Henrik Kniberg: Lean from the Trenches: Managing Large-Scale Projects with Kanban

Jan 31, 2016

I have a long list of books to read from technology, development, project management and related fields. One of those was Lean from the Trenches by Henrik Kniberg until I got it as a Christmas present and wow! This is an excellent book, just what I was hoping for! Kniberg describes a real agile project and how it developed over time. It is not an idealized version of how to do it that gets talked about a lot but actually shows how they did it in a specific project.

Lean from the Trenches is short and divided into 20 chapters which read very nicely. The style is easy and captivating, there’s no extra fluff. The book has two large sections, the first sixteen chapters introduce the project itself and then move on to discussing different aspects of the development process: team structure, format of meetings, choosing priorities, fixing bugs, metrics etc. The second part of the book covers agile in general, testing, planning poker and cause-effect diagrams, thus serving as a support for the first part.

It is hard to write about specific ideas I liked without rewriting the whole book, so I’ll just stick to short points:

  • Kniberg uses agile principles and shows how to adapt them with the motto “do what works for your team, not what the books say”.
  • Make information visible to everyone (on project and team boards), keep the goal in sight and visualize progress, not just backlog.
  • He supports collocation and many of the aspects of the project were enabled by it; distributed teams have to find their own way.
  • Avoid silos and structure teams around the product rather than around specialties.
  • Bugs are symptoms, not problems.
  • Have WIP limits for each step of the process, finish things before you start working on new ones.
  • Measure velocity (number of features delivered per sprint), cycle time (how long a feature was on the board), process cycle efficiency (how much of that it was actually worked on).
  • Branching and versioning are discussed shorty, but the linked article describes their whole scheme. It is basically gitflow but with some more explanations and admissions of its shortcomings!
  • Be realistic about nice-to-have features and don’t pile them in the backlog, it only makes it depressing to look at.

Simply said, Lean from the Trenches is an excellent book everyone in development and project management should read. After the holidays I immediately implemented some of the concepts (which fit our project and have the highest value-cost ration). It is too early to judge the results but at least we’re experimenting. I will go ahead and recommend this book to everyone only remotely interested in the topic and I’m probably not alone. Looking at GoodReads, there are basically no negative reviews — all low ratings with an explanation basically say “didn’t tell me anything new” or “doesn’t apply to my work”. I think those are poor reasons for giving 1-3 stars, so don’t get discouraged by them and read Lean from the Trenches!