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This article was published on May 5, 2020

‘Agile metrics’ are the key to your team’s continuous improvement

Pay as much attentiton to your team as your product

‘Agile metrics’ are the key to your team’s continuous improvement

Continuous improvement is a vital aspect of an efficient organization.

To create a truly great product, a team must repeat what works well and improve what doesn’t — and that same thought process should be used by other teams within the organization.

While this concept may seem obvious, too often teams fail to optimize for or measure efficiency.

[Read: Responsible growth: Why tech companies must wake up]

The reason? They simply don’t realize how important measurement is. What a team accomplishes in its day-to-day tasks has a direct impact on the success of the product.

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If you fear your teams are on the verge of (or you’re already stuck in) an efficiency plateau, you can mitigate the problem by determining the agile metrics you should measure. Simply put, agile metrics are data points that demonstrate how a team is performing in their various organizational roles, whether it’s business, product, engineering, or support.

By taking the time to measure your organization‘s agile metrics, your teams can set clear expectations, which will enable you to produce more work with fewer defects.

Why agile metrics matter

In the era of digital transformation when it seems as if companies are implementing new systems and technologies all the time, there’s a tendency to cling tightly to the past. While tradition should be respected in many situations, holding on to inefficient and immeasurable processes can put an entire organization at risk of failing.

Your organization can often avoid this issue by creating a system to measure agile metrics that offers teams valuable insights into their performance, which will allow teams to be able to work toward continuously improving their output. This continuous improvement not only encourages teams to practice good habits and proper communication as a whole, but it promotes an environment of open dialogue, feedback, and fresh ideas so everyone can continue moving forward.

But while tools are important, they alone are not enough to improve your teams. After all, the metrics you gather are simply a reflection of how well a team works. Your teams will need an agile coach to help interpret the metric values and take the appropriate action. An example of a methodology that supports this is the Kanban Maturity Model.

As a digital commerce consulting firm, one of our core services is agile planning. Around a year and a half ago, we created a continuous improvement dashboard for a client that was integrated with their project management system. What started out as just a small side project grew into a tool that is used in monthly meetings with the Chief Innovation Officer.

Today, every agile team uses the dashboard to discuss their areas of improvement on a regular cadence. The dashboard also allows for a story to be told from week to week that helps the agile teams answer questions that arise. Additionally, the teams have begun Kanban Maturity Model sessions with their assigned agile coach to improve their metrics as well as their overall process.

Agile metrics matter because they can bring your organization together. By taking the time and measures to improve, your teams can move past the days of bad habits like micromanagement and a lack of focus and work to achieve balance across the entire organization.

Know which metrics to measure

Once you’ve established the need for continuous improvement, now it’s time to define the metrics you’ll need to measure. While there are separate, industry-accepted metrics to track across the business, product, engineering, and support teams, they all affect one another.

For example, if story throughput (an engineering metric) is low, then we can likely tell a two-part story:

  • The product team made stories either too big or with too little detail.
  • There was no epic refinement with product and engineering after writing the stories before engineering started working on them.

A team’s agile metrics will vary depending on the business, industry, and agile methodology it employs, but there are few common metrics we recommend our clients measure, such as lead time, cycle time, and throughput.

With that, be mindful as your organization starts to implement metrics. It’s not a race to game the system to increase the numbers. Rather, the metrics are just a representation of how the teams are performing as a whole.</p>

Show your work

When your teams first begin measuring agile metrics and working to improve internally, the entire process might seem a little overwhelming.

To overcome this dilemma, I would suggest carefully planning the first few metrics you want to measure and presenting them on a continuous improvement dashboard.

In my experience, our clients welcome the opportunity to measure their performance because it helps them understand one of the most difficult aspects of product: estimation.

For many teams, the most difficult question to answer accurately is, “How long will this feature take to build?” This is one area where an agile dashboard is incredibly effective.

[Read: 3 lessons for tech startups I learned from working in construction]

For example, if over the past four weeks an epic took 12 days on average to complete for a given team, they can expect that another epic will take the same amount of time — with some tolerance factored in, of course.

Your teams should also ensure that their agile project management systems will support either pushing that data to another source or have another application pull the data.

The data would then have calculations run against it to allow summarized visualizations to be shown at each level of the business and to track changes over time.

Each metric should touch on these three items:

Direction. Determine which direction is “good”— up or down.

Goal. Know the threshold each team is trying to stay within.

Benchmark. The way we measure our benchmark is by looking at a metric>’s value for the most recent five weeks and then checking if the most recent value is inside or outside one standard deviation of that. This allows us to know whether we are normalizing, improving, or worsening. 

To encourage your teams to communicate as they begin measuring efficiency, hold monthly meetings with your leadership and at least one key member from each team.

For instance, someone from the business side should be able to speak to high-level achievements related to the roadmap, the product representative should speak to features, and an engineering/support representative should speak to day-to-day activities.

I’d recommend that each person take no more than 10 minutes to speak; the important thing is to tell a story and not focus on individual numbers. 

By bringing everyone in the organization together, your team members can have an open discussion about how they are performing and use the time to set expectations on how they can improve their output.

Improvement is an ongoing process

While putting together a plan for continuous improvement is within your organization’s reach, it’s important to understand that change doesn’t happen overnight.

The road to continuous improvement could be months or even years-long, and even then, the journey is never really over.

As you and your teams continuously measure your agile metrics, revisit them regularly and use them as talking points for conversations about how to achieve your goals together as an organization. 

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