It’s the end of the sprint. The team committed to half their capacity but somehow still failed to hit their sprint.
During the retrospective, the team decides that the problem lies in the quality of the planning meeting. If only we had more accurate times on our tasks, we would’ve known that this would take much longer than we thought. This also brings up the question, if there were tasks that took way longer than planned, how come nobody asked for help? Shouldn’t we be leveraging the power of teams in exactly these type of situations?
Maybe the team thinks it was due to interruptions. If we hadn’t constantly been interrupted with questions and requests from the rest of the organization, we would have actually been able to work as many hours as we said we’d be able to.
The question becomes: how do you know if either of these or other rationalizations are actually the reason the commitment was not met? Extreme Timeboxing describes a great way to measure how much time was spent on each task while providing some other, subtler benefits as well.
- 1 tasked out sprint. Tasks should have time estimates on them. Tasks should be written on actual (gasp) 3 by 5 index cards.
- 1 Black Sharpie
- 1 Red Sharpie
- 1 Green Sharpie
- Pick a timebox. The team should decide on the timebox at the beginning of the sprint. The timebox should be small enough to provide fine grained feedback, but long enough that maintaining it doesn’t have noticeable effect on the sprint work. We prefer to use 15 minutes.
- Each pair grabs a task card off the wall
- Each sets a timer (almost all phones have them) for the length of the timebox.
- The pair starts working, letting the timer do its thing.
- When the timer goes off, whoever is not driving fills in one black box on the task card.
If the time elapsed exceeds the amount of time estimated for the task, draw a red box instead.
- Reset the timer and continue with the task.
- When the pair is done with the task, fill in the remaining time left on the original estimate
in green boxes on the task.
- Repeat until the sprint is done
By marking the time spend on each task, the pair gets immediate feedback on which tasks went over and which went under. This makes it painfully obvious when a task goes way over the estimate because you’ll see a wall of red boxes that can be spotted from across the room.
The team will be able to measure how much time they actually spent on the tasks by adding up all red and black boxes up at the end of the sprint. It is not uncommon for a team to find that their capacity is actually far less than they thought it was.
Each time the timer goes off during the sprint, the pair is essentially asked “Did you work on this task for the last 15 minutes”. It becomes very difficult to mark a box if they know that they spent those 15 minutes talking to a manager, looking at YouTube videos,
or being distracted in some other way. You’ll generally find that teams are actually pretty good at estimating tasks, generally only deviating by one box on other side. Be wary though, because teams will generally perceive more red boxes than green boxes, even if there are exactly the same amount of each.
Red boxing presents the pair with a great opportunity to ask for help. Many teams that try this end up making a rule for themselves that the first red box means the pair is required to inform the rest of the team and ask for help. By making it something concrete, there becomes a boundary for when to ask. You no longer have the excuse of getting sucked down the rabbit hole and losing track of time. It is also no longer as much of a point of pride to avoid asking for help since the decision is taken away from you.
Lastly, by getting so much specific feedback in terms of time spent on each task, the team’s ability to estimate those tasks will start improving very quickly.
Using a centralized timer, rather than individual stop watches, gets the team on the same cadence. This way, when a pair realizes that they’re going into the red, the rest of the team is also taking a brief second to fill in a timebox and is much more open to being interrupted to be asked for help.
Instead of putting a numeric time estimate on the task card, preemptively draw outlines for each of the boxes. This way, the team is reminded to fill the boxes in, and you no longer need a green marker since you can just leave the outlines blank when the task is completed under time.