Keep your tools clean

8 tips to keep your digital tools clean, sharpened and always ready for the next project

“We become what we behold.

We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”

 – Marshall McLuhan

Last night I was in my garage working on my boat for the first time in a while. It was a little hard to get started though, because my workbench was kind of a mess. Actually, it was a total wreck. I had to spend some time cleaning things up so that I had room to work. Unfortunately, I seem to keep learning this lesson over and over. It doesn’t matter if you are in your garage or in the modern software factory: keeping your tools clean is essential to efficiently getting work done.

 

My father-in-law has a shop that I would kill for. He has racks of tools, systems for where everything goes, and everything is in its place. His shop is beautiful. Well, it’s beautiful if you’re a tool nut like me. I’m pretty sure that orderliness in my father-in-law’s workshop isn’t just for show. It allows him to get things done quickly and efficiently. He doesn’t have to cast about searching for his tools, because they have a place and he always returns them to that place. It’s a discipline with himself that he keeps. The tools are always clean, and ready for use, so there is no delay to clean things up before starting on his next project.

I’ve also noticed that a disorderly workspace makes it harder for me to get started on things sometimes. If I know that my tools are scattered about, then I know that I’m going to have to clean things up and sort things out. I’m going to generally spend a bunch of time upfront on tasks I would rather not do. All of this is cleanup work so that I can do that thing that I really wanted to do in the first place. The more I think about all that cleanup work, the less energy and enthusiasm I have for the real project that I wanted to start. Messy, dirty tools, in a disorganized space creates a sort of “project startup tax” that reduces the energy available to us to work on the important things we want to get done.

 

Cleaning out your digital workspaces

It seems to me that I’ve been seeing a phenomenon a lot like this lately with some of the development teams that I work with.  I sit down with a team to look at their work in whatever tool they are using for project tracking. Often there are literally hundreds of stories in the backlog that are old stories that they are never going to work on. Somewhere along the way, they had added these stories for one reason or another, and then decided not to work on them. But rather than delete them, they left them hanging around.

 

But this problem isn’t just with user stories, people have all kinds of old electronic artifacts hanging around that they are not using. Old sprints, old projects, old tasks, old documents. Their workspaces are a mess. Just like me trying to get started working on my boat in the garage, they are paying a tax for not having their tools cleaned, sorted, and ready for work.

 

I think that part of the reason we have fancy filtering features built into some of our tools is because we have filled them with so much cruft. Those filtering features are really a means of sorting through the mess in our workspaces so that we can find our work.

 

Maybe a few concrete ideas would help. Here’s my top 8 list of tool cleaning activities that teams should do:

 

  1. Prune the backlog regularly. Delete anything that you aren’t going to work on in the immediate future (you choose the time horizon – the next sprint or quarter – the shorter the better)
  2. Delete/archive old projects. Just like in my garage, you may need to do some spring cleaning. Every once in a while, it can be useful to drag everything out and decide if you really need it. Admit it, most of your old projects just clutter things up and you never go back and look at them. Ever.
  3. Make sure that everything is in its (electronic) place before big events (planning meetings, quarterly meetings, etc.). Sprints are defined, milestones created, team members added, etc. While you’re at it, make sure everything is up to date. Out of date data just slows you down.
  4. Close things out properly. After you are done with these big events, clean up your mess. There is a lot of half-baked stuff that gets created in planning meetings. Either finish it up or ditch it. Don’t leave it lying around to slow you down.
  5. Take pride in your workspaces & make sure that where your store project information is clean and well organizaed. Make sure that everyone knows where to find things. Do what you can to make it clear for them. Create custom dashboards that enable people to see only the detail that they need.
  6. Keep your reporting to only the essentials. Less is more when it comes to reports. I find it takes a lot of work to do meaningful reporting. Like with the boat, I do better work when I focus on doing well with less.
  7. Watch what others do and learn. My father-in-law’s workshop inspires me every time I walk into it. I’m also inspired by some of the Scrum Masters that I’m lucky enough to work with.

 

Keeping our tools clean helps to keep them useful. When I’m gardening, I need to clean off the rake and the hoe after I use them. Otherwise, they are encrusted with mud and dirt and they are likely to rust as they sit in the shed. Similarly, our electronic tools can become less useful and less effective for us if we don’t take the time to keep them clean.

 

There is a notion in the lean world that talks about the importance of this sort of cleanliness. You’ve probably heard of it, it’s called the 5S’s and it has these elements:

  1. Sort: separate needed from unneeded things
  2. Set in Order: everything in its place
  3. Shine: inspect and clean
  4. Spic and Span: don’t make a mess!
  5. Sustain: don’t stop!

 

Personally, I think it’s the last one that is the hardest and perhaps the most important. If we can all agree that a messy workspace, whether it be electronic or physical, imposes a tax on our productivity, then we should all be concerned with finding the discipline to do the 5S’s with our tools. Like my father-in-law’s workshop, keeping our tools clean and prepared is a form of continuous improvement that will allow us to get to work faster and more efficiently. It’s a small thing, but let’s face it, real meaningful improvement is really just a whole bunch of small things…clean, laid out in an orderly fashion, and easy to find.

 


Tom has been working as a transformation agent in software development for over 20 years.…

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