Howard stepped off the elevator and into the lobby. His eyes were puffy and felt like someone had scrubbed them with sand paper. Looking around the office, he made a beeline for the coffee machine. It was one of those fancy jobs where you use a touch screen to select all the different flavors, textures and aromas. Howard thought they all came out tasting like boiled socks. As the last few drops of black sludge dripped into the mug, Lisa peeked her head around the side of the machine.
“Getting ready for stand up?” Lisa asked, eyeing Howard’s coffee.
“Getting ready for life.” Howard grumbled as he headed towards the stairs. “You coming?”
“To stand up, yes. To life, not until I have some of this delicious coffee-flavored oatmeal. See you upstairs.” Lisa said, putting a cup into the machine and starting to make her first of 30 mandatory selections.
Howard strolled into the Operations area, starting to feel a little more human with some coffee in him. Looking around, he spotted Paul hunched over his keyboard, typing furiously. His desk was in its standard form of disarray. Empty Diet Coke cans covered the desk, with a few crumpled in the middle like fallen soldiers on a battlefield, the other cans standing around the crumpled ones in mock solemnity. The keyboard was one of those mechanical DAS keyboards with the blue keys, so it made clicking noises as Paul’s fingers danced across them.
“Good morning Paul.” Howard said as he lumbered to a stop beside Paul. Paul raised one hand in a warding off gesture.
“Can’t have any more interruptions or I’ll never get this done. See you in five minutes at the stand up.” Paul said without looking up. With that, his hand flew back to the keyboard to join the other, like a juggler taking in another bowling pin and seamlessly integrating it with the ones he is already juggling.
Howard nodded and shuffled off to large Kanban board on the wall of the Operations bay. It was a large screen projecting the digital board onto the wall via a small Raspberry Pi. Howard was quite proud of this board. It had taken some time to convince the team that they could use Kanban in such an interrupt-driven world as Product Operations. The team went through several iterations before coming to the current board on the wall and even now they were willing to make changes.
All new tickets for the team funneled into the backlog column on the left side of the board. These were automatically marked as untriaged. The team would review these tickets in the morning stand up and then prioritize them as a team. This excluded emergency tickets which were closely inspected. Emergency tickets would enter directly into the Expedited Lane of the board, and the team would swarm them until completed. Those tickets were almost exclusively the domain of outages and customer impacting events. New tickets filtered in through either email or the BOT in the Operations Slack room.
The team began gathering around the board to review and prioritize the tickets in the backlog. Howard noticed that there were a few tickets in the active column that he didn’t recognize. He made a mental note to ask the team about this after they “walked the board.” The team took turns reading the new tickets in the backlog, and they discussed the work effort, blockers, dependencies and perceived priority of each. The tickets were then rearranged to be in order of priority with highest on top. Next they worked from left to right, with each person explaining the tickets they were responsible for.
“I noticed that there are a couple tickets in here that were not there yesterday and were not covered in the triage. How did that happen?” Howard asked before everyone drifted back to their desks.
Chris Fallon, known simply as Snark to everyone else, spoke up. “Those are the ‘important people’ tickets, boss. They are the ones we get from the constant ‘drive-bys’. You know, when an exec or a sales person steps into your cube and tells you that this is going to be the next big thing that makes millions.”
“Wait a minute.” Howard said, turning to look at Snark. “I thought we all agreed that we would only take tickets in via the backlog, unless it’s an emergency.”
Snark laughed, “Yeah, well, they seem to think their poor planning and ineptitude is somehow synonymous with being my emergency.”
Howard took a deep breath and said, “OK, we can’t do this or it undermines the process. When this happens, it’s like the person standing over your desk is saying their time is more valuable than yours. That is simply not true. Let’s take the guidelines we all agreed upon for expedited tickets and print them out. We will put them up on the wall and the next time someone comes up with a ‘favor to ask’ point them to the rules. If they still don’t let up on you, point them to me. We have to be fair, though.”
Howard thought for a long moment and said, “OK, here is what we will do. We will hold daily traffic court for anyone that puts in a ticket. This is completely optional, of course, but if the person feels like it is an emergency, and yet doesn’t meet the qualifications, they can come to the stand up the next morning and plead their case. If it seems like the need is real, the team can agree to put that item above all the other items to be next pulled into the Kanban process. This doesn’t mean we swarm it like an outage, but they do get to the top of the pile. Thoughts?”
Everyone silent for a moment, and then the agreed. Everyone but Snark, who continued to look up at the ceiling, apparently deep in thought. At last he lowered his eyes to the group and said, “This will work, IF you get the right people on board first AND you support all of us in sticking to the rules.”
Howard nodded and said, “I already have a mental list of the people we will need on board. I’ll get that taken care of today. Can you write this up and get it up next to the Kanban board?”
“I’m on it.” Snark said, and turned with the rest of the team to leave.
The concept of the traffic court ended up paying dividends in ways Howard hadn’t counted on. It turned out that, much like regular traffic tickets, people didn’t want to invest their time to come in and argue the case with the court. Instead, they decided to take the easier route of just paying the fine. This was their opportunity cost; time over money was the same as time over prioritization. There were cases where people would show up and win or lose their case. In the end, Howard and the Operations team began to understand who was just wanting to jump line and who had a genuine need. It was no surprise that each type tended to be repeat offenders. Over time, the ones exhibiting negative recidivism, began to learn that their behaviors were time-consuming and not being validated. Their behavior didn’t change but how they actively interacted with the team did and thus the outcome was still the one Howard’s team wanted.