Getting Things Done – The Power of Sticky Tape and Post-it Notes

Hold your horses! We can’t do everything. You have to choose!

The quote is from a one-day DevOps simulation session I recently ran at a Swedish company in the music streaming business. The person expressing the frustration was responsible for managing the team’s workload. Within the realm of the simulation, it was quite clear that the team would not be able to handle all requests that were on the table. Why is it so hard, in real life, to see that most teams are swamped and drowned in an unmanageable amount of work?!

A key part of the DevOps philosophy is the concept of autonomous teams that have an end-to-end responsibility for value delivery. This implies that the same team is responsible for developing, running, supporting and maintaining the service being delivered, eliminating or reducing the need for hand-overs from one team to another.

With the rising popularity of agile methods, like Scrum, the focus has shifted from large-scale projects and big bang deployments to incremental deliveries and value realization. This is a good thing. Agile methods have also brought visualization methods, such as Kanban boards, into the light. This is also a good thing. All too often a team’s workload is hidden in a combination of tools and repositories; project and service management tools, task lists, role descriptions, minutes of meetings, etc. Making work visible is a critical success factor in getting the right things done.

The Phoenix Project simulation game, even in an agile oriented organization like this one, provides a good lesson. It makes the importance of visualization brutally clear.

The setup is quite simple

  • Each participant plays a role in a fictive company that sells car parts. There are manager roles, business roles, developers, support, engineers and IT operations role.
  • Everyone is expected to work together with the joint goal of making the company successful.
  • Four rounds are played, corresponding to one calendar month each. Before each round, the team will review and improve their way of working.
  • During each round of play, a bunch of work items hits the team. There is project work, incidents, changes, audits, etc. The team must prioritize and schedule the work in best possible way.

Sounds simple enough but can prove challenging. Especially as the CEO, represented by the facilitator, is screaming down everyone’s neck claiming that everything is most important!. Success for the team means they must create a common view of what needs doing and who works on what. There are bottlenecks to resolve and constant re-prioritization as new requests hit the team. Without clear visualization, it proves almost impossible to get an overview and to create flow. There is a considerable risk that work will get stuck in the process (heard of WIP – Work In Progress?) but not finished in time.

Stop starting – Start finishing

The simulation is like the real world, but on steroids. It goes faster and is, compared to most organization, more extreme. However, the challenges and solutions are the same.

For this customer, the agile methods and visualization tools are not only used by the product development teams. The business support and maintenance teams also use them. These teams are typically responsible for supporting and enhancing a business support system, such as the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. Work items come in from several different directions, the business users, companywide projects, platform incidents, etc. There is an apparent risk that the most urgent, not necessarily most important, work is prioritized. That is human nature. If someone is standing around the corner, imploring you to resolve their request, it is difficult to say no. But that is precisely what needs to happen. Saying no.

Different teams work in different ways but in one of the teams they created the following visual view of their workload.

Visual workflow of a DevOps team

So why are there four lanes? To ensure that there is a balance between unplanned and planned work. By its nature the unplanned work is almost always reactive and the planned work proactive. Too many yellow notes on the board is a sign of firefighting.

The columns are there to create flow. The team members should be protected from seeing all potential work and focus on the prioritized work at hand, one item at the time. This implies that there is a column to the left of ‘To Do’ column which contains all the work items that has not yet been prioritized for immediate resolution.

Conclusion

In summary, to achieve flow it is important to select what to focus on. Making work visual is the way to clarify which work items to address and to ensure a healthy balance of planned and unplanned work. This is where simple tools such as sticky tape and post-it notes can create magic.

Keep posted for part 2 of this blog post. I will then provide some ideas for how to manage the backlog of work, that is, the work that is hidden in the column to the left of ‘To Do’.

Ola Källgården

Business Developer, Consultant and Trainer, Olingo

Ola Källgården is a business developer, consultant, and trainer at Olingo Consulting. He spends most of his time making customers strike the right balance between…