Lean Projects

Posted by Alex Falkowski at 09/03/2013 03:36

I have had the pleasure to start a new job for a very well established agency. As with every company, managing projects is not easy. However, what makes this company particularly interesting is the shear growth they are going through.

As with any start you get the opportunity to look at things from a different point of view. This has given me the ability to asses the way things are done. What I will present is how things currently are done and the parts that I don’t personally like. This points will be discussed and I will propose a way of addressing them, which I call Lean Projects.

Project Management

The system of choice for managing a project is called podio. The cool aspect of this tool is that it keeps all communication in one place. Emails should not be used to communicate in a project. All tasks are created and tracked under the specific projects. A lot of tasks are created by the project managers and assigned to the developer. Sometimes these tasks will take precedence over what is currently being worked on. What are some of the issues that I have found with this approach?

  1. The tool doesn’t show not you overall visibility. This makes it really hard to prioritise and forecast, or even plan.
  2. The tasks are assigned to developers without always knowing what they are working on. Unfortunately this approach is reactive and it causes too muchcontext switching.

Time Sheets

The one thing that I have disliked about this tool is that each individual enters the time they spend on each task. Why don’t I like this?

  1. No one tracks time efficiently.
  2. The time is never really accurate.
  3. If you have estimated a time you are more than likely that you will just enter that amount.

So we got introduced to an expansion pack for Scrum Development Pack for podio, however it still records everything in hours. I have worked in a few agile projects and I have found that this process does not work for software development.

So why do they do it? Well this is quite simple. In agency work it is all about billable hours. These billable hours are then passed on to the clients. No billable hours = no money = no job. The last statement is a reality however it makes me sad thinking about it that way.


As with any business that delivers software we need to gather requirements. This currently is achieved by meeting with the client. We have some great people that really understand the client and the product. Once the meeting is over, all of this is documented in google docs. These docs are first used as a WIKI and then cleaned up to turn into a requirements document.

The developer will add questions to this document that will be answered by either someone internally or the client. The idea is to try to get all the requirements down so that the developer can estimate. Does this sound like waterfall?


Since we have the concept of billable hours we need to estimate the time it will take for a feature to be built. Estimates are done for multiple features, once that is done it is often multiplied by a factor to give it some padding. This estimate is needed as the client needs to sign of on it. So how is this estimate carried out? Well from what I can see, it is done as a gut feel, or as I’ve heard it by using your life experience. What are some of the issues with estimating in this manner?

  1. One does not always know what needs to be done and people tend to be very optimistic.
  2. Studies have confirmed that most people’s intuitive sense of “90% confident” is really comparable to something closer to “30% confident”.
  3. No one ever thinks about the non functional requirements.
  4. A lot of assumptions are made, which usually are wrong.

Some great articles on this topic:

  1. Why Software Estimation is Hard
  2. Why is Estimating so Hard?
  3. Estimation is Evil – Overcoming the Estimation Obsession


Unfortunately I have not been involved in any planning session, though I expect that this is due to me just starting there. They have a concept of a WIP meeting. During these meetings we go through the whole list of projects that are being worked on. After this we are taken through all the new work coming up. This meeting goes for about 30-60 minutes. This is done once a week with the whole team.

My first impression is that it is too much information to deal with at the meeting. This reminds me of a really big standup where half of the team just switches of.

As a development team we meet every day to talk about what we are doing, however I find that we jump into solution mode rather than do analysis. This is hard as we are nerds and we like to think that way. The rest of the teams seem to meet quite regularly too, which is always great to see.

So some people will read the previous blog and say why are you being so negative? See I don’t see it that way, I see it as a place that has a great culture that wants to embrace change and continuous improvement. I also see this as massive opportunity to try out some of the ideas that I will present. A lot of these ideas are not new topics, however they have been tailored for the environment that I am in.

The concept that I am calling this is Lean Projects. A way for us to embrace lean and agile methodologies in an agency environment.


Kanban is a method for developing software products and processes with an emphasis on just-in-time delivery while not overloading the software developers. In this approach, the process, from definition of a task to its delivery to the customer, is displayed for participants to see and developerspull work from a queue.
The thing to note from the above statement is that Kanban works on the concept of a pull model.

Visualise Workflow

As stated above, one of the challenges that we face is to visualise our workflow. One way to get started is to map the value stream. The idea behind value stream mapping is to sketch out how you are working as this will help everyone to understand how the process works.

From this visualisation we can create what is called a Kanban board. The idea behind this board is to have a way to show your team what your value stream looks like. An example of a board looks like this:

This board is the single point of truth for everyone working on a product.

If you would like to know how to manage a process of the Kanban board, please read my previous blog Launching Australia’s Biggest News Site

Limit Work In Progress

The most important part of the Kanban process is to limit your WIP.

In Kanban, we don’t juggle. We try to limit what we are doing, and get the most important things done, one by one, with a clear focus. It’s not uncommon to find that doing ten things at once takes a week, but doing two things at once takes hours, resulting in twenty things being done by the end of the week.

A great explanation can be found here Why Limit Work In Progress?

Measure and Manage Flow

The important aspect is to make sure that each of the features that is on the board actually goes through to the last step of your flow. We set limits to make sure we don’t start picking up more features than the ones already started.

Some teams have the concept of stop the line, where the team gets together to make sure the pipeline clears up for the next features to be pulled in.

Fortunately Kanban has a few ways for us to measure the pipeline, as without measurement we can’t improve on things.

Cumulative Flow Diagrams

This diagram is an area graph that depicts the quantity of work in a given state, showing arrivals, time in queue, quantity in queue, and departure. This is a great way to visualise how we are churning features through our work flow.

Lead Time

The term lead time (LT) is just a fancy way to say time to market. It’s essentially the time that elapses (on the calendar) from something is ordered until it is received. In software development, a feature is ordered when someone (like the product owner) asks someone else (the team) to implement it. The same feature is received when it is deployed to the production system and ready to be used by end users.

Why is this important? Well, we can track how long a feature took. This is a really powerful metric, as it can be used to eliminate the entering of hours spent into a system.

How can this be used in Lean Projects? Well when I estimate I always like to estimate in terms of effort, meaning that it is easier for me to think about how easy/hard something is rather than how long it will take. This effort for me ismeasured using t-shirt sizes, e.g. S, M and L. Now if we start tracking all the features that have been sized using a t-shirt size we can start measuring the lead time for each of these features. We can then take the average of the lead time and this amount can be used to drive the estimates of the next feature.

Make Process Policies Explicit

As mentioned on wikipedia:

Until the mechanism of a process is made explicit it is often hard or impossible to hold a discussion about improving it. Without an explicit understanding of how things work and how work is actually done, any discussion of problems tends to be emotional, anecdotal and subjective. With an explicit understanding it is possible to move to a more rational, empirical, objective discussion of issues. This is more likely to facilitate consensus around improvement suggestions.

LeanKit has a great example of how this can be achieved.

Feedback Loops and Improvement Opportunities

The way to improve this is to provide a way to have some form of feedback loop. I am big fan of Agile Retrospectives. The idea is to meet at a regular time to reflect on how everything is going. With Lean Projects we need to reflect on how efficient the process is and ask the right questions. The way that we can do that is by using the 5 Why’s Technique. A good metric for improvement is reducing lead time, as this will help you deliver all features in a better way.

Remember to listen to your team as they are closer to the problem than we usually are. Usually issues tend to show that it is a process problem not a people problem. Lean Projects are about a bottom up approach.

Your people are your most important resource. Ensuring their support and cooperation is vital for all major projects.

Specification by Example

Specification by Example is a set of process patterns that facilitate change in software products to ensure that the right product is delivered efficiently.Wikipedia summarises this quite well:

Teams that apply Specification by example successfully commonly apply the following process patterns:

  1. Deriving scope from goals
  2. Specifying collaboratively – through all-team specification workshops, smaller meetings or teleconference reviews
  3. Illustrating requirements using examples
  4. Refining specifications
  5. Automating tests based on examples
  6. Validating the underlying software frequently using the tests
  7. Evolving a documentation system from specifications with examples to support future development

So what does this all mean for Lean Projects? Well the basic idea is that we want to find a common language to describe the requirements through as a set of examples. For this work we need to do this collaboratively and to make sure that the requirements don’t become stale as they will serve as documentation.

Before we can think of an example, we need to think of the value that we are adding. The best format I have found is as follows:

In order to [business value]
As a [role]
I want to [some action]

The first part is the most important and it should reflect one of these values:

  • Protect revenue
  • Increase revenue
  • Manage cost
  • Increase brand value
  • Make the product remarkable
  • Provide more value to your customers

Also think about the role that this feature is for. The reason I mention this is because sometimes we build a feature for the “Highest Paid Person’s Opinion”, which most of the time adds no value. A scenario or example has the following format:

Given [context]
When I do [action]
Then I should see [outcome]

The Given step is where you set up the context of your scenario. Every scenario starts with a blank slate. The When step is where you exercise the application in order to accomplish what needs testing. Finally, the Then step is where you verify the result.

This way of working can be though of as outside-in development. So an examplefeature would look like this:

Feature: Login
In order to access the website content
As a website user
I need to log in to the website
Scenario: valid credentials
Given I am on the login page
When I provide the email address “test@mywebsite.com”
And I provide the password “Foo!bar1”
Then I should be successfully logged in
Scenario Outline: invalid credentials
Given I am on the login page
When I provide the email address <email>
And I provide the password <password>
Then I should not be logged in

email | password |
| test@mywebsite.com | Foo!bar2 |
| test@mywebsite.com | Foo |

Lean Software Development

Lean software development is a translation of lean manufacturing and lean IT principles and practices to the software development domain. Adapted from the Toyota Production System, a pro-lean subculture is emerging from within the Agile community.

Lean software development plays by seven principles.

Eliminate Waste

Waste is anything that interferes with giving customers what they value at the time and place where it will provide the most value. Anything we do that does not add customer value is waste, and any delay that keeps customers from getting value when they want it is also waste.

Some forms of waste are:

  1. unnecessary code or functionality
  2. starting more than can be completed
  3. delay in the software development process
  4. bureaucracy
  5. slow or ineffective communication
  6. partially done work
  7. defects and quality issues
  8. task switching

Build Quality In

The idea here is to start with the frame of mind that quality is important and needs to be done from the start. Your goal is to build quality into the code from the start, not test it in later. You don’t focus on putting defects into a tracking system; you avoid creating defects in the first place.

Extreme Programming is an excellent example of building quality in, some examples are:

Pair Programming

Pair Programming is an agile software development technique in which two programmers work together at one workstation. One, the driver writes code while the other, the observer, reviews each line of code as it is typed in. The two programmers switch roles frequently.

Test Driven Development

Test-driven development (TDD) is a software development process that relies on the repetition of a very short development cycle: first the developer writes an (initially failing) automated test case that defines a desired improvement or new function, then produces the minimum amount of code to pass that test, and finally refactors the new code to acceptable standards.

Continuous Integration

Continuous integration (CI) is the practice, in software engineering, of merging all developer workspaces with a shared mainline several times a day.


Code refactoring is a “disciplined technique for restructuring an existing body of code, altering its internal structure without changing its external behaviour”, undertaken in order to improve some of the nonfunctional attributes of the software. Advantages include improved code readability and reduced complexity to improve the maintainability of the source code, as well as a more expressive internal architecture or object model to improve extensibility.

Create Knowledge

We have all been in the situation where we have only one person that knows the codebase. There will always naturally be individuals that are stronger than others in specific areas. This is what makes great cross functional teams, however having only one person know something is what is called a single point of failure.

It is important that the whole team has an understanding of how the system works, so that we can eliminate single points of failure. However this is easer said than done as not everyone is always interested in every aspect of every system.

The following provide great ways to create knowledge:

Defer Commitment

Emergency responders are trained to deal with challenging, unpredictable, and often dangerous situations. They are taught to assess a challenging situation and decide how long they can wait before they must make critical decisions. Having set a time-box for such a decision, they learn to wait until the end of the time-box before they commit to action, because that is when they will have the most information.

Basically we want to decide as late as possible, specially for irreversible decisions.

Deciding too early, you run the very likely risk that something significant will have changed, meaning your end product might meet the spec, but it might still be the wrong product! This is one reason why so many projects fail.

Deliver Fast

If we can deliver software fast that means we can get real feedback from actual users, which is the reason you are building the feature in the first place. Another really great side effect of delivering software fast is that you would have had to solve the way you release your features. In order to release quickly means that you need to do it in a repeatable way, this means automation. The way to achieve this is through continuous delivery.

Continuous delivery is a pattern language in growing use in software development to improve the process of software delivery. Techniques such as automated testing, continuous integration and continuous deployment allow software to be developed to a high standard and easily packaged and deployed to test environments, resulting in the ability to rapidly, reliably and repeatedly push out enhancements and bug fixes to customers at low risk and with minimal manual overhead.

Respect People

I think it’s important to treat everyone with the same respect, whatever their job. It doesn’t matter whether they’re the CEO, a developer, project manager, the receptionist or the cleaner, respect everyone equally.

This comes back to the bottom up approach, giving people the responsibility to make decisions about their work. It is important to build knowledge and develop people who can think for themselves.

Respecting people means that teams are given general plans and reasonable goals and are trusted to self-organise to meet the goals. Respect means that instead of telling people what to do and how to do it, you develop a reflexive organisation where people use their heads and figure this out for themselves.

Optimise The Whole

A lean organisation optimises the whole value stream, from the time it receives an order to address a customer need until software is deployed and the need is addressed. If an organisation focuses on optimising something less than the entire value stream, we can just about guarantee that the overall value stream will suffer.

Looking at the whole picture is important. In the past I have spent time just optimising the development practices, however I believe that if you don’t love what you are building then what is the point. We should all care about the overall value stream.

Final Thoughts

All of these thoughts have been going around in my head for years and I am truly excited to put these ideas to work in such a vibrant environment. I look forward sharing my findings as I love to see how all these thoughts change over time.

Posted by Alex Falkowski at 09/03/2013 03:36

As seen on alexfalkowski.blogpor.com.es.