Improving Delivery Predictability for Features and Defects and Boosting Team Engagement

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In this second installment of our Tasty Dog Food Series, we continue to share stories of how we’re using our own product, Tasktop Viz™, internally to boost our growth and happiness. 

This time, I spoke to David Slater, our Product Value Stream Lead for our cloud and development infrastructure as a service. David wears two hats, that of Product Manager and Engineering Manager. David told me about how his team uses Tasktop Viz to become more predictable in their delivery of Features and Defects and to boost team member engagement (which we call happiness). Tasktop Viz is a value stream management solution that measures and optimizes the flow of business value across end-to-end collaboration networks. 

David’s product value stream is responsible for providing Tasktop’s development teams with software delivery applications as a service and cloud infrastructure as a service for Tasktop’s SaaS offerings. Since the other product value streams depend on these platforms, having fast and predictable flow is of utmost importance to David. As a Product Manager, he’s always looking for ways to remove impediments, improve processes and adjust priorities for better results.

At the same time, as the Engineering Manager, David keeps a close eye on his team. “I need to ensure they’re not overloaded or overwhelmed. An unhappy team can be an important indicator of a problem in the way we work.”

David goes into Viz at least once a week to look at his Flow Metrics. At one point, he noticed a simultaneous decline in three metrics: 

  • Flow Times were demonstrating high variability. Some Flow Items were completing quickly, while others took much longer. There were some serious outliers with very long Flow Times characterized by long wait times. Because of the high-interrupt nature of his value stream’s work, David prefers to see smooth and consistent Flow Times, not straying much from the average. 
  • Flow Efficiency was going down, indicating wait times were increasing in their processes.  
  • Flow Load was climbing. Flow Load is a measure of WIP. When WIP is too high, flow begins to slow down due to high context-switching. Overloaded teams quickly become unproductive and stressed.

“These were all warning signs to me that something wasn’t working in our process. Clearly, something was slowing us down and I needed to address it,” David told me. “Thankfully, I can get that information from Viz, too, with the Bottleneck Finder.” 

David switched to the Bottleneck Finder in Viz, a view that illustrates the value stream and  visualizes where work is piling up and aging; the larger and darker the circle, the worse the bottleneck. 

The bottleneck finder in Tasktop Viz highlights where work is piling up and aging as big red circles

“The biggest and darkest circle was at the ‘Verification’ (Signoff) stage,” he said. “In our process, peer review is the last step before a Feature or Defect is released, and that is where work was aging. I definitely don’t want work to get delayed in the last mile when it’s 95% done!”  

While work waited for verification, the value stream’s customers — other Tasktop product value streams — were waiting. “Work waiting so long for verification isn’t good for our customers, but it isn’t good for our engineers either. Engineers only get the feedback several days later, after they’ve already started something new. It takes longer to incorporate the feedback because you’ve mentally already moved on to something else. That’s why WIP had started to climb, reflecting more distractions and more context-switching,” David said from under his Engineering Manager hat. “Maintaining low WIP is critical for keeping us efficient and fast.” 

David clicked into the bottleneck to examine the contributing artifacts, searching for specific common characteristics, but he found that the issue was across the board.

“We needed to take immediate action, so I brought up the Viz dashboards in our next standup. I showed the team the issue and its impact. We spoke honestly about how people tend to put off peer reviews because they are so engrossed in other work and feel like they have too many interruptions as is.”

The team agreed to run an experiment: They’d create more time for focused, quiet work by blocking “non-interrupt hours” on their calendars. That way they could have uninterrupted focus and flow, while also committing to setting time aside to complete peer reviews in a timely fashion. David marked the beginning of this experiment as a timeline event in Viz, to monitor the impact of the experiment.

Timeline events in Tasktop Viz mark the beginning of an experiment to reduce Flow Times and Flow Load

“I wanted all of us to pay more attention to work items in Verification. So we picked a champion from each team to keep an eye on the progress of those work items, and we would also discuss it in our daily Scrum.”

By taking these actions, the product value stream was able to reduce wait times in the Verification state. The impact was very significant: 

  • Delivery speed improved. Flow Time became more consistent and predictable. The cases where Verification would add 5-10 days to the delivery were gone. Customer satisfaction was up, now that delivery was so much faster.
  • Flow Efficiency increased. By reducing the time work waited in Verification, overall efficiency went up. Team members were more productive. 
  • Flow Load went down. The reduction in context-switching boosted team happiness and increased engagement, which David tracks in conversations with developers and a quarterly eNPS survey.

“We managed to identify and rectify a problem very quickly. Viz pieced all the information together for us, made it visible and easy to comprehend. And then it empowered us all to do something about it, so ultimately we were happier and our customers were happier. Truly a win-win for everyone involved,” David summarized.

More Blogs in the Tasty Dog Food Series

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