Monday, July 30, 2012

Throughput Planning - Why Project Managers Should Like Lean and Agile

Project managers in IT have a tough job. I've been there myself, and I have also coached a large number of project managers (PM) throughout my travels consulting for a number of organizations around the world. One of the biggest challenges a PM faces is managing the iron triangle of time, cost and scope while wrestling with never ending waves of change and uncertainty as they sheppard the team and project to completion. The typical tool most PMs have been trained on is the work break down structure (WBS) and being schooled by institutions such as PMI, that the best way to manage change and gain predictability is to track at the task and resource level. Unfortunately this approach tends to fail as project complexity increases and most experienced PMs that have the battle scars of large complex projects learn quickly that detailed planning and tracking doesn't help manage change or gain predictability. Trying to keep up with a large rapidly changing project is like playing Tetris on level 20, good luck.

Game Over - Trying to keep up with a complex project plan

At this stage of their career, the tendency is to move from detailed task and resource tracking to focus on milestones and deliverables tracking to reduce the detailed planning that doesn't justify the cost vs value of keeping it up to date. While this lighter weight approach is better as it frees up the PMs time from updating project plans and chasing people for status and allows them to spend more time on managing the client, leading the team and resolving issues, it has also has flaws. At some point in the large hairy project, the client or someone else will launch a large number of changes at the project. Change is inevitable in projects for knowledge work. During this time, the PM is struggling to answer the questions of "what is the impact of these changes?", "will we be on time?", and "what can we do to get on track again?". Tracking milestones and deliverables fails miserably at answering those questions. The PM desperate for answers and in need to "show progress" tends to fall back to detailed plan in an attempt to resume control forgetting why they avoided doing this in the first place. It's a vicious cycle and leaves the project at risk.

Lean and Agile to the Rescue

Lean and agile methods provide an incredibly easy to use technique that provides the visibility into progress without the overhead of managing the details. It's called "Throughput Planning" or "Velocity Planning" depending on what agile circle your part of (Kanban or Scrum). In Throughput Planning, all the PM has to do is make sure that the project is decomposed into a set of business valued increments (features, user stories, agile use cases, etc.) that can be worked on fairly independently of each other, are similar in size and provide business or end user functionality. To simplify this example, I'll call them features. Once the PM has the features, the last piece of information they need is the expected average monthly throughput the team can commit to. Once you have those two pieces of information, number of features and expected throughput you can then forecast the end date with some simple math. 20 features, 5 features / month means you will be done in approximately 4 months.

Benefits of Throughput Planning

With this tracking system, you have an accurate measure progress that doesn't lie easily. 5 features done in this scenario represents ~25% completion rate for the project and is a much more accurate measure of progress than tracking at the task level. It also provides an easy way to assess impact of changes to the timeline. If we add 10 new features we know this pushes the timeline back 2 months. If we want to bring the timeline back on track, the question is now what can we do to increase throughput over 4 months by 10 features (~2.5 features/month)? If we want to know if we are falling behind simply look at how many features have been completed. The final benefit of this approach is it also forces the team to deliver completed work often to prove progress, every month the team should deliver 5 features. Want to de-risk your project? Nothing reduces risk like seeing incremental returns rather than waiting for the big bang return at the end.

If your a project manager that is struggling to manage the chaos and complexity in your projects, I encourage you to take a look at Throughput Planning and look at how to make your project more lean and agile. It reduces your workload in tracking, simplifies impact assessments, and reduces risk.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Lean Thinking Tools for Improving Your Portfolio Planning and Prioritization Process

We just started an IT Transformation for a new client that is looking to fundamentally change the way they deliver IT services and application development. As part of the transformation we are helping the organization improve their portfolio planning and prioritization process to provide greater transparency, flexibility and control (yes control and agile does go together). Whenever we work with clients in this area, the first step we take is help them break down their old mental model of portfolio management and take a fresh perspective. To do this we introduce four thinking tools to help them wrap their heads around the new concepts. The goal of the four thinking tools is to help organizations look at planning and prioritization as an economic bargaining system.

Thinking Tool 1: Three level planning approach controlled by cadences

The first tool is to stop looking at portfolio planning and prioritization as a one time annual budgeting process and instead move towards a frequent multi-level planning system for portfolio management. Each level of planning should have well-defined units of work, cadence, and a form of currency (more on that later). The specific goals of each level are:

Strategic Planning:
  • Identify ideas to realize strategic business objectives
  • Set allocation based on LOB / Program / Work Type
  • Longer Cadence, example quarterly
Project Planning: 
  • Idea analysis and project planning
  • Define projects in terms of business valued features based on a high-level solution
  • Medium Cadence, example monthly
Operational Planning:
  • Project work intake with frequent work replenishment for solution delivery
  • Dedicated intake channel for emergencies, small enhancements and bug fixes
  • Short Cadence, example bi-weekly
Thinking Tool 2: Breaking projects into minimal releases and business valued features

Based on Thinking Tool 1, if the organization is able to establish more frequent strategic planning cycles (e.g. quarterly) than this encourages projects to be broken down into smaller chunks that can fit into those cycles. This allows IT to work more frequently with the business to understand what the high value features are and get to quick wins faster. At the same time this also provides greater transparency of progress into budget spent vs budget realized in terms of real value (i.e. a potentially shippable system).

Thinking Tool 3: Planning informed by capacity in terms of throughput to level demand

One of the challenges with traditional planning approaches is that capacity is not used to inform the planning process. To build an effective planning and prioritization process the organization needs to understand capacity in terms of throughput (how much value can I deliver within x amount of time) and level demand based on available capacity. What we often see broken with traditional processes is budget being the only input into the planning process and that is typically not the "bottleneck" or scare resource in the organization. Money is abundant, time is not which leads to the end of year madness many organizations fire fight their way through.

Thinking Tool 4: Establishing currency to represent scarce resources provides a mechanism to facilitate exchange of value to promote liquidity and flexibility

The final piece to the puzzle is establishing a common unit of currency based on scarcity. Instead of throwing money at the problem, the organization starts looking at their delivery capabilities as system of work that has real constraints (i.e. time). The unit of currency we alluded to earlier in Thinking Tool 3, is throughput which represents work/value in terms of time. The currency is then limited based on scarcity which is represented as work-in-progress (WIP) limit that controls the backlog and queues that work fits into.

By understanding these four thinking tools they provide an organization with the foundations for establishing a fast feedback portfolio system managed by multi-level planning with cadences, defining projects into smaller increments of value, balancing demand based on throughput, and planning and prioritizing based on a common unit of currency that represents scarcity.

In a later post, I'll share a set of planning and prioritization patterns we use to implement these concepts.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Adopting Retrospectives? Start by learning to learn

Retrospectives is a great practice that is widely adopted by agile teams. I've worked with a large number of teams across different organizations and one of the first lessons you learn after you coached a number of teams is that while improving team performance to deliver faster and better is important, what's even more important is the team learning to learn. Continuous improvement is a big commitment, and not easy to do especially for knowledge work. That's why I tend to take a different approach for teams new to retrospectives and instead of setting improvement as the goal for them, I focus them into learning how to discuss problems in a structured way and coming up with simple tactical fixes that can be implemented fast. 

Structured - many teams struggle to discuss problems effectively, the first goal is to find a simple framework to structure the problem discussion. A simple one I use often is setting a simple matrix on a big whiteboard, the top row I place the discussion topics, divide them with vertical lines and then divide the verticals horizontally into 4 buckets, challenges, causes ("why"), easy fix, harder fix. This is a simplified 5 whys approach to root case analysis. I then get the team to brainstorm and start mapping stickies into these buckets. This provides a simple structure to the conversation.

Simple and Fast - Once the team identifies a number of improvements or fixes they believe can improve their problems, I encourage them to start by selecting the simple ones. Within their span of control, limited analysis needed, and easy to implement. Finally, the fixes should be fast to do, 1-2 days max in effort and duration.

It's not initially important whether the fixes actually provide sustainable improvement or not. That will come with time once the team learns how to learn by tackling smaller changes often. This approach allows them to move at their own pace, is sustainable and will likely provide a positive reinforcement as they can finish what they started. Stop starting and start finishing also applies to continuous improvement.