Don’t Forget to Measure Real Work In Progress

As often is the case when you set out on the Scrum or agile journey as a software team, the team often starts going through the motions. They often work through the proper ceremonies, meetings, deliverables, actions; but what can get lost is the meaning and the ‘why’ we do it. Many teams in fact start doing daily standup meetings as a way to start being agile. The thought there is at least that everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Meanwhile they might still be planning and committing to 15 sprints down into the future (e.g. a waterfall project plan in another form). Sometimes they have split responsibilities such that the product owner is handling the prioritization, but still forcing all of the requirements to be done ahead of time before the sprint starts. Often, I’ll hear the product owner say things like “I’m just giving the team a runway.” I see this a lot and sometimes it seems like it’s working for them; to enable meetings to be fast and efficient, but I’d suggest thinking about work in progress, or WIP in terms of everything that you need to do to bring a feature to “production.”

This one example, might be worth exploring a bit more in depth. As the product owner builds the runway; and encourages the team to groom as fast as they can, it might in fact give the team a false sense of security. Here’s an example Kanban that I’ve seen recently.

The way to read this is that the “3/3” above the active column shows a “WIP Limit” of 3. The team is telling the world that they will only have 3 active at any given time. The good news is that they should be getting things done at a relatively predictable pace.

The interesting, and potentially unfortunate news is the “groomed” state. The product owner has likely had grooming meetings where he or she has presented and had estimates put onto items in the future backlog. The point that I’d like to make is that the “groomed’ state is in fact a work in progress, not just active. The risk that the team faces is that; all those items may be out there to be committed into sprints, but they may change as we learn about the ones we’re doing “now.” A potential waste in the project.

That said, having a groomed status such as this, in my humble opinion has its drawbacks but not always wrong. If the organization is not using higher order concepts like epics or features (above PBI/User Story), doing this does give the organization some idea of long range projection of timeframe assuming velocity is being measured. Unfortunately, that longer range projection has the risk of being taken as a commitment and therefore a waterfall plan itself. So be warned, that’s all.

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