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Guest blog: 12 Practical Ideas on How To Improve Cycle Time For Agile Teams, by Tayyaba Sharif

Cycle Time is a key metric for many Agile teams. Tayyaba Sharif offers some practical advice on how to improve cycle time in practice with our teams in this guest blog post. Tayyaba collected these ideas by asking our Scrum Master Community. Consider subscribing to our Scrum Master Community and take part in this and many other discussions with your peers.

For Kanban teams, cycle time is an important flow metric which measures the flow of work. In this blog post, I collect 12 practical ways to try and improve cycle time for your Agile team:

    1. Introduce WIP limits. Cycle time is reduced when we reduce the number of work items in progress. Experiment with the team to find the right WIP limits in your context.
    2. Establish service level expectation by looking at using historical performance data. For example, if a team completes 50% of the stories in 7 days and 85% of the stories in 10 days, review any task exceeding 7 days in standups or retrospectives. Discuss the “outliers” in the retrospective meeting or standup to see where the time was spent, identify impediments and decide on any process changes or other actions to avoid similar situations. Consider using a value stream map to visualize the problem, and develop a discipline of continuous improvement based on this data and retrospective discussions.
    3. Look at how refinement meetings work, and if they provide what you need to clarify stories and other work items. If a team ends up spending a lot of time discussing a story during the Sprint, that may be a sign that the refinement meeting process needs to be improved. Work with the team to identify the frequent causes of delay/confusion, and establish a way to ensure those are addressed in your refinement meeting. For example: create a checklist for refinement meeting with the list of topics to discuss (when applicable) for each story, for example is test data available? Do we need to engage other teams to verify the change? And so on…
    4. Encourage the team to address technical debt and make space for that work. Often, teams need to refactor some code before making any further changes, or implementing any new stories in that area of the code. Take into account that identifying the need for refactoring during story refinement isn’t always possible. It may help to create technical debt stories when potential refactoring benefits are spotted. This approach ensures that future work focuses solely on implementing stories, avoiding unforeseen delays caused by the unexpected need to do some code refactoring.
    5. Keep track of any delays and bottlenecks, in a spreadsheet. If you spot a trend in specific areas, consider redesigning the process to address these bottlenecks.
    6. Set strict limits on work in progress and discourage teams from taking on new tasks before finishing existing ones. Also, encourage team members to help each other in completing their stories before starting new ones.
    7. Closely monitor the work item age. Here are some strategies to help you visualize the work item age:
      • In Jira, a custom field can be added for work item age and write an automation rule to update it daily. Make that field value visible on the card in the kanban board, so that discussion can take place in the daily standup, to identify possible causes of delay. [Editor Note: Remember that Stories should never take many days to deliver, our usual suggestion is 1 person / 1 day for each story]
      • Use card coloring in Jira to change the color of the card if the work item age goes beyond an acceptable level. For example, you can use JIRA’s JQL: “status changed to “ready for testing” after/on/before -10″
      • You can also move the story in a separate swimlane based on the work item age to steer the attention of the team toward the aging cards on the board.
      • You can use data to assess ‘outliers’: use the average time a card takes in a certain column and use it to determine if a specific card is taking more time in the column than the average. Be relentless in tracking the staleness of a card in progress compared to the average time a card takes to move to another column, and to completion.
    8. Work with the team to come up with a Definition of Ready (DoR) for refinement and a DoR for development. For example, a story might be considered ready for refinement if it includes wire-frames, or ready for development if it’s not blocked by anything, and the necessary information is available. Review each story for readiness, before picking it up for refinement or development. Iteratively improve the DoR’s for refinement and development.
    9. Create a chart to visualize the WIP limit and cycle time, so the team can see how the increased WIP limit is impacting the cycle time.
    10. Adjust the size of backlog items considering testing efforts, test data availability, work complexity, and dependencies on other teams. This ensures smooth flow through the Kanban board once work begins. Also, address all dependencies as early as possible. Remove where possible, and establish backup plans where dependencies are not avoidable.
    11. If specific types of stories consistently exceed the average cycle time, organize targeted retrospectives to explore improvements in story writing or the refinement process. This will help the team deliver more consistently and be more predictable in their delivery. [Editor’s note: consider improving the approach you have to adjusting the size of the backlog items, including adding some Slicing Heuristics to the the refinement process.]
    12. Analyze wait times using a control chart to identify patterns. For instance, if many stories spend a long time waiting for testing, brainstorm ideas with the team to determine what action steps should be taken to reduce the wait time.

Thanks, Vasco and the members of his Scrum Master Community Slack group chat for some of the ideas. If any one has any other ideas please share.

Tayyaba collected these ideas by asking our Scrum Master Community. Consider subscribing to our Scrum Master Community and take part in this and many other discussions with your peers.

About Tayyaba Sharif

Tayyaba embarked on her career as an application developer at IBM, transitioning into an API designer before embracing the role of Scrum Master/Agile Delivery Lead in 2018 within the financial sector. Passionate about maximizing team potential, she empowers them to boost efficiency through continuous improvement. With a fervent dedication to data-driven insights, she meticulously analyzes data to unveil opportunities for process improvements.

You can link with Tayyaba Sharif on LinkedIn.

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