Planking and its Impact on your Agile Team

I’ve been an avid hiker since my 8th birthday, the day I got my first new pair of hiking boots. Ever since, if I have time and a trail to hike, I’ll make a go at it. By 15, I had hiked one-third of the Appalachian Trail, which totals 2,200 miles (3,500 km). I trekked North-to-South, a stretch from Mt. Katahdin located in Maine all the way to Maryland. I’ve hiked nearly all of the major ranges in North America, including my favorite the Philmont range located in New Mexico. Early on, while hiking with a good friend and lifelong mentor Yiao-Tee, I learned a very valuable lesson that not only applies to the activity associated with hiking, but one that I’ve carried forward and applied to many other personal and professional activities in my life. The lesson was: to keep a consistent pace, a continuous rhythm only stopping for physical and biological necessity (e.g., shedding / adding layers, hydrating, avoiding danger, or other must-have biological functions). This lesson came as we were ascending above tree line and he saw that I kept stopping every quarter to half mile, insisting that I was gased and needed to rest. Yiao explained that this behavior was more mental than physical. My mind was telling my body to stop and not the other way around. It was in my head. I listened and out of respect, I acknowledged – but I’ll admit, I thought he was wrong.

Fast Forward – Agile Coach

The Company:  Iconic Automotive Company
The Project: Rebuilding the legend of a muscle car in modern day
My Title: Drive fast and take chances (Agile Guy)

At the time, Agile was a very new concept. Ink on the Manifesto had barely dried. With a strong background in Lean Manufacturing and XP, Agile stuck. I’ll go as far as saying it made more sense than any software or product development methodology I had previously used. Locked away in a private warehouse with an incredible team of engineers, we began re-imagining the dream of our Father’s and Grandfather’s generation. The soft click of a key, grind of the starter engaging, the pulse the intake valve gasping for air and fuel, metal on metal as the piston compressed this mixture, a short volt and finally combustion! Sound from the exhaust that would wake neighbors or let friends know you had arrived. Ahh, the muscle car. This was now our dream to conceive, but the catch was we needed to produce working results in 18 months, roughly half the time of standard vehicle production (concept –to- launch). This was a fixed date project, with commercials, marketing and the like all lined up. There was no slipping and no turning back.

What’s Wrong with Us?

We discovered quickly that meeting our Sprint commitments was proving to be more difficult than designing and building a car. The car stuff was their job to figure out. Mine was to figure out why we were failing our plans. Our team was running two week iterations which fed into one month increments and then upstream into project phases. While staring aimlessly at our paperboards and daily burn-down charts fashioned from the back of empty pizza containers (big on hiking, bigger on recycling), a pattern emerged. It’s a pattern that many years later I coined “Planking”. It’s easy to spot and was right there all along, but I overlooked it.

Example of an agile team planking, shown on a JIRA burndown chart

The image above is a burn down chart taken from a project being tracked within Atlassian JIRA. The image depicts Planking, where there was a 4.5 day period of time with zero Stories being completed.

The Discovery

At a varying point in all of our Sprints, I noticed there was a period where no team members were completing Stories. It ranged between 2-4 days, but always present. 29 superstar engineers slowing down at nearly the same point in time each Sprint. None of the pauses were associated with impediments.

I discovered through a series of experiments that our team was the cause of the Planking. Their minds were telling them they needed to pause, break stride and slow momentum. Although everyone had a valid reason for not burning their particular issues during the periods of time, the reasons boiled down to “excuses” that satisfied their want/desire to stop and pause. The team wasn’t underestimating effort, they were Planking.

Prevent Planking

Once discovered, I brought the group together and explained the findings. I mentioned what Yiao had taught me while hiking as a child. In an effort to prevent, we evolved our process and made the following changes:

  • Instead of a Pizza box, I plotted our burn down chart on a large concrete wall using bright sidewalk chalk. We opened our morning Standup by reviewing the burn down as a team. Transparency and awareness of the chart proved incredibly valuable.
  • Instead of pulling Stories from our committed Sprint in order of Business value, we began each Sprint by working on the most complex Stories (where possible). This “eat-the-frog” pattern allowed us to work forward through each Story with the feeling that we were gaining momentum (as the Stories decreased in complexity). I’ll cover this concept in more depth during a future post.
  • I drew a large circle on the bottom of the warehouse floor, just beyond the threshold entrance and in the center I put the number of days since our team had last Planked. The entire team was forced to view each morning as they began their day, reminding them of the challenge we had put behind us.
  • We heckled our colleagues during the morning SU (stand up). Anyone who didn’t burn in a 24 hour period was forced to lean a large 2x6x6 piece of lumber (our version of a plank) up against their desk, almost like a flag indicating they hadn’t burned.

Has your team experienced Planking?  If so, I’d like to hear about it, share your experience in the comments below or tweet @VelocityCounts.

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