The Ship Room

Does your company keep failing to produce releasable software on a regular basis?  Do you find yourself hoping to produce a different result at the end of each release cycle even though there have been no appreciable changes made to the process?  My organization was in the same boat until earlier this year when we introduced a concept into our Agile processes known as “the ship room”.  Since that time, we have delivered two software releases and a third one is on track for January.  Three releases will have been produced in roughly nine months when it used to take us about 12-18 months to produce a release.  The major driver behind this change was a conscious decision to reduce our development time to two four-week sprints.  The strategy of the ship room has been the main reason for our success in implementing this change.

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What is the ship room?  It is not a scrum of scrums.  Rather, it is a daily meeting facilitated by one of the scrum masters.  A scrum master and technical lead from each scrum team involved in the release should attend.  At the end of this 15-30 minute meeting, the question, “Can we ship today?” should be able to be answered, along with the reasons why you may be unable to ship.  The focus is on what impediments are not resolved and getting them resolved.

A good format to begin with for a ship room meeting is as follows:

  1. Review existing impediments (issues, questions, etc.), focusing on those that are due today.  The owner of the impediment should report back to the ship room that it has been resolved.  At the least, the owner will report back to the ship room the progress of resolving the impediment.
  2. Poll the teams for new impediments.  Each team is asked what new impediments are preventing them from getting their stories done.  As new ones arise, ask for an owner and a projected resolution date of that impediment and post it on the ship room board.

 

This format and the daily frequency of the ship room meetings bring early visibility to those common issues (e.g. lack of user documentation,  no continuous integration results, performance test results, etc.) that always seem to come up at the end of the release cycle and inevitably delay the release.

But wait….as with anything else, ship room meetings do not always go as smoothly as outlined above.  Below are some common concerns and how to deal with them so that it does not turn into a “shipwreck” room.

  • Discussions that bog down the meeting.  When a valuable discussion starts to get “in the weeds”, pause it and continue it afterward, similar to the “16th minute” in a standup.  It can then be held by the necessary participants after the ship room meeting is over and the results disseminated at that time.
  • Owners do not step forward.  As the facilitator, do NOT feel compelled to own the impediment yourself.  Instead, just bring it up every day as an impediment that is not moving.  If it is truly important, eventually someone will step forward.  At the most, I have only ever had to wait through two meetings before someone stepped up and owned an issue.  Ownership is not to be confused with resolving it yourself.  An owner gathers the right people together who can resolve the impediment and drive the resolution of it.  You may find you need to explain this in order for people to feel more comfortable with owning the resolution of an impediment.
  • Impediments not resolved on time.  If an impediment is not resolved by the projected date, ask the owner for a new date and add a tick mark to it on the ship room board to note the missed date.  Multiple tick marks on an impediment tend to increase the urgency to resolve it.
  • “Sermonizers”.  These are the people who will use the ship room as the pulpit for their pet issue.  This can often be stopped by asking if this issue is really going to hold up the release.

 

If you allow any of the above “people problems” to occur, your release could look like this.

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There are more advanced forms of ship room formats available, but this will suffice for now.  Part two will cover some of these other techniques….as soon as we get there.

Have you used the ship room at your company or something like it?  If so, please reply as to how your experience with it has been.

Author: Tom Westervelt

Tom Westervelt is a Lead Scrum Master at DST Systems, Inc. With 25+ years of IT experience in both development and project management, Tom has been instrumental in leading DST's Agile adoption since 2008.

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