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Experiences with Kanban

In 2007, the company I work for purchased the rights to a medical practice management and billing system from a third-party software development firm. Technically, the software is an n-tiered product written in .NET that can be fully hosted at a client site or on our servers. A project was launched to rebrand the product, interface the product into existing business lines, test and debug the product, and add market differentiators.

Because the product was new, the work was highly exploratory with rapidly evolving requirements that could only come to light by learning the product. We decided to use Agile development supported by Scrum and elements of Extreme Programming. The entire team went through a tremendous learning curve in both learning Agile development and the product itself. Without Agile's benefit of small iterations and the chance to adjust our progress, the project most likely would have had significant difficulties. After 18 months, the project reached a high level of agile maturity, even incorporating numerous lean principles.

Our Scrum process was solid: Two-week sprints with a demo at the end, seven people consistently on the sprint teams, burndown charts, sprint planning for each sprint with whole team commitment, estimation by story points, velocity measures, and a story point estimation session with the entire team one week before each sprint.

The Problem

At first, the business side of the company was not accustomed to the responsiveness of Agile development. The norm was a formal waterfall approach to software development that could require several quarters to develop a software release. But it didn't take long for the business to develop such a hunger for change that requirements (user stories) were barely stable enough for a two-week sprint. It was not unusual for the product owner group to give top priority to stories that were not well thought out, forcing development to cobble together a sprint full of unknowns. Changes also worked their way directly into the sprints -- in mid-sprint new stories were swapped with stories that hadn't been started. It seemed as though a two-week sprint was too long as the business side of the project swung from rigid change control to demanding immediate responsiveness. Something had to be done.

Our Solution

The management team brainstormed around ways to make Scrum as flexible as possible on intake. We considered ways to shorten the sprint length, the estimation sessions, sprint planning, and sprint demo length even further, all with the goal of keeping people working on stories that were of highest value to our product owner and increasing productivity. (See the sidebar for ideas on Scrum.)

Where Can Scrum Be Leaned Out?

Our thought process was to take lean principles from Mary Poppendieck's Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash and apply them to the meta processes of Scrum, posing questions such as:

  • Why do we have two-week sprints? Isn't that an artificial and therefore wasteful limit that batches up work?
  • Why do we have seven people on the team? Can we have fewer (or more) team members?
  • Why do we demo at the end of a sprint and not when the story is complete? Doesn't this sound like batching work?
  • Why do we estimate story points in an estimation session when some of those stories may not played because of reprioritization?
  • Shouldn't estimates be done ONLY by those working on a story? Having people that will not work on the story estimate seems like a handoff situation.
  • Why do we work on several stories during a sprint? Can we work on just one and reduce inventories of work?


Our conclusion was that the basics of software Kanban, as described by Corey Ladas, would fit the bill.

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