Operations by nature is chaotic. It’s unpredictable, pressure-filled and noisy. You learn to go with it and all its craziness. However, with an expanding team (the largest at SilverStripe with eight team members), a growing workload and the responsibility of supporting a new product, we had to get smarter with how we managed that chaos.
We began with mainly online tools to manage our workflow, but that created too many channels for enquiries, requests and incidents - two helpdesks, emails, phone calls, in-person requests, nudges, pigeon messengers…The Operations Team were overwhelmed with the backlog and it would often feel like no one knew where to start or where to look. Pressure would build and we constantly felt stuck in the mud. The team was bursting with the brightest people I’ve ever known, yet we couldn’t quite get a handle on how to do our best work, together, long-term.
Having seen Agile practices at work among the delivery teams in SilverStripe, it was always obvious to me that we needed to make the Operations Team more ‘Agile’. However I knew that Scrum, the most widely used Agile methodology at SilverStripe, would never fit with the unpredictability and randomness of our work. We deal with a hundred new things on a daily basis, so the ability to plan isn’t necessarily required of us - it’s our ability to react effectively and efficiently.
So how do you create a process that works for a team like us day-to-day? You get a whiteboard, copious amounts of post-its and you ‘Kanban’ it. With Kanban, I was ready to embrace a system that would allow for us not to plan, but rather, to organise, prioritise and adapt. Using inspiration from our fearless Agile coach, Diana Hennessy, and various blog posts (including this excellent one by New Relic), we set to work reinventing the team.
To have our entire backlog clearly (physically) displayed was the first and most obvious benefit. Previously, it was unclear how much work there really was to do when it was flowing in through so many channels. The best part about this was being able to ‘hide’ the work that was not a priority. The visible side of the board was used to display the current work queue as well as work in progress - everything else, the overwhelming and less important stuff, became hidden and would only be brought into view when it was time to get to it.
The physical board gave me a chance to prioritise tasks from a variety of different sources. The team could clearly see by looking at the Work Queue column what needed to be done that day or week. The Fast Lane area also helped the team be aware of anything urgent, or something that had to be done immediately.
Perhaps the most satisfying part about Kanban is watching the tickets move along the board, and eventually into the Done pile. It’s a huge morale booster for the team to see a fat stack of completed tickets - when previously this wasn’t so transparent.
Managing such a large team can be difficult, especially ensuring that knowledge is spread effectively across the whole team. Quite a large task when managing devs of all skill levels including bright-eyed juniors, DevOps and System Administrators. My favourite part of using the Kanban board is that knowledge has spread organically. Seeing the next most important task and not knowing how to do it created the jackpot of all learning opportunities. If a team member couldn’t do it, they could buddy up with someone who could and learn as they go. I’ve seen this happen so many times - it’s not only great for the efficiency of the team but also a great team building method.
Ultimately, using Kanban has brought the team together and developed a rather fragmented group of people into the Mighty Ops team - the “Best Team” at SilverStripe (as voted by the company at Stripecamp). We now communicate better than ever, embrace change and feel our workload is manageable.
We are still new to it, still learning and adapting it to suit us but we are definitely proof that Agile can be for anyone, any team. Stay tuned for more blog posts from myself and the rest of the team as we level up with Agile!