Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Thumbtack and Hole Metrics...

Sometimes metrics can just appear in front of you very simplistically without any effort. I've discovered two new ones which I call the Thumbtack Metric and the Hole Metric.

The back story is that we use a corkboard to track our work. This is a high level view of the biggest priorities in VersionOne, our legacy ticket system, and any other queues of work we have. Because our one team supports all company operations AND does new product development, we have a hybrid balance of many different approaches. The board is our central view.

I attempted to force WIP limits onto the board so that it was a true Kanban board, but this simply didn't work in our environment for multiple reasons (nature of our work along with company culture). BUT, it has been very interesting for the team to start realizing when they are attempting to do too much. As the coach, this was something I used to pro-actively point out, but I'm learning that it is better for me to be reactive so that the team themselves can learn from experience. (Unfortunately, a child understands "hot" much better after being burned.)

This maturity and growth has led to many great conversations on the team. They start as individual discussions of philosophy between me and someone on the team, and then they become team discussions where we improve something in our process.

Through all of this, I've noticed a few things that the team now sees after it has been pointed out:
  1. A problem item typically has many thumbtack holes in it (The Hole Metric). The "holier" the item, the more of a problem it is. What is the causation behind this correlation? Well, every week we scrub the board. Every few days rows get re-aligned. If an item is picked up on one day and finished the next... it has one or two holes in it. But if the item gets pushed around for days and lost under other stickies... then it get punched A LOT! So... we now have a metric that can be used to identify areas of improvement. When a "holy" item reaches DONE, it is a good topic for a quick review/mini-retrospective.
  2. Every item on the board needs a thumbtack. We thumbtack stickies so that they don't get blown off while moving the board around (our board sits in a central visible area of the company and is carried into our dedicated standup meeting room every morning). Sometimes we group things with one thumbtack, but in general, there is a correlation between the amount of work on the board and the number of thumbtacks used. I haven't been successful at imposing WIP, but I have been successful in showing that when we run out of thumbtacks, we are in for trouble. This is the Thumbtack Metric. If you need more thumbtacks to stick things onto the board, you have a problem coming (or are already knee deep in it). Conversely, the CEO notices that too many unused thumbtacks might be a sign of available capacity (so I take thumbtacks off the board at times if needed ).
See... all those documents, white papers, conference sessions, etc you've read about metrics... they were overkill. There are simple metrics right in front of your team every day. AND, they are much easier to sell, explain, and use as an indicator moving forward.

So... what's your thumbtack metric?


  1. I really really like this. That is a metric I can sell. I just use spreadsheets, and a gradiated red color for items that keep getting moved around. This doesn't have quite the same type of tactile/visual feel that the physical corkboard has. This almost is enough to convince me to go the corkboard route... Something to think about.

  2. Well... we use VersionOne instead of a spreadsheet to coordinate large, multi-role/department efforts. So, don't give up completely on your spreadsheet.

    On my last team we used a spreadsheet for the task backlog and product backlog and burndowns... but we still used a COW (cards on the wall) approach to show stories and drive our standups.

  3. Great post Kevin. Simple metrics are always the best. Since we're all digital with our tools we don't have a thumbtack metric per say, however we know stories that keep getting put lower and lower on the priority queue, or those that are put off over and over again. Makes us start to question the real value of the story.

  4. That's a good point Robert... I actually created a "Graveyard Metric" awhile ago.

    I run reports in our ticket system and in VersionOne... any items that haven't been touched in any way for 60 days get poked (reviewed by owner). Again at 120 days. At 180 days, I lobby that they need to be 'graveyarded', essentially killed. It keeps us alert of our decisions (or non-decisions).