If you’re a seasoned Scrum practitioner, you’ve most likely witnessed horrific implementations of Scrum throughout your consulting career. Some organizations go gung-ho on “doing Scrum.” All their messages, training programs, and campaigns scream Agile. But when you look closely, they seem to be putting on a show or what we call “Scrum Theater.” Teams go through the motions of using story points to estimate their backlog, performing the Scrum ceremonies, and tracking their progress through a burndown chart.
All seem to be going well but upon further inspection, there’s a lot of technical debt being piled up in the backlog. Some stories slide from sprint-to-sprint. They talk velocities without understanding what they’re for. Teams always procrastinate near the end of the sprint. They believe they’ve got Scrum to the bone but fail to recognize that their implementation is purely mechanical. Scrum Masters then try to find ways to help their teams get past the superficial.
Scrum Masters and Kanban
Some Scrum Masters and coaches have subscribed to using Kanban to help remove these superficial beliefs and habits and bring teams back on track. Scrum masters have seen the benefits of using Scrum and Kanban combined. Kanban focuses on improving flow. When combined with Scrum, teams are empowered through empiricism, continuous improvement, and self-organization.
Scrum masters use Kanban metrics to surface weak points in their team’s process. When teams are presented with facts and data, they become more focused on driving actual improvement instead of the mechanics of Scrum. Let’s look at how these Kanban metrics are used in the context of Scrum.
Work in Progress (WIP)
One of the core Kanban practices is to Limit WIP. But let’s not confuse WIP with WIP limit. WIP is the number of items currently being worked on by the team but is not yet finished. WIP limit is the number of items a team can only work on at each stage in their workflow. WIP limit affects and drives WIP. Ideally, the WIP limit helps teams manage their WIPs at any given time. The lower the WIP, the better the flow, and items are delivered faster.
Scrum masters can help teams assess their WIP over time. Are they improving in terms of how WIP flows through their system? Is WIP being reduced or increased? Scrum masters can use a cumulative flow diagram (CFD) for teams to better visualize how the work flows through their process.
Cycle time is the amount of time when a work item starts until it gets finished. This helps teams get a better idea of what the turnaround time is for certain items and use it to forecast and plan future work.
Cycle time can also be used to spot anomalies and improvement points in a team’s workflow. Scrum masters can use a Cycle Time Scatterplot to help teams analyze what their cycle time distribution is. This data-driven plot can also show trends on how likely a future work item can be completed. Teams can use this as a reference point for improvement initiatives and project estimates.
Throughput is the number of work items completed by a team at any given time. Knowing this helps teams visualize how much “Done” increments were they able to release. Throughput is measured regardless of the item’s complexity, unlike Story Points.
WIP Age or Work Item Age is the amount of elapsed time between when the work item was started until the current time. The higher the age, the longer that item has been stuck in your workflow. Scrum masters can use this to point out bottlenecks in the process. Teams can then swarm towards it and do what they can to push it out of the process. WIP Age is also useful for teams to gauge whether an item is likely to finish within the sprint once work has started for it.
How Scrum and Kanban Combined Helps Scrum Masters and Teams
To appreciate these Kanban metrics better when combined with Scrum, let’s see how they can be used in the context of the Scrum ceremonies.
The Daily Scrum is used for the team to know the progress in the current sprint. Will all committed items be finished by the end of the sprint? Flow metrics such as WIP Age and WIP can be useful during the Daily Scrum. When teams know that they have too much WIP on their plate or a work item has been in the same spot for too long, they can quickly act on it and apply corrective action.
Throughput can be a useful guide for teams when planning how much work to commit to in a sprint.
Insights about the team’s overall flow during the sprint can be discussed during Sprint Reviews. Stakeholders may also raise questions about future work items and would ask the team for estimates. For this purpose, they can use Cycle Times and Throughput to help them. Scrum Masters should caution though that these are purely forecasts and estimates and should not be taken as absolute commitments during the review.
The team can use all of the four Flow metrics during their retrospective. These metrics can be a reference point to highlight bottlenecks and inefficiencies in their process. Alternatively, it can also be used to highlight wins and improvements made by the team during their sprint.
Kanban Complements Scrum
Kanban complements Scrum and reinforces its focus on transparency, inspection, and adaptation. While some may still be on the fence on whether Scrum and Kanban combined is a good thing, many are already reaping the benefits of it.
Scrum.org has developed a Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams in collaboration with Daniel Vacanti and Yuval Yeret. They emphasized that its goal is not to eliminate or replace Scrum rather amplify it with the flow-focused efficiency drivers of Kanban. It’s recommended that Scrum Masters explore how Kanban can help them get more out of Scrum and elevate their practice.
The Kanban Guide for Scrum Teams is a great start if you want to explore Kanban for your Scrum teams.