Status of workitems – where to keep it

· March 30, 2010

This is a question that arises very soon or sometime even before you start doing work with a board; Scrum, Kanban or Scrumbut.

Where should the status be? Or more often – “let’s use TFS” (and keep the work items in TFS/SharePoint/Excel and then make copies of them to use on the wall).

A variant of the question is; “we are a distributed team – can we still use the same board?”

Well of course there is not a yes or no answer to that but here is my take on it:

Low tech rules

First I think that no electronic system will ever beat the flexibility, simplicity and agileness of a board. See this for some examples. There are some that have come close but a low tech board communicates so much information with the added flexibility to move things around very easy.

Also using a board promotes face-to-face communication which is always good. I have been in teams where the status of the electronic system should be updated before the daily standup – what use is the meeting then?

Master data problem

Secondly this problem is a master-data problem; who is the master of the status?

There are places, big companies, distributed team etc. where electronic systems are the only way (or so they say ;)). Then you’ll have to use them. But be sure to know where your master status is – on the board or in the system?

When I did my military service I learned: “if the map and reality mismatch then the map is correct” (or master). That shows how master data problems is handled in a bad way, I think. Know where your master status is and treat all other sources as non-masters or copies.

Use the tool not the other way around

Finally – it’s not in the tool. Or put differently these are just tools. Tools are meant to be used by people to get task done easier. Not to add load to the burden.

If you ever find yourself complaining (as I have… a lot…) of having to update TFS with the status of the board – then the tool is using you. Not a very clever way to use your time. Waste – in Lean terms.

How I would do it

If I ever got the chance to decide on stuff like this (Hey, I sometimes do!) I would do it like this:

  • Keep your work items and their status on the physical board
  • Let the physical board be the master of status for the work items
  • Use the electronic system to keep reference data that doesn’t need to be on the physical board.
  • Do not keep status of the work item in the electronic system, or rather not all of them. You could keep a simplified status chain (Not started/Started/Done for example)
  • Put a reference on the work item on the board to the ID inside the electronic system
  • “Stamp” work items with the dates they enter a new stage of your workflow. You can then use these data to find bottlenecks in your workflow, make predictions (search for Disneyland) and get some really nice follow-up-data
  • Keep in synch within distributed teams by using any means possible; web cams, digital photos, telephone, IPhone video calls, travel; are some of the ways I have tried to solve this.
  • Use the board to get your work to flow smoother – don’t add more work to keep the board and any system up-to-date.

That’s a few thoughts on the subject.

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