The Kanban Racing Challenge: An Interview with Nate Oster


In this interview, Nate Oster explains the Kanban Racing Challenge, the unique benefits of kanban, the concept behind using radio-controlled cars within user-developed obstacle courses, and what he hopes his audience at Agile Development Conference East will walk away with. 

Josiah Renaudin: Today, I'm joined by Nate Oster, an agile player-coach and founder at CodeSquads. First, could you tell us a bit about your experience in the industry?

Nate Oster: Absolutely! I’m a player-coach and I focus on scaling lean practices to big products and applying agile practices like “spec by example.” Lately, I spend most of my time helping companies scale beyond “team-room agile” so they can tackle big products that need lots of loosely coupled agile teams to succeed. But my background is agile test automation, so I’m decently technical. I’m certainly not a management guru—I just love helping teams become hyper-productive and frequently deliver products that customers love.

Kanban is a powerful tool to drive that improvement. One problem I keep seeing with kanban is that it’s a great method for agile teams, but adopting it quickly can seem overwhelming and risky, and that leads to hesitation.

I created the Kanban Racing Challenge so that people can experience effective kanban in a simulation that creates highly retainable skills and anyone can join.

Josiah Renaudin: How will you be using kanban in your unique “racing challenge”?

Nate Oster: Right, the Kanban Racing Challenge is a hands-on workshop where participants learn the basic norms of kanban as they build an obstacle course for radio-controlled cars. It’s a physical simulation, so it creates these highly retainable experiences that you can apply right away in software. The goal is to deliver the most dollars of value to your customer (played by me and some other facilitators) with high quality. You do that by building a series of obstacles on your racetrack, represented by “story cards” on a kanban board. The competition is fun and exciting and all the learning is just built right into the game.

So everyone learns how to use the kanban board effectively, but we also learn practical stuff that prevents a lot of problems that I’ve seen hurt teams in the real world. We learn how kanban should change your standups, what to do when urgent priorities change, and why your retrospectives should be driven by just a few basic metrics. See I can talk about this stuff all day, but you’re not going to “get it” until you do it, and you’re not going to remember it until it either makes you happy or pisses you off. I prefer happy, of course, and that’s what a fun competition does.

Josiah Renaudin: Your workshop focuses on using the kanban method to get things done. Just to be clear, can you describe kanban and its unique benefits? How does kanban create a “continuous pull system” and natural self-management?

Nate Oster: Sure! So kanban is simply the application of Lean thinking to software dev[elopment]. It’s a simple approach to visually managing our team’s work using a “card wall” that applies these basic principles: limit our work in process, pull our work based on our capacity to finish it, and continuously improve. That’s it. No sprints or planning meetings. Just continuously deliver the most value.

Yet kanban sets up this surprisingly simple and virtuous cycle: By limiting the number of tasks we work on at one time, we finish each task sooner, so we can adjust to changing priorities quickly and get fast feedback about our progress. It creates a lot of positive focus too because we’re not pulled in a hundred directions. The customer prioritizes the work, but the team is responsible for self-managing the flow of work across the board.

But it’s funny—one of the myths we address in Kanban Racing Challenge is that anyone with a card wall is “doing kanban.” Actually, that’s just the most visible part of kanban. What’s equally important is that we limit our work to our capacity, we pull our work naturally instead of forcing it down the line, and we use this visual tool to continuously improve. The Kanban Racing Challenge ingrains these principles through friendly competition but they really get under your skin.

Josiah Renaudin: What gave you the idea for using radio-controlled cars within user-developed obstacle courses?

Nate Oster: Besides that I’m a nerd? Well, kanban is all about the smooth, continuous flow of work, so we needed a physical simulation that allows team members to work on multiple “stories” in parallel without breaking the product constantly. Remember we’re not using sprints—we just release to production whenever a story is ready. So just like software products, the racetrack has to be fully functional all the time because you never know when a new story will be ready for release to your customer.

I know, I was skeptical, too! But it generates all kinds of positive behaviors without even thinking about them. For example, teams use “feature flippers” to block off sections of track that aren’t ready yet—like a big, long jump. The cars just bypass that jump while it’s under construction. Once the jump is fully tested and accepted by your product owner, then you just pull out the feature flipper and boom—your racetrack suddenly has this huge awesome jump in it that’s already debugged and working smoothly. This saves all kinds of terrible quality problems down the road and gives everyone a lot of confidence to build the next big valuable story instead of just picking off the easy stuff.

Feature Flipping is an actual technical practice in software of course (just Google “feature toggle”), but a lot of agile teams think that’s too advanced for them. Using it in the physical world with cars really drops that resistance to trying it in software.

So we chose to use R/C cars and build obstacle courses because that truly “feels” like building software continuously—you have to integrate continuously, test all the time, and plan as you go. You can’t win by being sloppy-fast or designing the most elegant solution or even building the most stories. You only win by frequently delivering a high-quality product that delights your customers. So there’s all these great lessons built into the nature of the work that stick with you afterwards at this really basic, emotional level.

And believe me, the relevance to software is not lost on people. I get a lot of “oh my gosh, I wish my boss was here to see that!”

Josiah Renaudin: What do you hope your participants will walk away with after your November workshop?

Nate Oster: I want people to know in their gut that these ideas work. And I want them to have confidence that they can apply them effectively with their own teams. So far, that’s what we’ve seen from this simulation with private clients, so I’m really excited to offer it for the first time to a public audience in Orlando. I realize we had to limit attendance this time around, so if anyone can’t get in I hope they’ll drop me an email and we can talk about their city.

Nate OsterAn agile player-coach and founder of CodeSquads, Nate Oster helps clients adopt lean and agile methods. Nate builds high-performance teams that adapt to change, embrace a pragmatic philosophy of continuous improvement, measure progress with new features, and deliver high-quality software that delights customers. As a coach, he inspires adopters with hands-on mentoring and simulations like The Kanban Racing Challenge, which provide a safe learning environment for new ideas. He promotes testing as a serious technical discipline.

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