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Limiting WIP: People, Organizations and Scrum

September 21, 2011

(It’s been a long time since I have posted. I’m back at it now!)

I have seen a common thread all through my career.  A problem experienced seemingly everywhere, at all levels, including with myself.  This problem causes all sorts of dysfunctions and symtoms, from frustration and poor quality to wasted effort and missed deadlines.  It’s a hard problem to solve because most of our cultures, individual to large corporations, are counter to the solution.

The problem is trying to do too much.  A solution is limiting work in progress.

Limiting WIP

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This is a concept usually connected with Lean and Kanban.  The idea is that work in progress (WIP) is a liability, it is “inventory.” As such WIP represents costs expended without yet realizing value.  Therefore limiting the amount of WIP makes sense from a cost perspective.  And it is more than that.

Problems from unlimited WIP

I have a wife, children, work, hobbies, volunteer projects, church, community events, etc. that I like to participate with.  My ability to pay attention and build any one of these areas suffers if I try to do all of them at once.  For example, my wife dislikes my habit of checking my phone during our date night evenings.  And she is right!

Many companies and even clubs or other groups take on too many things.  For example, that $500,000 contract was too good to pass up, but now the $5,000,000 project is late.  Other effects include:

  • Employee and personal burn out.
  • Expectations of constant over-time by executives and developers.
  • High levels of interruption and context-switching.
  • Low quality by taking short cuts because there is so much other work to do.
  • Stale features, half-developed that clutter code and minds.
  • All the requirements are top priority and all must be in the release or product.
  • More meetings to coordinate sharing of people between more projects.
  • And many other bad things.

Scrum and unlimited WIP

Scrum teams also suffer from situations of unlimited work in progress.  There are, of course, the issues of interruptions from outside the team and Sprint which are an organizational symptom.  Even if such external issues are not present, unlimited WIP in the team can happen:

  • Sprint Planning with stories written such that each team member has stories assigned specific to their individual skills.
  • Defining stories that take the entire Sprint to complete.
  • No one has time to help team mates with difficulties.
  • At the end of the Sprint all or most of the stories are started but few are actually done.

Limit WIP

Simply creating limits on WIP, the number of items allowed to be in process at one time, helps to solve these issues. If I choose my personal projects carefully I can more deeply enjoy the things that really matter. Organizations that discipline themselves to limit work in progress create a culture of focus and urgency.  Teams that “swarm” on stories and make sure Sprint items get done before taking on more work find higher quality, better team cohesion and increased ability to get work done.

How do you sent limits?

Empower yourself and people who you work with to say no.  For example, the VP does not have the right view and information to know if his “little side job” is really as little as imagined nor the knowledge to know how such a diversion will effect the larger projects.  The developer should be allowed to decline and have that answer stick.

Teams need to decide how many stories in a Sprint can be started but not done.  And they need to stick to it, getting things done before starting something new.

Most important, you will find that setting WIP limits will reveal problems.  Stories will not get done and instead of just starting the next story the team will have to figure out and address why current stories in progress are not done.  Organizations will see opportunities go by and will have to figure out which are the most important and what is really needed to support more projects instead of just saying yes and delivering late.  This is all good!

WIP limits are a powerful tool for uncovering places of improvement and finding the correct focus.  Use them, apply them, learn and grow from them.  You really can do more by forcing yourself to do less all at once.


Agile Events, Local and Costa Rica!

June 25, 2011

It has literally been months since my last post. I be predictable and say that I’ve been busy. While true, that is not the interesting part. I’m going to be even more busy in the next months! Let’s start with today and look forward.

Startup Weekend Chandler

Starting yesterday evening and going on today through tomorrow is the Startup Weekend Chandler event. These events are about learning and networking in an extreme environment to create a company in one weekend. People show up with product ideas, form teams and work on building as much as they can until the weekend is over. Very intense.

I am participating as a mentor to the teams. Last night I was swamped with requests of quick overviews of Scrum and Agile and how it could apply in such a fast paced development run. 10-15 minutes of talking together does not an education make. Still, I think the teams here are applying some of what we talked about. I see team boards and sticky notes all around Gangplank!

Donation-only Agile Training

On Saturday, July 23rd, my friend and superb Agile Coach Bachan Anand will lead a one-day Scrum and Agile training class at Gangplank in Chandler, Arizona. If seen the content, it is great information and a bargain experience for the $195 price. What is special is that Bachan is doing this also on a donation basis. If you are in transition between positions you can pay what you want for the class. Go to the registration page and sign up your whole team! It will be a great experiential learning event.

Meanwhile, In Costa Rica…

I have been invited to speak at the AgileFest conference in San Jose, Costa Rica, July 28-29. The agenda is full of excellent presentations. I’ll be doing two sessions and participating in a third to help people understand different specific aspects of applying Agile to real world work. You are welcome to fly down and join us in a beautiful country!

Finally, Certified ScrumMaster Workshop

Monday and Tuesday, August 1-2 Micheal Vizdos will be in town to offer his unique workshop for a ScrumMaster certification from the Scrum Alliance. I will be co-training with him and enjoying his thoughtful, interactive style. Please sign up right away as the seats are going fast for this popular class.

Look for more posts from me, more often. Neglect of this channel is not good for me. Or you!

Agile at Desert Code Camp April 2nd

March 30, 2011

It’s time again for the spring Desert Code Camp in the Phoenix area.  The no-cost event will be on Saturday, April 2nd.  Free breakfast and lunch and over 100 sessions(PDF) about programming, development and business.  Especially if you are interested in Agile and Scrum, you should be there to learn more and make contacts!

Scrum – Ease The Hard Parts

I have participated in this volunteer event in the past and this Saturday is no exception.  I will lead a session at 10:15 AM where we will review the Scrum framework and discuss the places where the framework can be hard to implement.  We will share experiences and techniques for getting through these places for even better performance.

Agile Content Abounds!

Before I list the many sessions about Agile and Scrum, let me remind you of an important point.  Desert Code Camp is free, as in no-cost.  A free opportunity to learn, ask questions and discover gems from practitioners sharing their experience.  Find a session or two or more to take advantage of this community gift!

Here are the sessions related to Agile and Scrum, gleaned from the schedule for you!

Classes for Kids

There are a number of sessions designed specifically for children to get hands-on experience programming and creating.  Thanks to Gangplank Jr., you can bring your young offspring to learn programming with Scratch, build Lego robots and other things.  Check the schedule for these classes marked with minimum age appropriate notation.

It will be a great Saturday!  If you don’t attend my session, look around for me to say hello before the day is done.

Creative Sparks For All!

March 1, 2011

I have posted before about my involvement with Ignite Phoenix.  This powerful community and wonderful team of volunteer organizers helps keeps me energized.  Last February 11th I gave the introduction presentation to kick off Ignite Phoenix #9:

Creative Sparks

They are everywhere!  Right now, near you, is another person.  That person cares about something, cares enough that they could talk about it with enthusiasm, energy and sparks!  And even if you didn’t really care about the subject, their enthusiasm just might rub off on you.

One of the things that helps create a high performing team is diversity of opinion, personal culture and points of view.  Make sure you help team members give each other the gift of passion.  Hold learning events to present about hobbies.  Ask for book reviews or presentations on some new technology.  Heck, go bowling.  Do things that expose your people to new ideas.  One day those “unrelated” creative sparks will trigger your next market-winning innovation!

Check out more inspiring presentations at the Ignite Phoenix YouTube Channel.  What will they inspire you and your team to do?

Phoenix Comes To Agile

February 23, 2011

I was invited last week to keynote a free Agile conference in downtown Phoenix.  Rally Software, AccuRev and Urban Code sponsored a half-day event called “Agile Comes To You.”  Obviously the purpose for them was to sell their products, which is good thing.  Previous experience at events put on by Rally assured me it would not be a “heavy sell,” so I was happy to have the opportunity to speak.

Business Value

The organizers suggested a presentation that would “show how Agile practices provided business value.”  Well, that’s certainly something that I promote and believe!  I used my year old presentation from a Brown Bag at Gangplank as a base to something better:

Answering Questions

The event was very well attended.  The number of people looking, doing, implementing Agile practices in Phoenix is definitely on the rise!  The 15 minute question time after my presentation was filled with insightful discussion that showed experience.  Just before lunch, each vendor presenter and myself continued to answer questions as a panel.  We could have gone on and on I think, except lunch was ready.

I’m excited by what I saw at the event.  Many people working to improve, figuring out how Agile practices can benefit them and their work.  I hope they find the success they need, with me helping or not!

Agility Requires Clear Communication

February 22, 2011

The topic of communication has become a bit of an irritant lately.  Certainly I’m not the best communicator in the world, so I work at it.  I’m starting to wonder if many others have forgotten this key to productivity and enjoyment.  I have many thoughts on this subject.  Today I’ll address communication as an enterprise function.


If Agile is about people, it’s surely about communication.  Let’s start by looking at a few things we know about communication:

  • Some say human communication is only 7% words while the remaining 93% is verbal and visual (  While some might argue the exact ratio, I agree that face-to-face communication is by far the best way to share information and create.
  • The ability to grasp abstract subjects and invent is severely damaged by context switches and distractions.
  • Understanding the history and context of a subject increases the ability to be productive in that subject.
  • Any change in the membership of a group (team) will disrupt the relationships and communication paths of the group.  It will take time to reestablish the previous levels of efficiency.
  • Any person highly experienced in a general skill area will need to learn the basics of any specific situation before they can be fully productive in that specific situation.

Almost anyone would find the above statements as reasonable, even intuitive.  And yet, point by point, common real life situations continue every day:

  • Work environments are designed such that the use of anything more than email, instant messaging and documents very difficult, if not impossible.  IT policies and work requirements force dependency on only words and eliminate the rich audio and visual channels we naturally know.
  • Day after day we are required to change projects, product focus and attention.  Some engineers I know have as many as 12 or more projects to keep in the air.  Details are lost in the context switches.
  • Developers and other workers are thrown into projects with no information about the purpose of the work, the roles of the people involved or the value of the product.  Instead of listening and building the confusion of purpose reigns.
  • Individuals are “resources” to be plugged in and out of “teams” at will and whim.  Long term relationships with shared experiences building high communication connections never happen.
  • Questions about basic information are met with chastisements from peers and managers.  For some reason people are expected to know already without any training or orientation.  People learn to not ask questions.

Innovation Sabotage

Pushing people into situations of poor communication, severing communication paths and obfuscating information will not produce real innovation.  Working harder and longer will not make up for the damage.

I’ve attended meetings where top executives tout technology and projects that will propel the company to new heights of profitability.  They point out the places in the plan where differentiating innovation will be created.  Difficult problems will be solved to create the products and success that will come.

And, the company does not allow the use of internet video conferencing.  And defines projects based on “resource” skills without regard to geographic location.  And has key projects running with no defined structure or governance models.  And considers “fire fighting” just the way the industry works.  And requires heavy sign off processes by people who don’t know what they are approving.

Many times the disconnect is both huge and invisible to the executives and even the people working under fog and confusion.

Agile Means Transparency

To be Agile means communication about everything.  Finding ways to easily share everything such that when data is needed, it is readily discovered.

  • Don’t eliminate up to 93% of human communication capability, enhance it.  Put teams in their own rooms, not cubes or offices.  Design product development structures to support co-location instead of distribution of people.
  • Give teams goals that don’t change all the time and members that are dedicated to the team, not split multiple ways.
  • Explicitly define and publish team structures.  Allow new people to be trained on products and processes before they are required to be fully productive.  Organize the information in radiators that passively keep people in the know. Give people time to learn them.
  • Projects and products come and go.  Teams should not.  Allow deep relationships to form and cultivate over time from project to project.  Soon you’ll have teams that can do anything you throw at them.
  • Basic questions should be welcomed and the answers immediately available.

People Problem, People Solution

Every problem is a people problem.  Every single one.  Ask people to solve the problems.  If you are a manager, business owner, vice president, you are the creator of the work environment.  Don’t forget the people and people attributes.  The power of people allowed to communicate fully is far beyond any technology or process.  “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” is not just some feel-good mantra.  It is what we need to solve our problems and innovate!

Mentors and Mentoring at Gangplank

January 19, 2011

I recently learned yet another something through Gangplank.  January is National Mentoring Month.  That gave me pause to think about what mentors have meant to me.

My Mentors

  • Don Dayley, my father – Taught me all the foundational things in life, including how to mow the lawn when I did not want to, sometimes through uncomfortable methods.  He also gave me an unsurpased example of attention to craftsmanship.  Everything he builds or repairs is better than new when he is done.
  • Mrs. Fedler, 4th grade teacher – I found most of my first three years of public school boring.  Mrs. Fedler found ways to show me that learning itself was fascinating.  And she showed me that exploring the boundaries beyond expectations was praise worthy.
  • Mr. Douglas, 11th grade chemistry – THE hardest teacher I ever had, including college.  The scientific method, analysis, reporting, supporting conclusions based on facts and failing with good humor are among the things he taught me.  Ask me why he sometimes called me “Beaker.”
  • Pedro Brassinini – Taught me to love strangers more than I ever dreamed possible and to feel compassion deeper than I had known.  And how self-sacrifice brings inner rewards.
  • Bill Sheppard – My first engineering boss was hard and understanding with me, a green engineering student.  He showed me that trust is part of doing my work well.
  • Kevin Kilzer – A brilliant engineer of software and hardware.  He harnesses passion for the work like no other coworker in my experience.  Creativity fueled by inner fire is awesome.
  • Mike Vizdos – A guide over the years of my journey into the Agile and Scrum world.  Quiet thought is a powerful tool, which he knows and shows how to use in all his work.
  • The Ignite Phoenix Team have shown me Agile collaboration skills and community building prowess that I hope rubs off on me.  (Don’t tell them they are Agile, they’d get too self-conscious.)

I could go on with more mentors, some who don’t even know the little, important things they have taught me.  You should take some time to make your own list, even just mentally.  You have had some great mentors too, or you would not be where you are.

Gangplank Mentor

Before I knew January was Mentor Month, I was invited to be a member of the mentor team at Gangplank.  I’m one of the mentors on business operations.  Once a month, more often when I can, I’ll have office hours at Gangplank.  You can book a 45 minute session with me to ask questions about Agile and Agile frameworks like Scrum and Kanban.

My first mentor day is in the afternoon of Tuesday, January 25th.  No fee, just set your appointment with the Gangplank Director of Operations and let’s talk about taking your operations to the next level.

I can’t necessarily give back to all the mentors in my life.  But I can give to someone, who can build something great and give to someone else!