#sysadminsucks

Kanban Update

So, here’s what our Kanban board looked like:

In the first week or so, we made some subtle changes – first we renamed backlog to task pool, and made that area much bigger than I’d originally allowed.

Secondly, we also added a “not ready” section at the bottom of the task pool area. This is for tasks that are blocked but not yet started – for example, a task might be to install software on a server, but I’m still waiting for the server networking to be configured, so I can’t start that yet.

This worked fine for us, and we didn’t make any further changes. Initially, the board was used a lot, but after about a month or so everyone started falling back to their own spreadsheets, checklists, notebooks etc. and not really updating the board. That is very frustrating, I’ve constantly struggled with reporting compliance throughout my time in this role.

We started by doing daily standups, but I found not much was happening in them, so I stopped them after about a week & had ad-hoc discussions with individuals as required. I believe stopping these meetings hurt compliance. I was motivated by allowing everyone to push their status to the board, and my managers and myself could check over that as required – getting out of people’s way by reducing the number of meetings they required. That only works if the push happens! I’ve often tried to think – what does the reporter get out of using system X? What justification can I give as a good motivation for them? Unfortunately, the motivation for a lot of this is reporting and forecasting effort for headcount so the benefits are entirely for the consumer.

I expected to find a couple of bottlenecks – after all, this is what kanban is all about. But mostly, everyone kept their work in progress down. You can see on the board, someone has four tasks on the go. Given the kind of tasks we do, this can be a reasonable amount.

There are a couple of reasons why I believe we didn’t find any blockers. One is that the world changed for the two individuals who were the blockages before – one got very ill, so hasn’t been in much this year. The other got put on a major project, so we hired additional resources to assist with their responsibilities and this helped reduce the backlog.

Additionally, it’s become clear to me that we are in no way a team who can pick up each others tasks. The technology components we work with are too different – Windows, Linux and Storage. Perhaps the only crossover is that we all have to co-ordinate activities for system provisioning – hardware installation, networking etc. But in general we have a bunch of individuals with individual streams of work. So what we’re looking at on the board is a number of todo lists for a component of a system – it’s in no way giving a view of the system as a whole.

My time in this role is finishing in a few weeks. Since the company wants this information to be stored in electronic tools, I wrapped up the board last week and asked everyone to move their tasks back into JIRA. The experienment is over.

Of course, I did this first to lead the way – and instantly realised how much I disliked JIRA. I found it very hard to look at my tasks and answer “what am i doing now?” “whats in my task pool?” – so I immediately had to configure Greenhopper, Altassian’s Kanban tool, to create a new personal Kanban board! As soon as I had that configured, a bunch of people were over my shoulder saying “I like that, can I have that too?” – including members of other teams.

So my experience is that I really like displaying a backlog and work in progress queue, and physically moving tasks between statuses. However, as a workflow analysis tool and to improve status reporting, the experiment wasn’t particularly successful.

Kanban for Project Teams

For the past 9 months I’ve been managing the day to day activities of a team. Before that I really had no experience of this sort of task. All the team members are very experienced and are considered subject matter experts within the business, so my role is not mentoring as with past senior sysadmin roles. During this time I’d been struggling to find a way of keeping track of the tasks and projects the team were working on. I ended up with boring weekly meetings, and taking notes of live projects where the notes just got longer, and longer each week.

Then late last year, I started considering doing Kanban after reading this article: http://agilesysadmin.net/kanban_sysadmin - So I researched Kanban further, read David Anderson’s book about Kanban, and bought a whiteboard and a bunch of cards and magnets.

This week, I introduced the concept to the team. We’re a project delivery team, rather than your regular operational sysadmin team. But we’re all operations sysadmins at heart, we understand those problems and have worked in that environment - but we only deliver projects and no one pages us.

So we spend a lot more of our time tracking larger projects - but these projects involve a lot of smaller activities, which involve people coming to your desk and asking for something quickly. Everyone works on multiple projects at once and is quite busy - things develop and need to be delivered fast, with as little resource as possible - so balancing the time requirements and due dates of multiple projects is an art of itself.

The goals of this experiment are twofold: make the intra-team communication less of a burden, and to try and improve our agility. I don’t have to ask everyone what they’re doing all the time, rather I can look at the board and get the highlights at a glance.

Here’s a really stupid paint diagram of what the board looks like to start:

I’ll try to get a picture of what the real board looks like at some point.

We went for this model, as it reflects the individuals workload within the team, which is what we are interested in. Cards move left to right, are in a big pool when they’re still TODOs, but then they jump into an individuals swimlane when in flight.

We also discussed the possibility of having a more project focused structure - with an extra project column at the start, holding project cards which each have their own swimlane. The system we have doesn’t really cater for understanding the current tasks from a project perspective. Let’s leave that for the Project Managers…

I kept the rules simple for now - cards only move to the right, and respect the board - only work on things that are on the board. One “rule” that I set as a guideline to be discussed was sizing of the tasks. I suggested that the size of the tasks on each card should allow someone else to perform the task. (We also suggested a task of roughly one day’s effort is roughly the right size).

A problem that I see with our team is that everyone has been tightly fit into roles - Windows, Linux/Application Environments and Storage. We’ve had a reasonable turnover of staff recently, and we’ve grown in size from 4 to 6. This helps provide the opportunity for transformation of working practise, so I want to promote more sharing of tasks - at the moment we’re too reliant on individual availability, and this is affecting project delivery.

For now, I’ve also neglected to impose any work in progress limits. The board is an experiment that I hope will help us identify workflow problems. I suspect that too much work in progress is a problem, and we would see the benefits of reducing it - but until that happens I’m not going to apply it. Visualising the bottlenecks is the key, and they have to be clearly seen for everyone in the team to understand the reasoning behind work in progress limits.