Part I – Visualizing Work
This article is part one in a six part series towards helping Scrum Masters get better at their craft.
You are a Scrum Master, responsible for the process and helping your team identify and resolve impediments. Through your certified training, books, and online articles you’ve been armed with numerous practices and tools designed to help your team and organization identify and tackle issues, and improve delivery. That’s awesome, but despite your best efforts you may find your team continues to struggle with overburdening, unpredictable delivery, or competing priorities. Scrum talks about helping your team solve problems and the practices and tools you’ve learned might even help. But there are other things you can do right now in addition to a different retrospective technique or a brainstorming session, and many improvement concepts can come from Kanban!
In recognizing the Scrum value of Respect (in this case respect for the team, the system and organization they are a part of), you should start with what you’ve got and work to improve things progressively instead of making wholesale changes that are potentially disruptive. To adhere with the Scrum value of Focus you should get your team to align to the approach of pursuing specific, systematic, deliberate changes intended to help improve delivery, customer satisfaction, and the team’s state of being. Then in embracing the Scrum value of Courage you should provide your team with the knowledge, space, confidence and authority to own their problems and issues and actively work towards resolving them.
Techniques for Visualizing Work
The next step is to systematically start helping your team improve, and often that needs to start by having visibility in to their work and issues. Without clear visibility in to their work they might be tackling the wrong issues or treating symptoms instead of solving root causes.
Option 1 – Expand the “In Progress” Column
To that end you can provide some transparency in to your team’s work by simply expanding the “In Progress” column on a traditional Sprint Board. A typical approach would be to a) define the flow that your team’s work follows and b) map that process (steps) as explicit sub-columns that replace the “In Progress” column of their Sprint board. A before and after example is shown in Figures 1 and 2 below.
Figure 1: Traditional Scrum Board
The goal of expanding the “In Progress “column to show explicit work item steps is to help your team identify any potential challenges experienced with their work, such as bottlenecks, dependencies, or issues. On a traditional Scrum Board, bottlenecks or impediments may get lost in the noise of the other work in the aggregated “In Progress” column, while a more explicit modified board such as in Figure 2 could make challenges with work types much easier to identify. Although this practice is from Kanban and not Scrum it could be helpful. In the example above several work items appear to be piling up in “Test Execute”. This may be normal or it’s possible an investigation is required to determine the root cause of the bottleneck.
Option 2 – Add Symbols and Colours
Some teams find it helpful to use colours and symbols to help visualize their work and any related issues. In Figure 3 below each of the Product Backlog Items (PBI’s) are shaded a different colour and their associated tasks are similarly coloured to make it easier to see related work items (e.g. light blue tasks with dark blue PBI, light pink tasks with dark pink PBI, light green tasks with dark green PBI).
An additional visualization technique shown in Figure 3 is to use symbology to draw attention to certain critical factors. In the example above, a red stop sign is used to flag work that is blocked, and yellow-orange triangles flag work items with external dependencies. Based on the example board above, PBI A (blue) might be at risk due to several blocked work items, several challenges are being experienced with the “Test Execution” work, and PBI C (green) has several external dependencies that may introduce other risks to a successful delivery. These are just examples of how you could colorize and symbolize work – other colours, symbols or icons may be used as desired.
Option 3 – Add Swim Lanes
Yet another way to provide clarity is to add swim lanes to a board for containing all related work items within a given row. These are often designated with horizontal lines that isolate work for a specific feature or improvement. This kind of visualization provides focus on the work being done and facilitates for anyone collaborating on the related work. In Figure 4 below each of the three Product Backlog Items (PBI’s) and their associated tasks are given their own swim lane within designated lines, which makes it easier to see related work by just scanning horizontally across the board.
Option 4 – Add Contextual Detail and Cycle Metrics
Yet another way to provide additional visual clarity and information to your team about their work is to add contextual detail to their Product Backlog Items (PBI’s). To be clear, I am not recommending you expand on the content and turn a PBI in to a detailed requirement. However, I do recommend adding other contextual information about the work item itself so as to provide the team with quick visual clarity on the work, including measures of wait (blocked) time and time in process.
In addition to the typical information such as ID, title, ranking, value estimate, effort estimate, and “User Story” (one technique for writing PBI’s), several other key data elements have been added for the sample in Figure 5 below. Specifically, a box with several dates has been added to help the team track when the work started and stopped, and what the target date is (not the commitment, but just a preferred date they are working towards). At the bottom are simple rows of boxes to facilitate counting how many days the work item has been in process (9), as well as how many days the work item has been blocked (3). This is important information to have as, if similar work types are often blocked, it makes it easier for the team to forecast future work of a similar nature. It also helps the team identify patterns so they may start problem-solving repeating issues.
Figure 5: Sample Product Backlog Item With Contextual Details
Also visualized on the card is a list of three key risks the team needs to manage while working on the item, and several temporary symbols to draw attention for specific reasons. The red stop sign indicates the work is currently being blocked (to be removed when it is unblocked), the yellow diamond indicates a dependency on an external team, and the avatar indicates the person currently responsible for this work.
Visualizing additional information on PBI’s will generate a unique team language. This allows a team to easily identify who is working on what, whether they are experiencing any issues, how long the work item is being kept in a specific state, or any other useful information that you or the team feel is helpful to manage their work. Again, the goal is to help the team focus on the work and identify any issues or patterns that may emerge so they may address them. Of course, your own team should create their own language and not simply re-use someone else’s technique.
Part 1 Conclusion
Regardless of the approach you take, the key with visualization is to find an effective way to help your team visualize their own work. Certainly look at other examples, but what you do should be unique to your team and customized, based on the team’s specific needs. The outcome should be an easy to read board that visually communicates work patterns and flow, and that makes impediments and challenges obvious to see so they may be prioritized and tackled.
Visualizing your work is one of six key practices in Kanban. The suggestions in the article above are just a few helpful techniques you can try with your team to start providing additional clarity to the work they are doing, and to identify patterns and problems to address so they may work more predictably, smoothly and effectively.
In my next article I will focus on the Kanban practice of limiting work in progress so as to focus efforts on getting work done rather than starting more new work. In other words, stop starting and start finishing!
If you are interested in learning more about these and other helpful Kanban practices, principles and techniques I highly recommend you attend a one day Team Kanban Practitioner (TKP) training class with BERTEIG. We often see struggling Scrum Teams begin to succeed when they start using Kanban practices such as visualization to help them focus on the work and issues at hand.