Tag Archives: Agile Project Management

Applicability of Agile/Lean/Kanban Methods for fixed scope/budget projects (with short duration)

The Pune Chapter Meet of the Limited WIP Society was held on Mar 8, 2014. This session objective was to address challenges faced by Lean-Kanban practitioners in their projects. Participants from 4 different organizations attended this session. A couple of problems were posed by the participants (Meetup Link) ahead of time. We decided to work on the first one for this session.

Problem Statement: Some projects are fixed scope, fixed budget and have relatively small duration – 3-4 months. In this case, would it make more sense to go for: a) Pure Critical chain or Microsoft project plan based date based approach b) Combination approach: Critical chain based planning followed by Kanban execution. c) Pure Kanban flow based execution approach with no date based plan for individual stories.

The team started the session by working in teams to identify what aspects of Lean/Kanban facilitate small project execution that have fixed scope, fixed budget and small duration (“+ives”) and what aspects don’t (“-ives”).01

Next, they came to the white board, brought all their points and grouped them together. The result looked something like this!01

Result: The team, working independently, had identified 18 positives vs 14 negatives in adapting Lean/Kanban/Agile principles to fixed scope, fixed budget projects with a short duration That a very positive reinforcement of their suitability. Therefore, Option C was taken as the way forward for the rest of the session.

While the session started with a focus on projects with short duration, it was evident that except for a couple of points, this discussion was valid for project of fixed scope/budget, independent of any duration.

The following Positives were identified when applying Agile/Lean methods to these projects:

Positive Contributors

Planning

  • If using SCRUM, defined planning activity
  • Small Cycles
  • Estimate upfront (high level) and understand the feasibility of delivering
  • Divide into stories; complete logical business flows
  • Can help in sustainable pace

Quality:

  • Higher Quality Delivery
  • Stable Software
Scoping and Prioritization:

  • Early Start of mature (well defined items)
  • Focus on prioritizing – very relevant
  • Principles of Agile help; focus on blockers
  • Power visualization

Early Feedback

  • Still relevant
  • Demos are confidence building

Team

  • Team empowerment is positive
  • Collaboration
  • Encourage small team size
  • Cross functional teams

After a brief discussion on the positives, since the positives were stronger than the negatives, the focus on the remaining session was how to mitigate the negative factors in these projects.

The group decided to focus on the negative contributors. Each group was given one of the negative areas to focus on. They were asked to break up the negative contributors to the next level (identified as LI below) and identify possible resolutions for the same. Then, all teams converged and refined the possible resolutions in each of the areas. The following negative contributors were identified with a clear path to resolve them.

Negative Contributors
Planning Area:  01
Negative Factor:MSP is used for Portfolio and Program Planning..Resolution Approach: Lean Methods exist for Portfolio Level Planning, like Portfolio Boards. We need to educate that it a myth that Agile = No planning.
Hence, training, education and pilot programs need to be considered as a means to bring about awareness on the importance of planning and the methods available.
Negative Factor: For such small projects, the team might have good visibility of the scope. Budget, scope and timeline for such projects are often well defined. Hence, they might be tempted to plan heavily upfront and execute based on that..Resolution Approach: High level planning is good and if the details are available and if everyone feels assured about it, then doing isn’t a negative. Avoid detailed estimation, planning to man hour level and then getting into variance tracking. This will lead to timelines getting met at the expense of quality and work-life balance. Negative Factor: In a very dynamic environment, MSP helps in quick impact analysis..Resolution Approach: This is not accurate. With MSP, the defined path was cumbersome. One would find the critical path, then do all kinds of jugglery like fast tracking, crashing, etc. It was based on estimates and we all understand that estimates are dead on arrival!So, we need to move all stakeholder discussions to velocity/throughput centric discussions. To enable this to happen, a lot of training needs to happen for all stakeholders involved.
Negative Factor: No Dates; hence, things pile up.Project Manager does not get sense of delays; lack of timeline; project delivery date is variable..Resolution Approach: The obvious answers the team came up with was to have time boxes (what SCRUM does). Also, it was discussed that Kanban does not have anything against Due Dates. In fact, many Kanban team use Due Dates. The risk is that Due Dates should not construed as milestones that puts pressure to finish the job, no matter what.
Resource Management:  01
Negative Factor: MSP helps in Resource Planning, Capacity Planning..

  • Cards pile up in the end; no flexibility to take care of scope uncertainity.
  • No targets for SWP; ST is not able to plan testing
  • Sudden resource requirements that come up case disruption to the whole project
Resolution Approach:

  • The best way forward is to have stable teams. However, if this is not possible in a given environment, we should be able to visualize this constraint and give time to stakeholders to plan resources. The way to do this is document in this blog.
  • Another approach is to under-allocate critical resources. They are often called in to help others or take care of some critical work in the pipeline.
Testing:  01
Negative Factor: One has to test repeatedly, specifically regression. Since the project duration is short, the tendency is to test at one shot in one batch.Assumption Testing and development are being done by 2 different people..Resolution Approach: Automation
Where automation is not practical or feasible for whatever reason, the team felt that right documentation or Knowledge Transfer to the tester can help reduce repeat testing. If the tester understands the scope of each user story well, then he can focus on the scope of that user story and in subsequent test cycles, focus on scenario based testingIn a specific environment where ST is expected to “Certify” the product quality and hence, need to re-test “all” test cases, including unit level test cases, the recommended approach is to focus on reviewing the comprehensiveness of the Unit Test Cases and Unit Test Results. That would help Dev teams get better by not taking Unit Testing lightly. By ST doing unit level testing, it makes Dev teams continue with their current practices.In cases where Dev teams are mandated to Junit testing, ST teams can seek the Junit Code Coverage data to understand the level of comprehensiveness of Unit Testing.
Env/Infrastructure:   01
Negative Factor: The team identified Configuration, Sanity, Missing HFs, Connectivity, Overloading of environment as all related issues to environment, infrastructure..Resolution Approach:

  • Environment/Infrastructure planning cannot be a batch mode process. Just like capacity planning, Env/Infrastructure needs to be continuous process. Whenever a card gets prioritized within the backlog, all its environment and infrastructure needs can be defined on a card and put in a parallel swim lane to track them to closure (see screen shot)
  • Get people from the Infrastructure/ Environment teams involved in the Sprint planning process; if you are following the Kanban method, pull them in whenever Backlog grooming happens.

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Pareto Analysis of Blocked Cards

The role of metrics in TPS is crisply explained in Jeffery Liker’s book “The Toyota Way”. He explains that Toyota prefers simple metrics and does not use many of them at the plant or the company level. Some of my peers may be surprised to hear this!

The author highlights his point with a simple example. During one of his visits to one of the Toyota plants, he was told that apart from a few basic metrics (like cost of plant operations, parts per million defects, some safety related and productivity), the metric Toyota finds most useful as a manager is the number of “Andon” pulls made by each Team Member to stop the production line. They regularly graph this data, noting the problems that caused the Andon pulls and use Pareto Analysis to identify the most common reasons. They take corrective measures to address these reasons. The VP of this manufacturing unit explains how “this metric provided great insight into the actual day-to-day problems faced in the production process”.

The analogy to this in software systems that use the Kanban Method, is the blocked card. Most of us who have been working using the Kanban Method have experienced that blocked cards are a big impediment to smooth flow, increasing WIP counts and cards getting stale.

If you have a physical board, it would be difficult to track this manually over time. We, in SwiftKanban (www.SwiftKanban.com), have built functionality to track this, though I would personally prefer a two level categorization.

Image

However, not all tool providers have done even this. So, the question is: are you doing an analysis of the reasons for having Blocked Cards in your Value Stream during your retrospectives? Are you putting a corrective action for the same? I suspect that teams are missing a significant potential for continuous improvement by not doing a Pareto Analysis of Blocked Cards.

I would like to hear from the practitioners how frequently they are doing Pareto Analysis of blocked cards and then defining action items during a retrospective to fix them. If you have a physical board, are you doing it manually? Look forward to your response…

Capacity Planning for Dynamic Teams following Kanban Method

1.    Abstract

Projects are often executed by dynamic teams. They start with a small core team and as the project gains momentum, add resources over time. This is commonly seen in IT service organizations that do fixed price projects. Fixed price projects have a defined scope that needs to be delivered within a contracted budget and within a negotiated timeline. For the purpose of this experience report, “Dynamic teams” or “Fixed Price projects” will be used interchangeably.

Unfortunately, as Ron Jeffries put it, “Agile is founded on management of scope, not predicting when you’ll be done, even if you had fixed team size and “fixed” scope.”

Yet, a significant portion of the software development community does want to adopt some of the Agile/Lean principles that they believe they will benefit from. For example, they see value in making smaller and faster releases to their customers to get early feedback and de-risk their project. They see value in better team interactions that can motivate people to take greater ownership.

However, one of the key assumptions in Agile is about stable teams. Stability in teams is important, both from the perspective of size and composition. Stability helps achieve self organizing teams. Stable teams make forecasting possible based on Throughput (or Velocity) of the team. If the team is not stable, one cannot use the current team’s Throughput as the basis for forecasting when the backlog and the work-in-progress(WIP) will be completed.

This makes it difficult to ask a very common management question in such projects: How many resources are needed to get the defined scope done within the negotiated timeline? Further, if there is Scope Creep, how does this impact the schedule or the resources plan? This Experience Report, based on the author’s experience in applying Agile/Lean principles to dynamic teams or fixed price projects, lays out an approach to answer these questions.

It must be highlighted that these questions and some of the approaches suggested seem contrary to well understood Agile thinking. For a true Agile practitioner, these are not the right questions to ask. However, these are questions that managements or customers will ask when they need a defined scope within budget and negotiated timeline; yet, adopt some of the Agile/Lean practices to benefit from the same.

2.    Stages of Capacity Planning

Capacity planning is done across the project life cycle:

a)    At the beginning of the project when a Resource Plan is made.

b)    During execution of the project:

    1. As the project is executed, changes happen. Things don’t go fully as originally thought off, resource changes happen because of attrition or other business priorities, etc. This calls for a defined approach of how and when Capacity Planning should be done.
    2. Further, as the project is executed, Scope Creep happens. Agile teams are expected to welcome scope change. However, when one is executing a Fixed Price project, a re-assessment is needed to find out whether the committed timelines and budgets can be maintained with the allocated resources. If not, then a dialogue with the customer is needed to converge on the revised scope/budget/timeline.

In this Experience Report, we will look at how to do Capacity Planning for each of the above situations. This report uses the Kanban tools to illustrate with examples. However, the same approach can be applied if one I executing a Fixed Price project using the SCRUM approach.

3.    Capacity Planning at Project Beginning

Capacity Planning for a team at the beginning of the project is meant to address the key question – how many resources, and of what profile, do I need to deliver the defined scope in the given time? The method to answer this question does not change compared to how one would do it traditionally.

The approach is as follow:

a)    Identify the EPICS. Decompose them to MMFs and User Stories.

b)    Once the User Stories have identified, make a high level resource capacity plan based that details the skill profile needed for each of the User Stories. One can then aggregate it the capacity plan across user stories by skill profile. So, an example of an output from such a planning process would look like this.

01

Once a detailed plan is made, it can be aggregated across user stories by skill profile as follows:

02

Such a Resource Plan will give management the confidence to deliver the defined scope within budget and stated timeline.

Once project starts, things don’t always go as per plan. This is why Capacity Planning needs to be done regularly. In the next stage, we use the Kanban Method to show how this can be accomplished.

4.    Capacity Planning during Project Execution

While an original plan is established, things start deviating from plan shortly thereafter. This is one of the reasons by many Agile practitioners discourage detailed planning (as illustrated above) in the first place.

Nevertheless, having established the need for the same in applying Agile/Lean methods to Dynamic teams, the next question to answer is – how and how often do we keep re-looking at this resource plan? We use the Kanban Method to answer this.

Below is a Board layout for the Backlog before cards get taken for Development. You will notice that this is split into 3 sub-lanes: a) Pending b) Next Priority c) Ready for Development. The Cycle Time for cards moving from “Next Priority” to “Development” should be around 1 month. The Cycle Time for cards moving from “Ready for Dev” to “Development” should be around 1 week.

03

In the next step, we use Explicit Policies to do Capacity Planning during Project Execution:

a)    For the “Pending” lane, define a policy that states “Before exit, validate resource demand for the card”. This implies that whenever a card is moved from “Pending” lane to the “Next Priority” lane, the team will re-visit the Capacity Plan for that card (as laid out in Step 1) and highlight the needed resources to the Project Manager. If resources are not available, then the card is Blocked and kept in the “Pending” lane.

This approach highlights the team management of any potential resource constraints at least 1 month ahead of time.

b)    For the “Next Priority” lane, define a similar policy – “Before exit, validate resource demand for the card.” If resources are not available, Block the card.

This approach helps identify any resource constraints due to last minute/unplanned events. It helps reduce the probability of cards getting stuck in development because of resource issues subsequently.

This process would happen for each card whenever it is moved from one lane to next, often during Backlog Grooming.

A few additional points to be highlighted:

a)    Have a narrower WIP limit as you move from left to right within the Backlog stage. This will help in cards flowing to downstream lanes if some cards in the upstream lanes are blocked for resource constraints.

b)    When assessing the resource availability in the above stages, take into account the cards that are already in progress with their current Due Dates.

5.    Capacity Planning for Scope Creep

Agile projects accept scope changes by continuous re-prioritization of the backlog. Teams continue to be undisturbed, even when Scope changes. That is not the expectation in projects that are executed in the fixed price environment. Scope changes are executed using the Change Control process. A Project Manager has to assess the impact of Scope Change on the already committed timeline and budget.

Agile methods make this remarkably simple. If you are following the Kanban Method, the team already has the Throughput data. If the current Throughput is applied to the revised scope, the revised timeline can be easily determined. This is done with the Cumulative Flow Diagram (CFD). Let us understand this with the following example:

The images below show a Board and it’s corresponding CFD diagram.

01

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This CFD shows that for the team to complete the backlog, they need to complete the Value Stream at the 16.13 story points/day.

Now, let us consider a situation where because of Scope Creep, new cards have been added to the Backlog to the extent of 120 story points. These “new” cards are highlighted in red in the Backlog lane.

01

When CFD is plotted now, it shows the following data:

01

This shows that the desired Throughput to accomplish the revised scope within the same timeline increases from 16.13 story points/day to 18.09 story points/day, an increase of around 12%.

Once this is identified, the information can be shared with the stakeholders to discuss and evolve the best way forward. Resources could be added to the desired extent (subject to availability) or one could do scope substitution or a combination of both. Worst case, all stakeholders know that at the present Throughput, the revised scope will mean extending the timeline by 12%.

A similar exercise using traditional methods/tools would take an extended period of time. One needs to do a combination of resource loading and balancing, re-identifying the critical path, fast tracking or crashing to shrink the critical path tasks before they can conclude on the impact to the overall project timeline and budget.

6.    Summary

Capacity planning is a challenge for dynamic teams that want to adopt Agile/Lean practices. This Experience Report shows that the approach for building the initial Capacity Plan is unchanged whether the project is delivered using traditional or Agile/Lean methods. However, during project execution, using the team Throughput or Velocity, the Capacity Planning process becomes much simpler and accurate.

Learning Agile Requirements with User Story Mapping

The Limited WIP Society Bangalore Chapter held its 2nd Meetup at Pune on Oct 26. The session was hosted by BMC, India and their office. A group of about 25 Lean/Agile enthusiasts met on this Saturday morning.As in the last Meetup in Bangalore, the focus of this Meetup was also Agile Requirements and for the same reason – it is hard to establish flow and reduce cycle time when requirements are not independent, small or testable. Our experience shows that using traditional requirement definition approach, we get a set of highly inter-dependent requirements that get stuck at System Testing, waiting for each other.I started the Meetup with a detailed presentation on Agile Requirements. We discussed about the problem with requirements written the traditional way, how User Stories mitigate that problem, how to decompose User Stories and finally, doing User Story Mapping.Post a short tea break, the group was divided into 2 teams. A case study was given to both the groups. The groups were asked to first identify the sequence of steps defined above. After about 90 min of intense discussions within each of the groups following the 3 step process, both teams had their first version of the User Story Maps, though not complete.Once the User Story Mapping was completed, we discussed how to do Release Planning using the User Story Map. A follow-up question was about User Story estimation. The group was introduced to the Planning Poker approach. The Meetup ended with a quick summary of the session and a retrospective of what worked well and what could be improved in the next Meetup.

 

 

Agile Requirements with User Story Mapping

The Limited WIP Society Bangalore Chapter held its 3rd Meetup at Digite’s Bangalore office. A group of 20+ Lean/Agile enthusiasts met on Saturday morning at 10am.

The focus of this Meetup was Agile Requirements. This topic was chosen because it is hard to establish flow and reduce cycle time when requirements do not follow the INVEST principle (Independent, Negotiable, Valuable, Estimable, Small and Testable). Using traditional requirement definition approach, we get a bunch of highly inter-dependent requirements that get stuck at System/Integrated Testing for each other.

I started the Meetup with a small introduction to the need for Agile Requirements. Post this session, Manik Choudhary, Agile Project Manager at SAP Labs, started the main session. He gave a high level overview of the larger landscape – building the product vision using Lean Canvas, using Design Thinking to validate your concept and then use a technique like User Story Mapping to build the product backlog.

With this high level view, he started with the basics of User Story Modeling. This was done in 3 stages. First, identify the vision of the product by defining the usage sequence of the product. Next, identify the Personas who will use the system and how each of those personas will use the product in the above Usage Sequence. This is the “backbone” of the product. Finally, define the user stories under each of the usage steps (within the usage sequence) for each of the personas.

With that overview, the team started the workshop. The group was divided into 2. A case study was given to both the groups. The groups were asked to first identify the usage sequence. After about 90 min of intense discussions within each of the groups following the 3 step process, both teams had their first version of the User Story Maps (see picture). Our team could only finish User Story definition for only 2 of the 3 personas that were in the case study.

At this stage, the teams were asked to vote and identify the Minimum Viable Product (MVP).

Finally, USM is not a one time exercise. The process is repeated, perhaps once a month, complimented by a more frequent Backlog Grooming.

The Meetup ended with a quick summary of the session and a final retrospective of what worked well and what could be improved in the next Meetup. As the retrospective showed, it was a great learning experience on a Saturday morning!

Due Dates for Kanban Systems

Many teams adopting Kanban come from Agile background. Agile thinking has discouraged the use of Due Dates. Due Dates breed undesirable behavior. Focus on Due Dates results in teams working under significant pressure. Quite often, that translates into short cuts in Design/Testing activities. The net effect is that work quality is compromised and technical debt piles up.

That said, Agile methodologies inherently have a Due Date. This is the Sprint end date. The team has a clear expectation that the planned scope of the Sprint needs to be completed by the end date of the Sprint. Someone has gone through the process of mapping the Sprint capacity with the story points that is planned in that Sprint. Yes, some requirements may spill over to the next sprint but that is generally a small % of the overall Sprint scope.

In contrast, Kanban systems, being flow centric, take away the pressure of the Sprint date. The question is: should such teams, if they have not been using Due Dates, consider using Due Dates on their cards/work items?

While project teams are expected to be self-organizing and self-driven, absence of due dates tends to loss of momentum within the team. Parkinson Law takes over. A 5 days work can stretch to 7 days when no expectation is set to the respective developer of a 5 day development timeline.  For projects that work on fixed budgets, such slippage can soon pile up and cause management escalation. 

There are other benefits too. Due dates can help team members working on different user stories belonging to the same MMF align their completion date. If you want to get something done by an intermediate milestone (like a customer demo date), Due Date can focus the participating team members to that immediate milestone. I have also experienced that a mismatch in Due Date expectation between the developer and others in the team, corrects a requirement/implementation disconnect between team members. User Stories aren’t a detailed spec.

Once again, one is not talking about going back to the old ways – wherein Due Date becomes a  deadline cast in stone and quality/technical debt becomes a secondary consideration.

The next question comes is – where does the Due Date come from? Agile/Kanban systems discourage detailed estimation. Nevertheless, estimates do often exist. In IT service companies, projects are estimated and bid for in the pre-sales lifecycle. Those estimates are inherited by the development team, though often not the same level of granularity. In cases where estimates don’t exist, a simple T-shirt size categorization is adequate to communicate whether a particular card should be completed in 1 week or 2 weeks.

In summary, we need balance! Agile teams advocated against Due Dates because it used to drive wrong behavior. On the other hand, complete absence of a Due Date can lead to team throughput coming down. My recommendation to teams is to use Due Dates with Kanban Cards but ONLY as a guideline – not as something that will make the team compromise product quality and add to technical debt.

I would like to hear about your experience with the use of Due Dates in Kanban systems. 

Agile and Innovation

I was one of the panel speakers at the Agile India 2013 conference that was held in Bengaluru from Feb 27th to March 2nd, discussing whether Agile fosters or kills innovation. For us, based as we are in the Silicon Valley and in India, the largest outsourced IT services market in the world, this was of special interest.  Silicon Valley is a fantastic example of innovation; clearly it has also adopted a variety of Agile and Lean Startup related practices without slowing down on innovation.  On the other hand, India’s software industry – with a history of outsourced application development and maintenance, and a fledgling, yet steadily growing ISV industry, and a large pool of software developers, has been slow to adopt Agile methods – and is not recognized for innovation yet.  So was there a right ‘engineering method’ that fosters innovation?
The other panelists included senior delivery execs from IT services companies, Lean/ Agile consultants and product development experts.  As expected from a panel of speakers with a diverse background, the conclusions from such a forum were also varied. A spirited discussion ensured and a few approaches emerged from the panel discussion that could definitely be used to foster innovation.
To set the scope correctly, the discussion was around Agile and Innovation, not limited to any specific method and practices. So, under the broad definition of Agile, that included Lean and Kanban, the panel discussed this topic.
It was clear from the discussion that the Sprint based approach, where the team is put under constant milestone pressure at a frequent interval, does not foster innovation. The team is given a well-defined backlog of items to be delivered in the Sprint and in most cases that itself is a challenge.
Three approaches emerged to foster innovation in an Agile team:
1.     Plan for some slack time as part of the Sprint plan: While this approach is reasonable, my personal opinion is that the slack will get used to deliver the scope. After all, Parkinson’s law is hard to avoid!  As long as this risk is mitigated, this approach can indeed foster innovation within the team.
2.     Schedule a Hackathon: Define a problem, define a time limit and challenge the team to figure out an innovative idea/ approach. Alternatively, you could just define a time limit and let the team get creative to deliver a bunch of ideas. While this does have an immediate deadline, it is primarily internal to the team (unlike the regular Sprint deadline, where one is expected to make a customer release). The only catch is that that in a high pressure environment, management should not forget to plan for an occasional hackathon.
3.     Carve out an Innovation team: Another alternative discussed was to carve out a small team from the delivery rigor and let them work on innovative products or approaches. This team would not be measured like the rest of the delivery team – with a Burndown/ Velocity chart for SCRUM-based projects or cycle time for Kanban projects. For a team following Kanban, this work could be tracked in a separate swim-lane, so that they are not mixed with the regular delivery. One of the questions asked by the audience was whether such a “dedicated” team would cause attrition in other teams. The follow-up discussion clarified that this should not be a permanent team. The team should be formed to find an innovative solution for the identified need/ problem. Once the solution emerges, the team should be dissolved to return to regular work. For the next such need/ problem, a new team should be formed again, depending on who has the appropriate background/ experience.
Clearly, there are many ways to foster innovation amidst regular work!  Hopefully, the ideas above provide some viable approaches on how one can foster innovation in an Agile team! 
What is your experience?  I’d love to hear from you of other approaches and ideas that might work even better!
Sudipta Lahiri
Senior Vice President