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In this post I introduce an information radiator called the "Red Bin", which was born out of necessity and has proven very useful to my team. I discuss why we created the Red Bin, how to use it and what problem it solved.

 

What is an Information Radiator?

 

Before I dive into describing anything new it is worth establishing what an information radiator is. The term was coined by Alistair Cockburn in 2000 and in his words "An Information radiator is a display posted in a place where people can see it as they work or walk by. It shows readers information they care about without having to ask anyone a question. This means more communication with fewer interruptions". One of the most common examples is the agile task board.

 

A new team of new people on a new project

 

New teams almost always suffer from a lack of communication, not because there is an actual lack of communication, but because there is simply too much to communicate. A lot of time that would be spent on communicating information important to the project is instead spent on getting to know each other and how to work together. Shortly after starting at Chillisoft I was put into a new team that was made up of people new to the company and we were starting a new project. That is a whole lot of new! For us, communication on technical issues suffered because we all came from very different technical backgrounds and were used to solving things in very different ways. This resulted in some friction within the team and some weird mismatches in the code base.

So how do you address this problem? There is a clue to the solution in the definition of an information radiator: "more communication with fewer interruptions". Information radiators enable more communication with less overhead, so make an information radiator that helps communicate the information that you are struggling with. The hard part is actually recognising that you are struggling. Luckily for us, Peter Wiles (the technical director here at Chillisoft) was on hand to save the day. We were in the midst of yet another discussion about how to handle all these technical issues – a discussion that was going in circles – when he said "Why don't we make a Red Bin?"

 

What is a Red Bin?

 

A Red Bin is an information radiator where any team member can post a technical issue. At the end of each scrum the team goes through and discusses any new items in the Red Bin. For each new item, the person who posted the item gets a chance to describe the issue. The team decides if the item is relevant, in which case it stays, otherwise it is discarded. At some point an item will be taken from the Red Bin and put into the work queue. How items move from the Red Bin into the work queue is going to vary based on how each team works, but it is something that should be decided on when a team starts using a Red Bin. In our team if an item has a severe impact the team lead will pull it into the work queue immediately, otherwise the entire Red Bin is considered in our planning meeting.

 

When and what do you put into the Red Bin?

 

When you find a technical issue that you can't address immediately, you write it down and post it on the Red Bin. A technical issue can be something as small as a digression from the coding standard, to something as large as a design issue that will cause problems in the future. Be careful not to post everything in the Red Bin: if there is an existing process for something, use that process instead. In this way, the Red Bin complements existing processes instead of circumventing them.

A common scenario where you'd add an item to the Red Bin:

  • You are working on something and you encounter an issue.
  • Due to time constraints or difference of opinion in the team on the correct design, you can't address it immediately.
  • To continue working, you put in a temporary hack and move on.
  • At this point, you post the issue you hacked around to the Red Bin.

This prevents the hack from being forgotten about and causing more issues down the road.

 

Other benefits

 

Due to the nature of the information radiated and how it is used, the Red Bin has some other benefits:

  • It is a technical debt indicator. While it won't show you all the technical debt in a system, which is probably impossible to ever know, it is going to provide a good indicator of how much there is and how well the team is dealing with it.
  • Increases team cohesion. By encouraging people to raise technical issues and bringing them together to discuss those issues, the team will naturally start to gel.
  • Helps offset the fear that causes team leads to do BUFD (Big up front design).
  • Communicates architectural and coding design patterns through the entire team resulting in better understanding of apparently strange design decisions.

Provides a mechanism to continually evolve the design.

 

A bit of history

 

The term Red Bin isn't a new one – it originates from lean manufacturing, where a Red Bin is an actual red bin. When an operator finds a part with a defect, they remove it and put it into the Red Bin. At some point each part in the Red Bin will be inspected and the cause of the defect solved.

 

TL;DR

 

  • A Red Bin is an information radiator where any team member can post a technical issue that can't be solved immediately.
  • New teams suffer from communication issues because there is just too much to communicate.
  • Information radiators facilitate more communication with less overhead.
  • A Red Bin helps communicate information on technical issues.

 

Posted on Wednesday, February 12, 2014 5:24 PM software development , software development process , software process | Back to top


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