Work Item Backlogs as Queues – Agile vs. Lean

A recent discussion on the Scrum Development list (Start of Discussion) provides a good follow up to my parting words in The Art of Obstacle Removal about agile practices themselves becoming obstacles. I have excerpted a small amount of the discussion and added my own comments here.

In the agile community, most of us have bought into and adopted the Agile mental model. But that mental model has assumptions embedded into that may not be correct under all circumstances. Part of that mental model includes the efficacy of the work item backlog as a tool for tracking, prioritizing and communicating work to be done in the future.

I will be the first to say that Agile is far better than waterfall in almost every situation (the exception being the mythical project with stable requirements, business environment, technology and team).

That said, let’s look at backlogs from another perspective: if a backlog was the only thing you delivered to the customer, would they pay for it? If you spent even just a few hours coaching a business representative to build a backlog, but there was no team to implment it, would that person really find value in the backlog itself? Would they be able to deliver ROI just from a backlog? I think the answer is a clear “no”.

That set of questions may seem silly, but from a lean perspective, they are among the most important questions. Is an artifact/process value-added or non-value-added?

Since the backlog is clearly not a value added artifact/process (pause for effect)… it is waste!

When one is doing agile effectively, the backlog may in fact be one of the larger sources of waste! If the team has a stable velocity, there will come a point when the backlog becomes the constraint on the overall cycle time going from idea to ROI. If the backlog is large/long, and as Mary Poppendieck said if there is more than …maybe two or three
sprints of work….
in there, then it may be time to find ways of constraining the size of the backlog. I have two suggestions:

Capacity of Team(s):

Find a way to increase the capacity of the team so that the backlog size reduces and then goes into a steady state. This may mean augmenting the staff.

Gate Backlog Items by ROI

(This is just theory to me at this point.) Make it a condition that all backlog items must have a positive ROI. In other words, the cost of building the backlog item needs to be less than the value delivered, taking into account time value of money. Don’t let items onto the backlog unless this positive ROI can be demonstrated.

I believe the lack of this second discipline (assigning ROI to work items) is one of the main reasons that most agile methods such as Scrum allow an unlimited backlog size: there is no realistic way to gate the work that gets onto the backlog!

Until teams get to Agile nirvana (stable velocity, continuous delivery of business value, high-performance cohesive teams), having an unlimited backlog seems like a very reasonable thing: it’s not the constraint or the primary source of waste. However, eventually the backlog will become a primary source of waste and it needs to be treated in a disciplined manner.

With a stable and well-functioning team, what other ways might there be to reduce the size of the backlog so that cycle time is substantially reduced?

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