There Is No Silver Bullet, But There May Be a Silver Approach

June 6, 2012 — Posted by Al Shalloway

The other day I wrote a blog about the risks of using a values and practices based approaches.  It is essentially two-fold.  First, stated practices don’t always apply in your situation.  This could be because of the problem you are trying to solve or the people and resources you have available to solve it don’t match the way the practice is designed.  This should, of course, not be a surprise – we’ve long known there is no silver bullet.   The second is, when the stated practices don’t apply, what do you use to figure out what does?

We (Net Objectives) have been doing Agile in one form or another (XP, Scrum, Lean, Kanban, hybrid approaches) for over 13 years.   At first, it could appear that we have jumped from one method to the other.  Yet, that would be deceiving.  For the last 6 years we have been pretty much using one overall approach to help our customers solve difficult challenges.  This approach has essentially been to use an understanding of flow to shorten cycle time of business value delivery.

So what is flow?  Think of flow as how your work moves from start (concept) to finish (consumption by customer – internal or external).   Studying flow has you attend to the timing of the work, when it is handed off, when it is blocked. Good flow is when the work occurs on a smooth basis with no delays, where work occurs just at the right time (typically called Just in Time).  A  value stream map is a mapping of your work's flow. 

Shorter cycle times are highly correlated to higher quality, greater productivity and lower cost (and, of course, by definition, quicker time to market).  While I continue to add new methods to the cornerstone of flow, flow has been the central, core concept to work with.  The importance of flow, of course, has been around for decades. Don Reinertsen’s book – Managing the Design Factory (now 15 years old but still ahead of its time) illustrates its importance.  Don’s new book, The Principles of Product Development Flow: Second Generation Lean Product Development,  goes into even more depth (btw: If you are new to flow or Lean I suggest that you read his first book even though his later one is truly amazing).

So why are we so keen on flow?  Flow to software development is like the rules of a competitive game.  If you know them, you will do much better.  If you don’t know them the game will appear complex and bewildering.  True, every now and then you might do something great not knowing the rules, but most of the time you’ll be penalized and complain about how hard the game is (or how unfair it is).

I say this because over the last 6-8 years we’ve used flow to solve some very complex problems that had us stymied using Scrum and XP.  These included:

  • How to get executives on-board with Agile
  • How to handle situations when our clients could not create cross-functional teams
  • How to handle cross-team collaborations
  • How to get teams to have coding and testing be done around the same time during a sprint
  • How to manage the work between multiple stakeholders and multiple teams
  • How to avoid sprint planning and save time when it wasn’t needed (and knowing when this was)

In addition to all of this, our understanding of flow has greatly helped us understand why XP, Scrum and Kanban work.

Can flow stand the test of time?  For the foreseeable future I think so.  While we keep adding new concepts to our methods in helping our clients, flow tends to be a main guidance mechanism.  This should not be surprising since flow incorporates the ideas of:

  • System thinking
  • Just-In-Time (JIT)
  • Holistic view (from concept of idea to consumption by customer)

These are all key concepts we keep finding to be essential in having Agile work beyond a team level.

One of the reasons Kanban is so powerful is that it is explicitly based on flow (see the blog Kanban in a Nutshell and the lightning webinar “Mapping a Value Stream to a Kanban Board” from our Lightning Webinar page).  You will learn its importance while using Kanban.  Scrum is implicitly based on flow.  So understanding flow will help you improve your Scrum methods as well (check out Why a Kanban Board is a Value Stream Map but a Scrum Board Isn’t – and What This Tells Us).

The bottom line for us is you need to learn about flow. Also, if you are using a consultant to help you in your migration, you should make sure they are experts in it (many aren’t). We think this is so important that we’ve devoted an entire webinar series to it: Lean-Agile at Scale and the Team: The Value Stream Series.

Here are some other good resources for flow (in addition to Don Reinertsen’s books I’ve already mentioned):

Alan Shalloway, CEO, Net Objectives

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About the author | Al Shalloway

Al Shalloway is the founder and CEO of Net Objectives. With 45 years of experience, Al is an industry thought leader in Lean, Kanban, product portfolio management, Scrum and agile design. He helps companies transition to Lean and Agile methods enterprise-wide as well teaches courses in these areas.


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