Why a Business Perspective, Effective WIP Management, and Respect for People Matter for Lean-Agile Transformations

May 30, 2017 — Posted by Al Shalloway

Respecting people has been a cornerstone of Agile software development from its beginning.  But respecting people is not enough. What work is undertaken and how much of it is worked on at any one time is equally important.

Working on items of lesser importance wastes people’s time.  Working on too many things at once makes them inefficient and harried.  These three principles: respecting people, working on the right items and working within an organization’s capacity are critical for effective software development.  It also defines the roles of management – making sure these principles are being followed.

Working on the Right Items. Epics were useful back in the day when a product owner was responsible for the entire product backlog. Now, however, product owners are guiding teams that represent just a part of the value stream of the value being built.  A team’s backlog typically represents only a small fraction of the total chunk of value being built.  How teams coordinate is a critical aspect of Agile development.  Without a well defined product backlog team alignment is very difficult.  What “well-defined” means two things.

Must be right-sized. Items should be the right sized by being the smallest piece of business value that can be realized that makes sense from a business perspective.  We call these Minimum Business Increments (MBIs).  

Must be sequenced. Everything can be a top priority. Sequencing works better because it only allows one top priority.  Note that without right-sizing the work, one can’t properly sequence the work.  When product backlog items (PBIs) are not right sized it is unusual for every part of one PBI to be more important than every part of a similar prioritized PBI.

Working on the Right Number of Items. Consider for a moment what the right number of items is.  Clearly, there can be too few and there can be too many.  How does one decide what this level is?  Don Reinertsen, author of The Principles of Product Development Flow says “In product development, our greatest waste is not unproductive engineers, but work products sitting idle in process queues.”  Working on too many things causes delays which causes our work to wait.  Our focus needs to be on eliminating (or at least lowering) the delays between the steps of work.  This can be accomplished by managing the queues between steps.  This is facilitated by having a stable process.  Don further notes that “when product developers choose to operate their processes at high levels of utilization, they create unnecessary and wasteful variability in their processes. It is important to realize that this variability is a self-inflicted wound.” 

Working on the Highest Value Items and the Right Number of Items Respects People

People like to know they are doing something useful.  Their engagement and productivity go up when this happens.  At the same time, they don’t appreciate being overworked.  There are, of course, other issues involved (the eco-system they are in, the way they are treated, …).  But these two aspects of work – what and how much – play a key role.  There is another benefit to driving from the right sized and sequenced items.  Everyone know what's most important.  People tend to naturally align.  Scrum of Scrums are not as necessary because the teams know what is most important.  Planning can be done in a better context and can be modified more easily as the reality of the work hits the teams.  This tends to enable teams to better collaborate fostering a better sense of organizational teamwork.  This also enhances the sense of purpose.

If this topic interests you, come by and join me at a joint event with Leankit in Washington, DC, June 21.

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With over 40 years of experience, Alan is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, SAFe, Scrum and agile design.



        

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