Ah, the age old Agile question: what is the appropriate amount of documentation? The Agile founders gave us the 4 Values and 12 Principles which have guided us from the beginning, and time has proven them to be great guides. The second item in the Agile Values states “Value Delivered Over Comprehensive Documentation.” This value since its conception has caused stir in the Agile community because people naturally asked, what is the right amount of documentation? However, the better question is “How do I know what the right level of documentation is for me.” That is a powerful question and one that requires inquiry to answer and the search for “Muda”.
A big part of Lean is the search for and elimination of “Muda” or waste. Muda is low value, useless or wasteful efforts. Muda can be a useless or low value step in a process or it can be a useless or low value document. From the beginning, Lean has relentlessly pursued Muda and eliminated it without mercy. Comprehensive documentation will generally fall in the Muda category because it just doesn’t have enough value to justify the cost.
So, why would we consider “comprehensive documentation” Muda? Well, Agile efforts produce a continuous stream of value and we often find that once the comprehensive documentation is complete, it is out of date or soon will be. Instead we focus on “JEDi,” or just enough documentation. We assume that it will soon be out of date, so we do the bare minimum and therefore keep the Muda to a minimum. The reality is that our clients have been doing the same thing the same way for decades and have become addicted to comprehensive documentation and can’t imagine life without it. We need to change this, but how?
Here are a couple of tricks we use and recommend. First, use the “5 Why’s” to find root cause as to why it’s needed. If the reason or need is legitimate, then comprehensive documentation is appropriate. If you can’t identify a root cause for it, then chances are you’re dealing with a business habit that has been carried forward for far too long. Second, ask what the risk is of not doing it or doing much less of it. If the risk is low to medium, we would recommend not doing and see what happens. Chances are, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. If you can do this, one success will quickly lead to another and soon you have a snow ball effect that takes root and comprehensive documentation will be a thing of the past.
Lastly, in heavily regulated industries, you may not be able to get away from comprehensive documentation. If you have no other alternative and are forced to create and deliver comprehensive documentation, make sure it is incorporated into your Sprint or Kanban planning process.
So, what have we learned? Don’t step in the Muda and never forget your Agile roots!