around to see the mess left behind.

This is in so many ways the very opposite of an Agile philosophy, I see nothing wrong in having a plan, understanding the vision and the goals is crucial. Even some milestones are often beneficial, but the more detail there is in the plan the more waste there is. Everyone including the Project Managers know perfectly well that the plan is flawed, just like every other plan they have ever produced, the difference is that in Agile we accept that the domain is too complex for a fixed and immovable plan. In agile we adjust as new information becomes available, but the traditional Project Manager wrestles with reality and desperately fights to shoehorn a complex reality into a flawed plan.  We all know this, the statistics on ‘failed’ project plans are staggering and yet some still persist in this notion of creating fixed plans and punishing teams for deviating from them.

Agile in contrast focuses on getting the customer what they want, and they do this by getting something to them as early as possible and as often as is practical and then responding and re-evaluating, changing the plan to accommodate the customers evolving requirements. Maximizing value early for the customers benefit.

So can there be an Agile Project Manager? I don’t know, but if the role involves valuing following a plan over responding to change then it becomes an oxymoron.  And with a Product Owner and a Scrum Master I fail to see what useful purpose they can serve in a Scrum framework.