Agile Work Uses Lean Thinking – Queueing Theory

Queueing theory describes the statistical and theoretical behavior of queues. In a queue system, there are two basic parts: work items and worker units. Worker units perform some work upon work items. The streaming of work items through worker units composes a queueing system. The time it takes for a work item to enter the system to exit the system is the process cycle time. From the study of real queueing systems and from simulation of queueing systems, researchers have shown there are some simple methods for creating an efficient queueing system that minimizes process cycle time.

One method for making a queueing system more efficient relates to the size of work items and how this relates to worker unit utilization levels and process cycle time. Queues behave in a very interesting way in relation to utilization and process cycle time. As utilization of a worker unit approaches 100%, process cycle time goes up very quickly. Not only that, but the more variability there is in the size of the work items, the worse this effect becomes. With a queue with work items that are all the same size, the worker units can maintain a very high level of utilization and the process cycle time is not significantly affected. However, with a queue with work items that are many different sizes, a worker unit will slow down significantly and process cycle times become worse even with relatively low levels of utilization.

Lean and Agile both use these ideas. Lean applies these ideas to manufacturing and other production processes and Agile applies these ideas to project work.

In Agile, iterations are used to create consistently small sized units of work that are then taken on by a team. In other words, the work items are designed to be exactly the size of an iteration and the worker unit is the Agile team. Since iterations are typically much smaller than the size of the overall project and since each iteration is always the same size, this allows the team to achieve very high levels of utilization while maintaining extremely short cycle times (the length of the iteration or release). Compare this to the waterfall approach to project management where the work is only finally delivered at the very end of a long process and you can see that not only do you have a very long cycle time, but each project will be highly variable in size and therefore it will be hard to get good utilization out of teams (think resource planning and leveling).

The Theory of Constraints, which is nicely introduced in The Goal by Eli Goldratt, presents some additional basic techniques for making improvements in efficiency of a process. The basic idea is that one can always find a slowest point or constraint in a process by finding out where there is a buildup of unfinished work. For example, if two people are cleaning a kitchen, one washing dishes and the other drying, if the number of wet washed dishes keeps building up, then the constraint for the process is the person drying. In more complex processes either in manufacturing or in creative work such as software development, it is sometimes more difficult to see where the constraint is. Typically, if you find that you have people waiting for work that is coming from someone else, then that someone else is a constraint and means can be found to improve their efficiency. In Agile, the focus on resolving the constraint would be to provide that person extra training or get other members of the team to assist in the work. Agile tends to shy away from a mechanistic perspective on efficiency.

Finally, in any queueing system there is some point at which work enters the system. This point of entry is very important because it can be used to control the utilization levels of worker units in a queue. In Agile Work, this control is accomplished through backlog management, iterative delivery and adaptive planning. All possible requests, features, constraints, improvements for a project are put into a master Work Item List. This list is strictly prioritized in descending order by a person empowered with this responsibility (called the Product Owner). This list of work items becomes the basis for deciding what work the team will do each iteration. The process of managing this list and how the work is chosen for this iteration allows the customer/client to prioritize important things to be delivered quickly and allows the team to work on consistently sized work units (iterations) and therefore achieve very high levels of utilization. In queueing theory this process is referred to as the gating function in that it provides a gate that lets work items into the system. All work must go through this gate or work item list management process in order for the team to function effectively. If the team is interrupted with work that has somehow skipped the gate it will seriously reduce the efficiency of the team(e.g. a senior sales person comes to the team and declares that it must work on X, it’ll only take a day, a potential client really needs this, surely that won’t hurt?).

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