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admin 17.09.2014

I should be working on continuing my posts about Lean Startup and the Enterprise, but Winter Storm Nemo has had me pretty close to home for this weekend and given me the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the house with my kids. After building several such tracks, it occurred to me that we’ve been doing it using many concepts from Agile Software Development including evolutionary design, continuous integration, short iterations, and refactoring to name just a few.
While little kids frequently are impatient to get going, we still need some preparatory activity. The first complete version is built, offering little more than a loop with a few detours and the large constructs selected in sprint 0.
We had our first usability test with Lexi & Trevor both running trains on the same track.
Unfortunately time runs short and some disagreements about precise requirements prevent me from implementing this functionality right now.
Now you will see the upper loop around the mountain in the top left quadrant of the picture. While working on that, we also added a lateral track running left to right in the middle of the table; this space was looking unused, so we figured we would start to run some lines through it.
This was quite a nice demonstration of refactoring and building up quality based on actual experiences. As the overall track gets more complex, there are too many turns—and too few of a couple key pieces, like those red towers—to brace every single one. Sometimes, a powerful stakeholder demands a change simply because he doesn’t like something. I should have asked Trevor to sign a requirements document, as once we began to pull up some of the track, the changes kept coming. We resumed work on the track Sunday morning and unfortunately we were beginning to feel our constraints. All told, the track features 22 distinct intersections & junctions to prevent train collisions, as well as the ensuing sibling conflict.
Looking back at the experience, it is pretty impressive to see the gradual growth of the track as we successfully iterated on the design. SolutionsIQ is the world’s largest provider of Agile transformation and innovation solutions for business and technology. Get the latest Agile content, client case studies, industry news, podcasts and so much more. For some time, I’ve been meaning to catalog the evolution of one of these tracks, all it took was being snowed in under 3 feet of white powder for me to finally have the opportunity. In this case, we clear off the table while having a discussion about what they would like in their track. We simplify the upper level and have a single run of elevated train track, which runs over the lower level and then drops down to merge onto the main line. Indeed, short iterations were critical here: the night was getting late and we had to rush off to the bath. In fact, by the time I came into the room to help him, he was busy starting to lay out a new elevated loop like we had tried in Sprint 2.
Implementation was actually pretty fast, as we had started down this path in the prior sprint before abandoning it, so we had a general idea of what we wanted to do. Additional enhancements included another connection in some of the ground-level track in the top right quadrant pictured below. I explained that it is only a temporary fix to keep the trains safe and from falling off the track.


The primary ramp going up to the top level of the track had a sharp left turn that was not holding up well. In order to meet on of the primary goals of this track, that it be both engaging and not require parental support on a regular basis, I must balance two competing goals.
Continuous usage while building has provided valuable feedback to ensure that we build up any fragile areas likely to attract a lot of traffic and don’t waste time and scarce resources on ones that hold up well enough.
It was cut from Sprint 1 and put back in later when, with the new loop around the mountain tunnel, we were looking for ways to further expand the elevated track. In this case, Trevor had decided that the three-way splitter in the top right corner had to go. The second picture above shows the major reconfigurations requested, including the complete replacement of one three-way intersection and the flipping of another one. As of Wednesday night, the track has undergone heavy usage with no changes, thereby meeting my goal of providing an outlet for them to play without needing frequent parental interventions.
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Actually, love probably doesn’t quite convey the level of feeling my almost 4-year-old son has for them, and his little sister is not far behind. This blog encompasses the building the track you see above from Friday evening through Sunday morning (February 8th – 10th, 2013). I didn’t even notice this picture was blurry until later, but it properly captures the sense of urgency felt by everyone as we tied off any loose ends. This piece is particularly hard to fit in as it has an irregular angle and four different connections.
Had I tried to remove it earlier, I would have faced steep resistance, but with a view of what we could do by replacing it, our sponsors quickly agreed that we could remove the drawbridge to accommodate more elevated train track. In this case, one such block remained at the end of Sprint 7 without a clear path to correct it.
I tried to explore his motivation for this demand, but unfortunately there was no discussion. However, after the rushed job to finish sprint 9 in time for dinner, I felt we had taken some unacceptable shortcuts and needed to clean up the track one more time.
We had a meeting and agreed that we were close to done, but wanted to see if we could add more tunnels and train stations.
I used a very specific design, we built a loop, added an upper level, and then proceeded to insert more and more additional paths as possible.
As such, one of their favorite activities is to build a train set on the table in their room. Additionally, as you can see at this point, the track is being used all the time; this helps in several ways. The second, however, is the freedom it grants when they are then engrossed in playing, allowing me to do other things. You will notice the draw bridge in the first picture from this sprint has been removed and replaced with a simplified run of elevated train track.
Here you can see our initial strategy was to insert it into an established line of the track with the extra two connections simply blocked off. As you can see in this sprint, the general course of the track remains unchanged, but the specific pieces were modified to fit better and be sturdier. After spending the afternoon walking through snow drifts and shoveling, we had an insight and found a three-way split track that added another ramp up to the elevated track.


I must confess that at this point in the project I was tempted to betray my principles and not keep the track working the whole time. The experience, in some ways, feels like it was a little opportunistic, as we reviewed the implemented design at several points in time to find places where there were natural fits. This introduces several challenges, including the constraints of the table, demands of two different and very vocal stakeholders, as well as the need to use the track as it is being built. My initial thinking is to have an elevated loop that runs over much of the ground-level track, providing the tunnel experience demanded by my users.
We found a usability issue with the descent by the mountain pass, but as the saying goes among many in the field, if you aren’t ashamed of your first release, then you waited too long.
This allowed traffic to flow through, and gave me time to work on a way to integrate the additional intersections.
The bottom run was also modified with another switching track and some other slight modifications made by Lexi & Trevor. Being conscious of my behaviors for this blog, I began to really focus on keeping the system working the whole time (don’t break the build). Specifically, the emergent pattern we seemed to use was looping track with multiple break-off points along the way. Traffic modeling was also not necessary, as I had immediate feedback from my users when an intersection accidentally became inescapable or we faced other problems with the flow. When we play on the set, we can end up with some very sophisticated tracks, like this one below. As such, I began developing techniques like the one pictured above to component-test new designs before picking up any track.
In order to do this, at times we needed to use male-to-female & female-to-male converters. Both children were happy with the design and set to playing with it more thoroughly, allowing me to spend more time that morning shoveling out my car for work the next day. As you can see, even in this early iteration, we have two areas where trains can steer off to avoid a collision.
This actually allowed me to work much faster, as I could clearly see if something would fit or not before removing any of the legacy train track. This project has the very real constraint that we don’t have many of those pieces, and we had specifically run out of male-to-female converters. We needed to revisit a few key intersections to see if they could be better patterned in order to use fewer parts, saving precious pieces for sprints in our final day of this project. When command breaks down, they have three guiding principes: capture the high ground, keep moving, stay in touch. I won’t detail the changes in this image, but if you look closely you will see some fairly serious changes in the specific pieces in the top-right quadrant, even though the pattern does not change at all. In our case, the guidelines were: keep the track intact, look for opportunities to add new branches, continuously test. Another major success in this sprint occurred towards the end while breaking a few key intersections. I was searching for a piece in one of the bins, and came back to find that Trevor had added a stopper to one of the incomplete tracks!



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