Monday 16 June 2014

Network Analysis: The 2nd Coming

Many moons ago, when I was young and you were even younger... that's not strictly true, I am probably younger than a lot of you even if the face in my mirror doesn't show it... techniques such as PERT and network analysis were fairly mainstream. Indeed, process improvement methods such as Kaizen and Six-Sigma still use network analysis as a mainstream tool to flesh out some of the flow in much the same way as modern systemic flow diagrams are used to track flow of working software from business ownership to production.

A fellow HiveMind expert practitioner, Ian Carroll uses presents systemic flow mapping in his website, which is well worth a read if you're not familiar with the concepts. He also expands on the evolution of this through different stages or 'mindsets', each of which brings benefit and adds to process maturity.

There are many benefits to mapping your process this way. Flow is one thing, as following that chain back to front you can find the bottlenecks in your system. However, as with a lot of agile techniques, a lesser known benefit is that it allows you to understand risk very well. Systemic flow gives these classic techniques of applied mathematics a new lease of life, especially when considering it as part of base-lining business architecture or business process during a transformation programme and using systems thinking approach.

The Problem

Having mapped a systemic flow, or when creating a classic PERT chart in ye olde world, you often find a series of dependent tasks. That in itself is cool and systemic flow mapping doesn't add much that's new in that regard. In PERT, each stage of a chain had a probability of hitting its expected date m (the 50% threshold) and a standard deviation of s. I'll save the details of that for another day, but the important thing to note is there is a level of risk around this and this risk would propagate through a chain.

Now substitute the term 'statistical dependence for 'risk' in my previous sentence and read it to yourself. I hope you can see how this more general concept can be applied to any chain of any type and can help you understand trade-offs as well, such as parallel tasks versus risk.

To illustrate this, consider the two chains below. The GO LIVE is specified for a particular date in the future, whether a hard deadline through a compliance or regulatory reporting requirement, competitive advantage in seasonal industries or other such reason.

Sequential Chains

Sequential task processing

Here there are 3 tasks that need to be completed. The percentages show the probability that a task will complete 'on time' (either in waterfall projects, or indeed, delivering those tasks in a sprint). The tasks are effectively mutually exclusive, given they don't occupy the same probability space, but they do have a dependency, which means that the probability of their success is dependent on the task before. For those conversant with statistics, you'll recognise this as:

This level of uncertainty is normally gleaned from previous performance and 'experience'. For example, manufacturing processes or system design activities. I previously covered how to reduce these risks by chopping up tasks into thin slices, as improves the variance and hence certainty.

So considering the chance of Going live on time, all tasks have to complete on time. So the probability of completing on time is simply the multiple of all the success probabilities, given these conditions:

Sequential Conditional Probabilties

So a 28% chance of completing on time!

Shock horror!

Parallel Tasks

"Cha-HAAAA! We'll just run the tasks in parallel!"...

...I hear you cry. OK, maybe not quite like that (stop with the mock Kung-fu already!). The point is, contrary to popular believe, this only improves the probability of success if running those tasks in parallel then gives each task a greater chance of completing before the GO LIVE date! After all, they all still have to complete:

parallel version of the same tasks
In this scenario, the go live can only happen when all individual components come in at the same time. Hence, we can model this with non-conditional probabilities and yet again, the chance of hitting the deadline is:

However, most of the time this does result in some improvement in probability of success, but not usually as much as you think, as workload expands to fill the time available for it (Parkinsons Law). It's what project crashing was in the original PRINCE method, but because of this darn law, it never changed the risk profile (aka probability density function) and because the tasks were so big, the uncertainty around them was extremely high anyway.

I have come across parallel tasks like this several times, where say, Task 1 is the hardware platform, Task 2 is the code and Task 3 is a data migration. This is risky!

The Solution

As per vertical slicing, the key is to segment the tasks so that each can be deployed as a separate piece of work, able to deliver value to the organisation even if the rest of the project doesn't make it, is canned, or is late. It's about breaking the dependencies all the way along the chain, so that the statistical fluctuations of ToC are removed (so if the statistical fluctuations do happen, and they will, who cares?) for those of you familiar with theory of constraints or queuing theory. Looking at how this would works:

Three separate deployments to live

This time, tasks 1, 2 and 3 all deploy functional projects into production with the same risks as before. Looking at the individual risks, they are 50%, 80% and 70% respectively. Given the overall success rate of both the previous methods was 28%, this is a significant improvement, without even considering the real life benefits of greater certainty.

You can apply this thinking to much more complex streams of work. I'll leave the following exercise for you readers out there. Take note that the conditional probability 'carried over' to the next task has obviously got to be the same for each successive task. For example, Task 1 has a 60% chance of coming in on time and hence Tasks 2 and 3 both have the same probability coming in. I know how keen you are to give this a go ;)

Give this a go!


As you can see, where an organisation hasn't made it to the "Mature Synergistic Mindset" that Ian Carroll introduces in his blog (i.e. vertical slices) the structuring of projects and programmes can rely very heavily on this sort of process to find where stuff goes. Risk is only one aspect to this. You can use the same technique, where the arrows map waste time (i.e. time spent in inventory) and then use say, IPFP or linear programming with appropriate constraints to find an optimum point.

However, be careful that this is an in-between technique, not the goal. The goal isn't to have the analysis, it is to make your process more efficient by reducing dependency, and the impact of statistical fluctuation on your project.

Monday 2 June 2014

The Smaller The Better

A while ago, I wrote a couple of posts about agile estimation and specifically, how I evolve estimates as projects run. I also wrote about the #NoEstimate movement what I take away from that view of estimation.

There is also a little programming exercise I was shown once, known as 'the Elephant Carpaccio' by Alistair Cockburn. One of the agile signatories I have a lot of time for. The aim of the contemporary version is to find out how thinly you can slice an elephant (aka your code) so you can write a test, code and then deploy a tiny tiny change, perhaps even one single line, into production.

What is interesting is that the smaller the change, the less the variance on that change. I sometimes do this by asking a group of folk to estimate the size of a line, which is usually quite small (in the order of an inch or so) and then ask folk to estimate the size of a much larger [elephant sized] line. What you almost always see is the standard deviation of estimates of large line size are almost always much higher than those in the smaller ones.

You see this in both story point estimates and indeed the variance of waterfall/RUP/no-method projects as a whole. No doubt we've all been in companies where small projects haven't really been that late, or cost that much more than predicted, whilst larger, more complex projects have taken or cost several orders of magnitude more (luckily, not that many at all for me).

Now, you should know by now that I like to prove things. Using empirical data and statistics to find out perhaps useful angles on things or validate a hypothesis. This case is no exception. I am going to use a previous dataset for this, gleaned form issue tracking tickets, their estimates and the cycle time of each ticket (duration the ticket spent from being opened to being closed at done).

Basically, I am testing the hypothesis that the standard deviation of higher valued tickets is greater than lower valued ones.


Taking the number of tickets, their point sizes and their durations, I constructed a table of averages versus standard deviations for all Fibbonacci sized ticket (1,2,3,5,8).


The results of the analysis are shown below:

The key thing to note is that the standard deviation for a 1 point story (+ or - 1.088) is significantly smaller than any of the others, with intuitively, an 8 point story having a larger deviation.

Why Care?

This is important because if you want a level of predictability, not just with time, but with effort, cost and anything else, the indication is to make the stories as small as possible.

The key thing with agile processes, is they fall into a class of statistical process. Specifically, an Ito process, akin to Brownian motion (I know, this is where it gets sexy).

Each individual ticket can be considered to have a 'predictable' component and a random variation around that. Stochastics is more than pure probabilistic methods, either in classical statistics, where predictability is not assumed to exist at all, or Bayesian statistics (where the posterior probability is gained by improving the a priori statistic, given the presence of new empirical evidence). For devs this is like knowledge improving as you gain more knowledge of the domain, which manifests when the team 'learn' through experience (I personally think Bayesian statistics holds the greatest promise of modelling an agile development process by far. Another story for another day). Stochastics assumes there is a level of determinism and a random component which us agile practitioners could consider to be caused by sickness, additions of new folk, unforeseen circumstances, team members leaving, meddling or whatever else can affect the flow of the team.

The result of the above experiment, as well as carpaccio exercises and my 'estimate the line' game all seem to suggest that if we make the tasks as small as possible, simultaneously reduce the variance. Eventually you'll find the variance from the expected time is so small as to be negligible. So keep things small and keep your chances of success high!