Escaping the Oubliette (Part 1a) – Debt Prevention

Reading time ~3 minutes

This is a partial re-post of Escaping the Oubliette (Part 1). I’ve split the article into smaller readable components.

Great, I’ve got my incoming defect strategy nailed,

Now how do I prevent defects and debt in new code?

In 5 words…

Continuous attention to technical excellence.

Here’s my top 7 (there are plenty more)

  1. Acceptance Criteria – Be really disciplined on your acceptance criteria & acceptance tests, team up with Analysts, Testers, Product Owners if you have them and attack your stories from every angle. A good approach to this is a “story kick-off” where the whole team dismantles a story before starting.
  2. Thinking Time – don’t just start coding right away, task things out, try the 10 minute test plan, discuss your approach with your peers and for more complex or large items, try the “just enough design” approach.
  3. TDD – It’s hard to start but has an immense impact.  I’ve just seen a team complete their first project using TDD. 3 weeks into their final round of post feature-complete testing, their defect run-rate hasn’t had the testing spike seen on prior projects. In fact they’re keeping on top of all new incoming defects and have time to start paying down the historic backlog.
  4. Pair Programming – Do it in half-day trial chunks if you don’t have the stomach for going full-tilt. I’ve performed remote pair-programming with colleagues across the Atlantic using decent phone headsets and online collaboration tools for hours at a time. The net result of 2 days of remote pairing was finding and fixing about 10 extra defects in a thousand lines of code that neither of us would have found coding alone.
  5. Peer reviews – there is still a huge space for these in agile teams. But here’s the thing. Be really tough. A peer review is not a hurdle. It’s a shared learning exercise. Functional correctness is actually the smallest component of a peer review. You should trust your developers that far. But there’s a whole series of other aspects to review. See the joy of peer reviews.
  6. Small tasks – I once worked with an outsourced team who when taking work would disappear into a hole for 2 weeks and return with a single task in our configuration management system containing edits to 200+ files and multiple condensed edits to the files. My rule of thumb is one reviewable task per activity. If you’re going to add new functionality and refactor, that’s 2 independent tasks that can be identified and reviewed separately. This means you should be able to easily deliver 2 reviewable, closable tasks per day.
  7. Fast Builds – make it insanely simple for a developer to perform an incremental build that validates new code against the latest main code line. (small tasks are a big help here).  This includes the right subset of unit and functional tests. Aim for a target of a 30 second response time or less between hitting the button and seeing the first results.

In the next article in this series I’ll focus on “Tailing” – How do you start reducing the old defects.

Stop The Bleeding

Reading time ~2 minutes

One of my favourite verbal patterns is “Stop The Bleeding”. I heard the term come back to me in a management meeting last week in the right context and with the right response – Success!

I’m not exactly sure where I heard this first but it was sometime in the last 4 years. Mike Cohn references it in the context of agile testing but until I searched for the term just now I’d never read that particular article so I’m sure it’s also used elsewhere…

Name: “Stop The Bleeding” or “Plug The Hole”.

Concept: Consider the “flow” of work and issues. Many software activities generate or receive some sort of flow. Whilst you can use a Kanban approach to manage the flow, you need to address the site of the problem first to prevent it getting any worse and look upstream to consider prevention activites.

Analogies: You have a patient on a stretcher with a series of broken bones and a torn major artery, where do you focus your attention first? – or- You’re in a boat with a leak in the hull. You either stop rowing and start bailing or start rowing and start sinking. Maybe it’s time to fix the leak?  Once you’ve fixed the leak, how about staying away from the rocks?

Usage: The most common times I’ve used this term are in test automation and defect management.

I’ve seen major investments in writing automated regression test suites for existing functionality or old manual tests. Skilled testers are usually in limited supply. Why are we using their valuable capacity on a static problem?

We need to take that capacity and apply it to the issues we continue to create every day – the ones where we’re still bleeding. Write automated tests for our new functionality and changes that we’re introducing right now. These become your regression tests as soon as they start passing!

In defect management a common challenge is customer escalations. These usually happen because we failed to act on a problem in a timely manner. Stopping the bleeding here means addressing new incoming defects promptly and properly. For example; try replicating issues immediately and then negotiating when your customers want a solution rather than just focusing on traditional severity / impact numbers.

Once your flow is under control and you’re working to when customers want a fix, escalations for delinquent issues will trail off fast. Now you can start addressing your other priorities.  Note: The “bleeding” in this second example is customer escalations, not incoming defects – Stopping incoming defects is a subject in itself!

Breaking The Seal (Part 2)

Reading time ~2 minutes

In my first article on “breaking the seal” I described how this pattern applies to managing WIP on teams. There’s also a work/social concept that fits the same name with a different pattern…

Name: “Breaking the Seal”, “The Lid is Off” etc.

Analogy: When you open a new pack of good coffee there’s that great smell that comes out – suddenly everyone wants a brew.

Concept: Socially, many people are unwilling to speak up in a crowd or be the exception either in positive or negative situations. Fortunately for experienced agile teams, the social norm of staying silent has often become disrupted but you’ll need to break it back open once in a while and as a coach you’ll need to find ways to introduce it.

Being the first to speak up triggers team inertia; suddenly others’ voices will also be found.

How many times have you sat in a meeting where someone uses a term or concept you have no idea what they mean but you don’t speak up? How many other people in the room also have no clue but stay silent? This might be inertia, it might be fear or just an unwillingness to appear stupid. Particularly with technical teams where your career goal may be “technical guru” – being seen as wrong or not clued up may be a sign of weakness. Having a “wise fool” on the team breaks the seal on this but needs some caution applied.

In some organizational cultures it may not be socially acceptable to question more senior staff. This really gets to me. In fact, I’ll write another post dedicated to this.

Occasionally speaking up might be risky, particularly if there’s obvious management issues. (Nobody likes to speak about the elephant in the room when the elephant is in the room) In these cases arrange with a few like-thinking peers to take it in turns to be the one to raise issues so it’s not always you. This will also ensure that you’re not speaking alone with others relying on you to take the risks up every time.

On the more positive side, the “red cards” tool relies on this same concept for group self-facilitation. Where once it becomes socially acceptable to halt a problem or challenge others the team’s self-organizing capability steps up another notch.

Practice this in your own teams – challenge yourself and your peers to ask a dumb question or plug a rat-hole at least once a week.

Red Cards

Reading time ~3 minutes

One of the best facilitation tools I own. How to get a group out of a rat-hole & back on track without personal confrontation and minimal effort.

Name: The Red Card

Concept: When a group is in discussion on a particular topic they can often disappear down “rat holes” or off onto tangents. Every member of an agile team is empowered to “red card” a conversation that they feel is going off track. The group as a whole typically rapidly decide whether the red card is warranted or not.

Usage: I ensure that plenty of of small (playing card sized) red cards are available in the team rooms. To introduce them to a team that haven’t used them before, I will usually take a large session such as release planning and introduce the concept of red cards as part of the facilitation tools and ground rules at the start of a session. What I tell the teams is:

“Whilst I’m facilitating, I tend to get drawn into the conversations and need hauling out, especially if I start ranting. Therefore the red cards are required primarily to shut me up – although feel free to use them on each other too!”

Once a member of the team first uses a red card, that’s it – the lid is off. Expect use of cards to take off rapidly. (see “breaking the seal – part 2“).

Background: Chances are this has been used before me elsewhere in the world, but this is a tool I introduced to my teams after returning from Agile 2009. During one of the evening sessions there was a panel discussion. Questions were submitted in advance and each panelist had 2 minutes to discuss. After the whole panel had their say, the audience were given an opportunity to vote. On every seat was a large red and green paddle. If we wanted the discussion to continue we voted green. If we wanted to stop and move on, we voted red.

When I got back to Cambridge I introduced it during some training I was running. I “borrowed” my eldest daughter’s red & green art straws. There were a few “hot spots” on the course where 1 or 2 attendees would lose track. We had a great team who immediately raised a red straw. They enjoyed calling each other out so much that we had red straw warfare at one point!

After using the same in a couple more sessions it became clear the green straws weren’t needed. The red ones were getting tatty so I raided the stationary cupboard for some red card instead, cut this into pieces about the right size to hold up visibly and planted a few in the team rooms. These are now the social norm for facilitators on many teams worldwide but probably not well-known outside the company I’m at right now.

Impact: Of all the tools I’ve used over the last 2 years this one seems to have had one of the greatest impacts on teams and the most viral spread within the organization I work with. Even the management team now red card each other and they don’t even have the cards in the room. Like all good verbal anchors, everyone now knows what “red card” means during discussions. Better still – even on difficult teams I’ve not yet seen anyone use red cards in a socially unacceptable way.

Try red cards out on your next big retrospective – you might want a stooge to break the seal first of all and chances are you’ll need to set yourself up as the first target but once the team have been through this once, facilitating meetings will become more of a team sport than a job for you.

Breaking The Seal (Part 1)

Reading time ~2 minutes

Following on from my last post; “Communicating in Patterns” here’s the first of my regularly used concepts – alluded to in “Don’t Open More Barrels Than You Can Consume“.

Name: “Breaking The Seal” or “Cracking Open” etc.

Analogy: (This one makes me think of the campfire scene in blazing saddles even though it’s only partially relevant)…

You only open the lid on a new can of beans when there isn’t enough in the current can to feed the family.

Underlying Concept: One of the key ways of delivering maximum throughput on teams is to limit WIP (work in progress/process). Teams inexperienced at this tend to start additional items or “break the seal” on new work when blocked or when a team member has completed their last personal task. We need the team to take a hard look at the work at hand, consider swarming around a given item or story and only open the lid on a new item if there really is no additional value to be gained from another member of the team helping out on the current top priority item.

This works on many levels – here’s a few…

  • Every time you open a new can you risk not finishing it all and having to throw the leftovers away.
  • Opening too many cans and forcing the family to eat them all causes bloating.
  • Eating excess beans takes longer and leaves no room for dessert.
  • Unfinished cans in the refrigerator tend to get pushed to the back and go moldy.
  • Very few people like cold beans for leftovers. (actually – sometimes I do)