This is the fourth installment of my series of articles on agile practices in ITSM. This time I will present an agile practice deviced by myself that I call The Agile Planning Board. If you are unfamiliar with the daily standup meeting discussed here, please read my post on that subject here.
In our service desk team, we do quite a large bit of our work in different projects and other assignments outside of the scope of the service desk. This has historically caused a lot of headaches and issues in our planning. Also, team members were being tossed back and forth between responsibilities and duties. At times we actually realised that we had no team members handling incoming calls or emails. This since all members were in project meetings at the same time. Of course, this was not good for the team nor operations.
Our first instinct was to remedy this with strict planning. However, this would make us less flexible and making the speed of delivery much lower. It would also add a lot of bureaucratic and lessen team ownership of their own situation.
The solution – The agile planning board
To resolve the above issues, I devised a method to track what every team member was doing on a half day interval. Each weekday (Monday through Friday) is divided into two squares: morning and afternoon. Each such square we call a block. All members of the team are then assigned a colour.
Now, each project, assignment, or other task of the size of a half day (i.e a block) that a team member is allocated to during the week is now represented by a sticky note. To assign a team member to a task simply write it on a note of the team member’s colour and put it up on the board. The text on the note should not be a detailed description, only the title of the task, project, or assignment. Planning is only done for activities out of the scope of the service desk, hence when there are no sticky notes for normal operations.
For example, the team member Ronnie will work on Project Zeta on Tuesday afternoon. This is represented by a green sticky note with the text “Project Zeta” written on it in the afternoon block on Tuesday.
Setting and updating the board
The board is set up at a weekly planning meeting Monday morning where we sort out what tasks/assignments/projects that can be performed when. The board is updated during the week at the daily standup meeting where we rearrange, add, or remove notes as needed. Using the daily standup meeting I consider a must to get the best (and most agile) effects of the agile planning board.
The board is also updated “on the fly” by the team members during other times of the week if needed. So, if a team member realize that a task will take two blocks (or half days), rather than one, they can update it on the fly and add another note.
The Agile Planning Board
Design of the board
I have designed our board by using mark-up tape on a wall. Each block on the board is the same size of the maximum number of team members that can be assigned to a task (outside of the scope the service desk). In the example above the upper limit is four team members per block. This capacity will of course vary from team to team. With this design it will limit the possibility to plan more than the team can handle at the same time.
The reason for each team member having a colour each is to have the board highly visible. With this it is easy to find out what team member is working on other tasks.
I use sticky notes to be able to do re-planning very agile. It is easy to move the notes around to make the schedule work. Moreover, they come in a wide variety of colours making them perfect for this setup. Make sure to pick colours that you are able to find Post IT/Sticky notes for.
The agile planning board should be located near the team and visible for all members. A suggestion is to have the daily standup meeting in front of the agile planning board since this is a convenient time to update and replan the board.
Rules of the board
The four-hour block size is for our situation a suitable size and I do not recommend having it lesser. If you do, you will get more task switching as well as more administration of the board, making it less agile. The size of a block is a somewhat “round” rule, it is more of the nature “half a day” rather than an exact number of hours. If a team member has a half hour meeting, we will not set up a sticky note. However, if the meeting is 3 hours, we put up a sticky note. A team member may never have more than one sticky note per block.
Only members of the team may change the board. No outside party is allowed to change the board since it is the team that owns the board. Other parties may contact the team for assistance and the team will make the appropriate planning on the board.
The biggest benefit is that the agile planning board gives a clear and easily read status of what each team member is doing when. It also instantaneously gives a current view of the team capacity. Since the agile planning board is visible for everyone it’s also very accessible for outside parties to have an overview of the current status and capacity of the team.
The agile planning board makes planning and re-planning very quick and agile and it requires very little effort to do so. It also visibly and effectively stops over-allocation of what the team can handle.
Furthermore, the limit of the four-hour block gives each team member added focus. Because the block is dedicated to one thing, he or she is not interrupted by lots of other tasks. This minimizes task switching during the block. In a service desk this is a positive thing since task switching is very common.
Further developments and uses
One development we have already created is a parking spot for sticky notes. They are for reoccurring tasks or tasks that will be planned later or awaiting a daily standup meeting.
If you have multiple shifts more rows can be added to represent new blocks for this. I have not tried this setup but in theory this should work fine.
Using bigger blocks for the agile planning board can be a variant. I believe that the next logical level is using whole days as a base.
Also, agile system development teams could use the agile planning board. Especially if the team handles multiple projects or customers. It can be an easy way to track what team member is working on what project or customer at what time. The quick rescheduling of the agile planning board can be very useful you are in a situation with customers or projects that changes priorities quickly.
A logical step is of course to create an electronic board which can be benefitial when you have geographically split teams. However, I strongly believe that using an analogue board that is always visible to all team members always trumps an electronic one. I am not aware of any software that can mimic the functionality of the agile planning board.
It’s not always that you have the same capacity in the team for each block. This can be handled by blocking some of the space on the blocks. Either you can limit the maximum capacity with empty sticky notes of an unused colour or have a number written in each block with the maximum capacity.
The design of the board limits the planning to the current week. To set up a board with more weeks can be done with the basic rules as described above. I have never had use for such a setup, but I guess someone may.