Measuring actuals considered harmful

I don’t quite know what it is, but some project managers really like to measure ‘actuals’. They say it helps them plan better, and that it helps them predict the end-date better. Again, thanks to my love of the dramatic, the title of this article is a tad more severe than what I really mean. In this post, I only make the point that many project managers measure unnecessary things, and often the wrong things – and understanding the what, the how, and most importantly the why, of metrics can make a world of difference to the overall success of a project.

People who advocate ‘measuring actuals’ often mandate their developers report how much actual time they spend working on a user story. So, let’s say that a particular card was estimated at 100 points of work. If the developer pair spends 2 hours working on unexpected build-failures, 1 hour on a staff-meeting and another couple of hours fixing bugs on a story from the previous iteration, then they must report a total of 5 hours less than the total time they might otherwise claim for the card. They must also, of course, report the 5 hours separately.

Often, developers are required to update these numbers on a daily basis. Sometimes even on a per-task basis. (Ouch).

These PMs then subtract the total amount of actual time the team worked from the total available time (capacity) to determine what is sometimes called ‘drag’. The ratio of drag to capacity is their ‘drag factor’, and they then use it to plan the remaining work and predict the end date. I believe this practice is less than optimal for several reasons.

The first reason is that it is painful to report time like this. Ask any developer. It distracts from writing code and breaks flow. And if part of the process doesn’t directly add value to the software being built, it should be a candidate for streamlining. It also sends a signal to the team that tracking/accounting/number-crunching is apparently more important (or at least as important) to the management as the value of the software being built. A related reason is that PMs and HR in certain organizations use these numbers during performance reviews. This, of course, makes the measurement completely useless (because using the numbers in this manner alters behavior too much for the measurement to be accurate anymore).

Another reason I don’t like calculating ‘drag’ and using it to plan future work (and predicting the end-date) is that it simply gives an incorrect answer. This is because a truly agile team that is doing the right things will always see an increase in velocity, iteration after iteration. And so, using drag to project plans becomes less than accurate. That leaves even lesser value in measuring and calculating it.

Now, assuming that the end goal is better estimation of the end-date and a better idea of current rate of development, measuring actuals in this manner is not the best way to achieve it. That’s simply because there is a much easier and more efficient method – it’s called velocity.

It’s called velocity for a reason – it helps answer the question ‘are we there yet?’ Take the analogy of driving a car from city A to city B. Since the drive is long (Google Maps estimate it will be about 12 hours of continuous driving), you make several stops along the way. Making the stops is natural, so when asked how long you might take to get to city B, your answer will usually include those unproductive stops; so you might say – about 15 hours. You don’t say – well, if I stick to the speed limit then I’ll be driving for 12 hours, and I’ll also take a one-and-a-half-hour break for lunch and to recoup a little, and two or three other half-hour breaks. It only matters how much total time you might take to get to city B.

Software development also has a convenient metric like this – and as mentioned above, it’s also called velocity. It is the total amount of work that gets done per unit of time (usually an iteration). This already includes things like meetings, lunches, bathroom-breaks, training, filling out review forms and so on. The total time spent, of course, is a matter of counting the number of developer bodies that were in the team-room for that duration, and multiplying by the number of days in question. Done.

Now – a confession. I do care about ‘drag’. I care about it because by reducing it, the project can move faster. This, however, is what the PM or Scrum-Master should be watching out for during the day, every day. If developers (or BAs or QAs) are being pulled out of the team room into meetings that do not add value directly to the project, then the PM should work the system to get these meeting cancelled or, at least, get the concerned folks out of them. If builds are constantly failing, the PM should sell to management all the benefits that the team will get from an improved build-system. Letting the team refactor ugly parts of the code follows the same reasoning – and sometimes, these refactorings might become rewritings parts of the system. It is the PM’s job to do the cost-benefit analysis with the help of the technical folks, and get permission from management to do the right thing. These things ought to be the goal, not telling management that the team only got 1200 points done because of a 30% drag.

So – the takeaway? Don’t measure actuals the way some people do. Use a ‘drag’ of 0 percent for your iteration planning. Use historical team velocity to estimate team capacity. Be vigilant about the time your team spends on non-project-related things, and fight for them to reduce that time. Enable them to optimize themselves (refactoring, investment in fixing annoyances, better software tools, outings), and watch their velocity increase along with quality. Your job becomes easier, too!

2 thoughts on “Measuring actuals considered harmful

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