Thursday, September 3, 2009

Agile 2009 - Day 0 - 23th August - Bag Stuffing

As a volunteer at Agile 2009, you get to attend the conference without having to pay the conference fee (which is NOT cheap) in exchange for some (~20h) of your working time. Most of this time is spend by helping out during sessions or just in crowd control during the big events.
However, there is also some back stage work to be done BEFORE the conference really starts. That is Bag Stuffing.

Bag Stuffing is an activity that consists in generating enough conference bags with all sponsor materials within each bag. This year the volunteers received a lot of help from various people and we had the honor of having some Kanban people to help us improve our process as we went on.

Our first job was to gather boxes together and discover what should go into each bag. It wasn't the easiest job on Earth since nobody knew the content of the boxes nor if we were missing something or not. It ended up that we had 3 teams. One building up a sample bag with every item they got and counting and checking that every sponsor had their items listed. One building up a redundant bag that would verify that the first team got everything and that we could point each items' boxes. A last team that placed the boxes in a line with a sample item on the top of them so that we could easily identify the piles.

This job got done pretty quickly and very soon we had a list of available items and discovered some items were missing and got the news of a few new items arriving. Having included those new items and accounted for the missing ones, the group got split into two groups that would assemble the bags.

The process started with 7 people on each group following different ideas:
  1. A production line where the bags would flow from one side to the other being moved by the people assigned to stuff in certain items.
  2. A pick-up line where the people would flow from one side of table to the other filling a complete bag each item at a time.
The two groups would then be measured (number of complete bags in 15 minutes) and compared after 4 measures. At each two measures, the teams would have 5 minutes to discuss their process and try to improve it. Just before that, the whole group would get together and talk about the situation.

As expected, the team 1 was faster on the first iterations but soon team 2 managed to be more productive. Both team identified a problem with the table's height. However, for security reasons, none was allowed to make the tables higher which resulted in some fatigue to everyone. After the first hour, we had discovered the bottleneck for both teams and, surprise, it wasn't within the teams bounds. The greatest issue was to get the cars full of bags to the upper level and unload them into the registration area. So some people got assigned to that task and some adjustments were made.

Team 1 could easily fit the reduction of people by just assigning more items to each person down the line (we already had extra persons in the line). It even managed to have a person (me) dedicated to refilling supplies (lots of times for both teams).
Team 2 suffered the loss a bit more since each person less in the team meant a reasonable amount of bags that could flow. But they came out with an improvement to reduce their path. Instead of laying out the tables in a line, they moved them to be a U shape. This way, their path got considerably shorter.

It turned out that this was became a problem because the bottleneck would still be getting the bags upstairs but, this time, because the elevators were not as responsive as possible. So Team 1 adapted to this. People would take a small break every time a car got filled up and so they could rest from fatigue.
Team 2 also enjoyed it because they were moving around so much (having to go back all the table to restart filling a bag) that they were getting pretty tired.

By the end of the morning, both teams had completed around 800 bags and most people left for lunch. I wasn't at the afternoon's work but heard some good improvements from them. The team that picked up line 1 mainly followed what was already being done since it was reasonably simple and effective.
On the other hand, team 2 identified some very nice improvements. They laid out the tables in the shape of a star (like to image on the right). This way, they managed to dramatically reduce the length of their path to fill a bag, have a quick an big stock of materials and improve their speed. It is also fair to say that it was only possible because they had only 4 people working (they were missing some volunteers).

In any way, the results were amazing. About 1400 bags were filled and unloaded from 8am to 3pm by some 20 people in the morning shift and about 12 in the noon shift. Great work from everyone and good lessons from applying Kanban techniques.

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