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The Life and Times of a Dev Yes, we're really that weird

An important part of Agile is the concept of transparency and visibility. In proper functioning teams, stakeholders can look at any team at any time in the iteration or release and see how that team is doing by simply looking at what we call Big Visible Charts. If you’ve done Scrum, you’ve seen these charts.

However, interpreting these charts can often be an art form. There are several different charts that can be useful. In this newsletter, I’ll focus on the Iteration Burndown and Cumulative Flow charts. I’ve included a copy of the spreadsheet that I used to create the charts, and if you don’t have a tool that creates them for you, you can use this spreadsheet to do so.

Our preferred tool for managing Scrum projects is Rally. Rally creates all of these charts for you, saving you quite a bit of time.

The Iteration Burndown and Cumulative Flow Charts

This is the main chart that teams use. Although less useful to stakeholders, this chart is critical to the team and provides quite a bit of information to the team about how their iteration is going. Most charts are a combination of the charts below, so you may need to combine aspects of each section to understand what is happening in your iterations.


Ah, isn’t that a pretty picture? Unfortunately, it’s also very unrealistic. I’ve seen iterations that come close to ideal, but never that match perfectly. If your iteration matches perfectly, chances are, someone is playing with the numbers. Reality is just too difficult to have a burndown chart that matches this exactly.

Late Planning


Iteration started, but the team didn’t. You can tell this by the fact that the real number of estimated hours didn’t appear until day two. In the cumulative flow, you can also see that nothing was defined in Day one and two. You want to avoid situations like this. You’ll note that the team had to burn faster than is ideal to meet the iteration because of the late planning. This often results in long weeks and days.

Testing Starved


Determining whether or not testing is starved is difficult without the cumulative flow. The pattern in the burndown could be nothing more that developers not completing stories early enough or could be caused by stories being too big. With the cumulative flow, however, you see that only small bites are in progress and stories were completed early, but testing didn’t start testing until the end of the iteration, and didn’t complete testing all stories in the iteration. When this happens, question whether or not your testing resources are sufficient for your team and whether or not acceptance is adequately defined.

No Testing


With this one, both graphs show the same thing; the team needs testers and testing! Without testing, what was completed cannot be verified to make sure that it is acceptable to the business. If you find yourself in this situation, review your testing practices and acceptance testing process and make changes today.

Late Development


With this situation, both graphs tell a story. In the top graph, you can see that the hours failed to burn down as quickly as the team expected. This could be caused by the team not correctly estimating their hours or the team could have had illness or some other issue that affected them. Often, when teams are tackling something that is more unknown, they’ll run into technical barriers that cause the burn down to happen slower than expected. In the cumulative flow graph, you can see that not much was completed in the first few days. This could be because of illness or technical barriers or simply poor estimation. Testing was able to keep up with everything that was completed, however.

No Tool Updating


When you see graphs that look like this, you can be assured that it’s because the team is not updating the tool that generates the graphs. Review your policy for when they are to update. On the teams that I run, I require that each team member updates the tool at least once daily. You should also check to see how well the team is breaking down stories into tasks. If they’re creating few large tasks, graphs can look similar to this. As a general rule, I never allow tasks, other than Unit Testing and Uncertainty, to be greater than eight hours in duration.

Scope Increase


I always encourage team members to enter in however much time they think they have left on a task, even if that means increasing the total amount of time left to do. You get a much better and more realistic picture this way. Increasing time remaining could explain the burndown graph, but by looking at the cumulative flow graph, we can see that stories were added to the iteration and scope was increased. Since planning should consume all of the hours in the iteration, this is almost always a bad thing. If the scope change happened late in the iteration and the hours remaining were well below the ideal burn, then increasing scope is probably o.k., but estimation needs to get better. However, with the charts above, that’s clearly not what happened and the team was required to do extra work to make the iteration. If you find this happening, your product owner and ScrumMasters need training. The team also needs to learn to say no.

Scope Decrease


Scope decreases are just as bad as scope increases. Usually, graphs above show that the team did a poor job of estimating their stories and part way through had to reduce scope to change the iteration. This will happen once in a while, but if you find it’s a pattern on your team, you need to re-evaluate planning. Some teams are hopelessly optimistic. In those cases, I’ll introduce a task I call “Uncertainty.” With Uncertainty, the team estimates how many hours they might need if things don’t go well with the tasks they’ve defined. They try to estimate things that could go poorly and increase the time appropriately. Having an Uncertainty task allows them to have a low and high estimate. Uncertainty should not just be an arbitrary buffer. It must correlate to real uncertainty in the tasks that have been defined.

Stories are too Big


Often, we see graphs like the ones above. Note that the burndown looks fairly good, other than the chunky acceptance of stories. However, when you look at cumulative flow, you can see that at one point, everything is in progress. This is a bad thing. When you see graphs like this, you’re in one of two states. You may just have a very small team and can only handle one or two stories in your iteration. If you have more than one or two people, then the most likely problem is that your stories are far too big. To combat this, break large high hour stories into smaller pieces that can be completed independently and accepted independently. If you don’t, you’ll likely be requiring your testers to do heroic things to complete testing on the last day of the iteration and you’re much more likely to have the entire iteration fail, because of the limited amount of things that can be completed.


There are other charts that can be useful when doing scrum. If you don’t have any big visible charts, you really need to evaluate your process and change. These charts can provide the team a wealth of information and help you write better software. If you have any questions about charts that you’re seeing on your team, contact me with a screen capture of the charts and I’ll tell you what I’m seeing in those charts. I always want this information to be useful, so please let me know if you have other questions.

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Posted on Thursday, March 17, 2011 1:14 PM | Back to top

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