(Story) Size does matter

This past weekend was our third weekend of using our family Kanban board to get household chores done. And in terms of work completed, it was an impressive weekend, with a total of 28 points done. But. Yes, there’s a but.

We didn’t immediately start using points – the first two weekends our focus was on getting the kids used to the whole idea of the board. During the preceding week, I started adding points to new cards on the board in preparation for the weekend.

On Saturday morning, Number One rather indignantly pointed out a flaw in my pointing system.

Enter the ever-present agile debate on the best way to size stories …

I had pointed the stories based on a typical adult perspective. For example, the Recycling story was assigned 2 points, since it really isn’t a big job for me – merely sorting the week’s recyclables into separate bags for delivery at the depot on Monday.

If you’re seven and passionately hate separating the recyclables, it’s a different, uhm, story. He insisted that it was worth 5 points. Of course I thought that’s too much. So the negotiation (anybody hear planning poker?) started. We eventually agreed on 4 points – bigger than Vacuuming (3), but smaller than Weeding the garden (5).

Brilliant, I hear you say. A perfect illustration of relative sizes at work! I wonder. I came away from the weekend thinking that our experiment is showing up a fundamental assumption (and problem?) on agile teams that use abstract estimates of size:

For relative sizes to work as a comparative measurement, you need to assume a homogenous, cross-functional team where everybody is equally equipped to deal with the work.

But in real teams, like in families where adults and children share the work, this is not always (often?) the case. If we keep insisting that story size should be relative, are we not ignoring a reality that some teams need to deal with? Especially those that are still making the transition from a traditional SDLC approach to Agile?

If our estimations can’t deal with widely different skillsets effectively, are we not just blindly drinking the koolaid?

Our solution

In our case, we can’t ignore the team composition. And since the idea is for the kids to be rewarded for the points they complete, the system must be a fair reflection of the effort they feel went into the work.

We now therefore point stories based on their perspective. The stories us adults do count towards the number of points achieved (velocity), but we don’t earn tangible rewards for them. Which is fine, since we don’t set store by stars and faux gemstones that represent a monetary value.

Of course this does mean that our team velocity will often be superficially high as a result. But – and here we have come full circle on the agile story size debate – as long as we apply the same relative scale consistently, this doesn’t really matter. After all, it’s all relative.

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5 Responses to (Story) Size does matter

  1. Jim Benson says:

    Yep! As long as value is created and everyone feels like they did their part – it’s all good.

    When I was a kid, a semi-trailer truck overturned in the snow near my house. My mother worked in an insurance claims adjustment office. Somehow, they ended up cleaning up this wreck.

    They had a bunch of big guys out there, as well as me and my friend Ken. We all worked in the snow to clean up these huge palettes of heavy laminated paper.

    Ken and I couldn’t lift as much, but we built ourselves sleds out of some of the materials and ended up sliding a lot of paper into the other trucks.

    At the end of the day, the leader of the group declared that Ken and I would get paid half as much because we, in his estimation, moved half as much paper. Yet people were being paid by the hour.

    Ken and I told him that no one was being paid by the pound. He squawked a bit, but in the end paid us like everyone else.

    On an adult points system – we would have been screwed. On a balanced points system we were rewarded for our efforts.

    Awesome post!

    • maritzavdh says:

      Thanks for sharing that story, Jim! Using Personal Kanban with the kids has really made me look at the principles of agile with a fresh and open mind. Sometimes we get so involved with the theory of it, that we stop questioning why we do things the way we do. So seeing how the principles express themselves in the way the kids use the system is very satisfying!

  2. Todd Charron says:

    Nice article! And since you don’t compare points across teams, point inflation doesn’t really matter!

    The best analogy I’ve heard for explaining story points is this:

    Let’s say you and your kids run the 100m dash. You may finish the race in half the time as your kids, or vice versa, so you can’t agree when the race will be complete. However, you can both agree that the race was 100m. The distance, 100m, would be what story points are.

    Would there be any advantage switching from story points to lead time and cycle time? You could then base your incentives on reducing the cycle time for each chore without having to worry about estimating points.

    Also, I wonder what would be the effect of an intrinsic reward system? Something like personalized tools for the garden that they can put stickers on, etc.

    • maritzavdh says:

      Glad you liked it, Todd! Right now, I think points are easier to reward in our system. Both boys have charts with their points recorded in individualized ways to match their age and/or interests. I’ll be writing more about the rewards system in an upcoming post.

      I am informally monitoring lead time and cycle time for my own benefit, though. Already it’s clear that our cycle time is much shorter over weekends than in the work week. And I’m starting to choose small, easy-to-finish tasks for the week, since I know that they’re more likely to be done. Lead time is a problem in our household … Not so much with the kids, but with us adults. I have a list of items on our backlog starting with “Fix” that have been noticeably hanging around way too long. No exact figures on that, since I’m not tracking it accurately yet. But it’s visual enough to know that we are putting off things that we shouldn’t.

  3. Jim Benson says:

    Story points have always been dangerous because people think they are an exact measure. But, like money, they are a relative measure or a currency.

    Everyone can agree that one euro is one euro. But is a candy bar worth one euro? For some, yes, for others an emphatic yes, for still others no.

    So, story points are a currency. You can trade in them, but the exchange will vary by the participants.

    Value pricing comes from one’s ability to competently crank out more story points or the ability to crank out less story points with amazing effectiveness or the ability to note where there are superfluous story points … etc.

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