Why Ask Why?


My dad used to work in the main Lab in Guinness. He told me a funny story, which I will share.
When he started in 1977, the guys he worked with did, what was called, a KBOS test. KBOS stood for something, he thinks maybe it was “potassium” related. The reason he can’t remember is that writing on the test had faded and all that was left was the initials “KBOS”.

But every day, without fail, someone in the lab would do this test. They would check the potassium levels on some samples. It was such a big deal that other labs would send over samples. All the results would then get recorded in a book and also sent over to another lab. The lab they used to work in was horrible. It was an old run down building full of rats and cockroaches. So eventually in 1988 they got to move labs.
In the move, they were trying to streamline the lab. Making sure only the important tests and equipment was moved. Eventually someone remembered the super important KBOS test. At this point someone asked, “What does KBOS mean anyway?”. Nobody could answer.

My dad had been doing the test since he started as had, it turned out, a number of people for years. Nobody knew why. So, they asked the other lab who they sent the results to. They checked their books. Yes, they had other results different tests to make sure Guinness was not polluting Dublin. Right there beside the results was indeed the KBOS results. But they realised that they NEVER USED the results for anything. It seems somebody, years before, needed to check it for a few weeks, and the test was then passed on to everyone else who started. So for 11 years this test was just done. Years of time wasted on a test that nobody ever even looked at the results for. The guys in the lab had a good laugh about it and moved on.

I think it shows the importance of asking “Why?”. Years ago, had someone questioned the KBOS test then they could have saved hundreds of man hours in doing it and recording the results. So, when you get asked to do something – to develop a new feature, or even define and break it down. Do you ask “Why?”. Do you question the business value? Sometimes you will find that the work is being done just because someone said “Lets do it.” There could be no real reason for it, no value to your customers. You could be wasting time doing something that will not meet the needs of your customers.

After all in the words of Paul Simon, aren’t we all “Just trying to keep my customers satisfied”.

Just Do It


I love hosting retros. Of course, there are hundreds of different ways to run one. But what I want to talk about is how to capture those actions that get missed. What do I mean by “missed actions”?

Well, have you ever been in a retro where you put up something you want to get resolved and nobody votes on it? It has happened to me a lot. What’s worse is that maybe you put up the same thing next retro, and nobody votes on it again. I find it tends to happen with easily resolved problems. Stop breaking WIP, or run acceptance tests locally to stop the build breaking so much. These tasks don’t get voted on as they seem fairly simple, so there is nothing to discuss. So how do we capture this area of waste and get it done?

What I like to do is add a “Just Do It” section to the retro. This can work with just about any retro game, but I will keep it simple.

For me the easiest retro technique is “stop, start, continue, puzzles”. Get loads of post-its and pens/markers. Put up post-its on one of the walls in the room: “stop, start, continue, puzzles”. And one last one “Just Do It”.

We can explain what each term means, “Stop” is anything the team wants to stop. “Start” is something cool they have seen do before, or read somewhere, and want the team to try. “Continue” is a nice way to show past actions that have been working. “Puzzles” is anything the team do not understand. Then you mention “Just Do It” is there to capture lost actions, it will become clear later on.

Give everyone some time to generate ideas, help them by putting them up on the wall, under the correct section.

Then spend five minutes reading out the ideas so everyone understands them, and group them. This is where “Just Do It” comes in. During the idea grouping, you may find some tasks that don’t need voting or discussion, they are already actionable. At this point, say you are placing them under “Just Do It” and assign someone the task of getting it done. Simple, you now don’t lose those actions.

At this point you get the group to vote on what topic they would like to talk about. Everyone then gets three votes each.

Once everyone has voted, you then sort the topics in order of highest voted first. Then you ask the room how to solve the problem in the topic. Give people five minutes to come up with possible actions to fix the problem. After five minutes ask if they want to keep talking about this topic. If yes, give another five. If no, move on to the next topic.

Make sure you capture the actions they suggest on a post it and leave it beside the problem.
Example: STOP breaking the build – ACTION the build breaker buys the team coffee. (You now have an action to fix the problem).

Repeat this until you either run out of topics or the hour is up. Make sure you assign someone to be in charge of looking after each action. Put the actions up on your board or where you do the stand up. I suggest reviewing them every Friday, so people don’t forget to get them done.

I would love to hear how the “Just Do It” lane helps your team’s retros. Also, let me know if you try it with different retro games.

Using retros, we can start to learn from our teams mistakes. As in the wise words of Sum 41, “What’s the point of never making mistakes?”.


Misheard Lyrics

Have you ever sang along to a song out loud and then been corrected over the lyrics?
Happens to me all the time! You hear one thing, and it sticks with you. In fact, it’s so common and so funny that there are websites dedicated to misheard lyrics. There is a Pearl Jam song called Yellow Ledbetter, nobody knows the official words to it. Don’t trust me? Try and find them! If you do, please share them with me.


I find this becomes a lot like Chinese Whispers. The singer sings, and we pick up random words. Some people will hear something new, or even different, to what you might hear. So, what’s the point?

Well, this got me thinking (dangerous, I know). But, if people mishear lyrics and happily sing them wrong (sometimes for years), then how easy would it be to mishear business requirements?

If we just half listen, we end up assuming what the customers wants. Or sometime between what they are saying and what we are writing, the misheard lyrics creep in. This means we won’t know that we have been singing the wrong lyrics until it’s too late to change them.

How do we fix this? How about, we help the customer write the lyrics and agree on them together. Let’s get a tester and a developer involved as well. This way, we don’t just get the words but the music as well. Collaboration is the answer! If we keep the customer in the loop at every step, we will always deliver what they want. It’s that simple, have a meeting with a tester, developer, and a BA for each block of work. This makes sure the work is what the customer wants, testable and actually doable.
Sure, you will still mishear lyrics in your favourite songs, but from now on you won’t mishear your customers.

I’ll leave you with a quote from one of my favourite songs:
“??????”- Yellow Ledbetter – Pearl Jam

Lean Cheating

I used to cheat on school exams.

In fact, a friend and I had a system: He would learn question one and two, I would learn question three and four.

During the exam, he would answer his questions I’d answer mine. Then we would leave the papers on the table so we could both see the other’s answers. We both scraped a pass, the system worked.

Having a chat about this recently, I realised we were using lean principles. We limited our work, had a pull system, and collaborated. Most importantly, though, we trusted each other. If either of us did not put some work in, we would both fail.

This made me think, without trust – everything else goes out the window.

You can set up boards and talk about breaking down work and setting up work in progress limits but, without the full trust from management and the customers, it won’t matter much.

The team needs to trust each other. Maybe people are only used to working in silos, dev teams, test teams etc. They may not fully trust the other teams, they may only have interacted with these teams through emails or a bug tracking tool.

The management also needs to trust that the team can manage its own work. The customer may only be used to a massive document and a two year wait, so trust will need to be built to change that.

Personally, what helped me build trust with others was pairing. Once someone has a clearer understanding of another’s role, it helps break down walls. Testers stop seeing developers as “that faceless person who gets assigned a bug”. Developers stop hating these “faceless testers who keep finding problems with their work”. Analysts stop worrying about whether the software will work, as they have seen it and can happily show the customer.

Everyone gets to sit together and see what each other does. When a team gets good at it, you won’t even need a bug tracking tool anymore.

So much like the band Madness “All I learnt at school was how to bend, not break, the rules”. I also learned the importance of trust, which you can build anything on – including great software!