Last week marked the 10th edition of the XP 200x conference, held in Sardinia, Italy. Me and Francisco were there to present an extended version of our Lego Lean Game. Being selected as the first session on the first day of the program, we were expecting a small audience, but it turned out to be quite well attended by about 20-25 people.

Lean Lego Game

We started the session a bit delayed, due to the lack of room organisation: I was a bit shocked when we arrived and the room was arranged as a normal “lecture room”, rather than the usual group tables (that we requested a week before). Projector and flipchart were not available, so it took us about 15 minutes to have everything ready to begin.

The slow start, however, did not got in the way of the overall workshop. We have designed the activities in a flexible way that allow us to adapt their length just-in-time so we still managed to cover everything we wanted without having to rush.

The first half of the workshop was mostly the same version we presented last year in Buenos Aires, with slight modifications based on feedback we got from participants. The second half, however, was mostly new and we included an activity to allow each team to come up with their own processes (rather than following ours). This turned out to be a great success! Each group came up with different ideas and, by watching the other teams perform, we had an interesting discussion about the different approaches and results. We now think that the original version is too condensed :-)

Lean Lego Game

The feedback we received after the session was great and a lot of people asked us for the material to run the session themselves. Me and Francisco have a “game package” that we can share for those interested in running the game. Get in touch with us if you’re interested! You can find more photos of our presentation here, here, and here (thanks to Hubert for sharing his pictures!). The slides are also available:

We are very interested in your feedback. So, if you were at the conference or want to use the material to run the workshop, please let us know! Share your experiences and help us make it better!

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XP 2009 is happening between 25-29th of May in Sardinia, Italy and I will be there attending and presenting some interesting workshops:

  • The Lean Lego Game: Me and Francisco have been improving our workshop since we last presented it at Agiles 2008 in Argentina, and we will be presenting a long version (180 minutes) on Monday, May 25th. We have just a few “seats” available to participate on the session (20-24) and it will be occupied in a first-come-first-serve basis. If more people show up we have plans to try and not reject anyone, though.
  • Test Driven Development: Performing Art: Emily Bache kindly invited me to present a Prepared Kata at her workshop and I will be pairing with Francisco for 30-40 minutes, programming in Ruby with RSpec/Cucumber. Should be fun to “perform” and watch the other pairs as well. Looking forward to that session on Wednesday afternoon!

My fellow ThoughtWorker Pat Kua will be there presenting a workshop as well. I will try to brush up my (lately lazy) writting skills and publish some conference reports. And hope to see you all there in Sardinia!

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Continuing the series of conference reports, me and Frankie spend a day in Buenos Aires, Argentina to present a Lego(tm) Game we developed to teach some Lean practices and principles at Agiles 2008. The conference was held during the full week of 20-25 October, including three concurrent 2-day Certified Scrum Master trainings and Mary and Tom’s 2 day course on Lean Software Development.

Agiles 2008 - Buenos Aires

Unfortunately, we were not able to stay for the whole week, but spending one day gave us a pretty good impression of how Agile is growing in Latin America. The conference had about 400 participants during these 5 days and they had to reject some of the 900 interested due to logistics constraints. As happened in the US and Europe, the major driver for Agile adoption is being Scrum and, as more people start adopting it, the more problems are uncovered about how they can improve on the “technical” engineering practices.

Agiles 2008 - Buenos Aires

Mary’s opening keynote was exactly about that: how important it is to look at the engineering side of Agile to make its success sustainable. This was the same talk she gave at Agile 2008, highlighting the successes and failures (Plank Roads) of our short software engineering history. I thought it was much better than the last time I saw it, and she managed to convey her message in a much more clear way: focusing on processes/life-cycle has been fragile, while strong technical and engineering practices has shown success throughout our history.

Me presenting

Our workshop went really well: the number of participants and their level of knowledge on Lean matched exactly what we had in mind when we developed it. I’m not going to describe the dynamics of the session, because Frankie already did a good job in doing that. Suffice it to say that the feedback we received was great and that we already have some changes to make it even better. I’m also making the slides available here, although you would have to participate on the hands-on exercises to fully understand it.

Lego Houses

I think the overall message of our session was to show how some of the Lean practices work in practice, but also highlight the importance of Systems Thinking and the principles behind the practices. Blindly applying a practice may give you marginal results, but to fully embrace a Lean philosophy you need to keep learning and improving. There’s not an easy recipe to success.

After a good lunch (with Argentinian steak and some Brazilian friends), we went back to the venue and didn’t have a lot of time to watch any other session, so we rushed to the airport. Next year’s conference is promissing to be even bigger, and besides wanting to stay for the whole week, I hope to see more Brazilians sharing their Agile experiences with the Latin American community.

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I attended this session on Friday morning. This time the subject was another Lean tool: kanban. Corey Ladas showed 3 different project scenarios and presented different approaches to implement a kanban system.

He started by talking about some important Lean concepts like one-piece flow, work-in-process (WIP), cycle time, and their relationship using a Cumulative Flow Diagram (or finger chart). He showed how a constraint in the system can cause disruptions to flow and cause more harm than benefit to downstream processes by building more and more inventory (WIP). He then went on to explain the benefits of using a kanban system to limit the amount of WIP in the different scenarios.

The first scenario was a traditional waterfall-style process. He used a value stream map to identify the amount of value-producing time in each phase of the process, and used that to calculate an initial buffer size for each kanban lane. Instead of trying to explain the whole idea here, I suggest you to read Corey’s series of 4 posts on the subject.

The second scenario was a transition from a Scrum process into using a structured kanban instead of a traditional story/task board. Again, the approach is explained in more detail in a post about what he called Scrum-ban.

The third scenario would be an improvement over an existing kanban process, but due the number of questions throughout the presentation (which generated some quite interesting discussions) he didn’t have enough time to go into more detail.

My overall impression of the session was that he did a good job explaining kanban as a tool, and the reasoning behind it to limit WIP and control the flow of your process. The discussions and questions were also very interesting, which demonstrated the audience was interested in the subject. The thing that I didn’t like so much was his argument in favor of having specialists in the team, and how to move into using kanban without too much change along the way. I think one of the fundamental Lean principles is kaizen, or continuous improvement, and it encourages the team to constantly search for better alternatives. Change is part of the process and should be seen as a Good Thing. And I have already shared some of my impressions about Generalist vs. Specialists, so I’m a bit biased :-)

An important thing to keep in mind is that kanban is just one of the tools in our Lean toolkit. I particularly like Kenji Hiranabe’s InfoQ article on the subject, where he explains kanban in a more broad context, acting as a balancing tool between reducing WIP and one-piece flow, as well as a way to visualize kaizen. Lean is full of contradictions, and you must understand the underlying principles to be able to apply (and change) the practices to a particular situation. Using kanban per-se shouldn’t be a goal for any agile team, but it is very important to understand how it works and the reasoning behind it. If you haven’t looked into kanban yet, you should definitely check out the references in this post.

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In this session, Joshua Kerievsky (the founder of Industrial Logic and author of “Refactoring to Patterns”) shared his experiences about stepping away from using estimations and moving into what he called ‘Micro-releases’. What got me interested is that, although he claimed not to be following the recent kanban/iteration-less techniques, he arrived in something relatively similar through his own experiences.

He started talking about the usual confusion of using different units to estimate stories (using points and people converting it into time-units when estimating, using ideal hours and people interpreting it as real hours, and so on). This confusion is also reflected in the way people interpret the team’s velocity. Instead of using it as a measure of the team’s capacity, it’s easy to make it a performance measure. Improving velocity becomes a synonym to improving productivity, and we still don’t know how to measure productivity in software.

Another usual problem that he raised is “What to do with hang-over stories between iterations?”. Are they considered waste? Should they be counted in the team’s velocity? Why is it a hang-over? Is it because it’s close to be completed or is it actually much bigger than the team expected?

His proposed practice of ‘micro-releases’ is based on a high state of collaboration with the customer: there is a small, prioritized list of what should be done next and the team picks up a small and coherent set of stories and ‘guess’ the next micro-release date based on gut feel. He reports that slipping the end date of a micro-release is not such a big deal, because the next one is always close. In this model, the length of a micro-release varies, but usually between 1-6 days (with some outliers like 15, as I recall from his slides, but it’s not too different than that). Because of that, there’s not a stable measure of velocity and using it becomes useless. Feeding the input list with the next stories is done in a just-in-time fashion, and the value produced by the software is realized earlier, as soon as the micro-release is finished.

It’s important to note that he still values the heartbeat of iterations to gather feedback (like a customer showcase or a team’s retrospective). But he simply detaches the release life-cycle from the iterations. This opinion was reinforced by Ron Jeffries in the audience, when he said they were releasing to production twice per iteration in one of his projects. What an interesting point of view: we usually tend to see a ‘release’ as the result of a set of ‘iterations’, but he is reporting smaller ‘release’ cycles than ‘iterations’. Hmm…

But there are some important caveats that should be in place in order for these techniques to work:

  • High collaboration with the customer
  • Ability to break-down stories into small-but-still-valuable chunks: He reckons it’s very important to know how to break down requirements into “stories of the right size”. If they are too big, there’s no way for the team to guesstimate when they will be finished. He thinks this practice is one of the most important to any Agile project (using micro-releases or not).
  • Easy to deploy: There’s no point in having a new release after 2 days if it takes 3 days to deploy it to production.
  • Bargaining stories: Alongside breaking stories into small chunks, teaching the customer to bargain for features and avoid what he calls “Feature Fat” (building more that’s actually needed, or gold-plating requirements) is very important (again, this is something you can use regardless of the micro-releases approach).

Since the experiences started with Idustrial Logic’s internal product development, some people argued they are only capable of using that because they have enough experience with XP and Agile, but Joshua claimed he is introducing these ideas with success in their new client projects.

This seems like a common theme in the agile space lately, and you can follow up on the discussions on InfoQ, the XP mailing list, or here. :-)

I’ve found out recently that there’s an interesting timeless statement in the Agile Manifesto that we usually forget: “We are uncovering better ways of developing software…”. We should be open to alternatives and to discuss new ideas!

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