Waste snake

This sprint we decided to focus on eliminating waste. At the beginning of the sprint we agreed to a definition of waste: anything that’s not directly related to working on sprint stories. According to this definition – daily stand-ups, sprint planning and retrospective meetings (and any other meetings), refactoring the code, reading manuals, working on support issues or bugs – that’s all waste.

Waste snake

Every day, we were recording wasteful activities on post-it notes, including how much time they took. We were posting them in a central place, building the body of a waste snake.


It was interesting to see how the snake was growing on daily basis. Very quickly there was not enough body in the snake and post-it notes had to cover older notes making the snake fat. At some point we simply moved the tail to get more space.


Before the retrospective meeting, I quickly grouped duplicate notes and summed the total time of the snake. The first task for the team was to estimate how much time they recorded in total. Surprisingly – the estimate was only 30% of the value!


The next task was to group the waste into 5 categories, which didn’t have names yet (except for the obvious one – Meetings!).


Categories the team discovered were as follows:

  • Meetings
  • Support issues
  • Stupid discussions(!)
  • Learning
  • One-timers


It turned out that meetings wasted most of our productive time. Support issues were rather a surprise – we didn’t realise that we were disturbed so many times during the sprint (context switching!). Quite an unexpected category from my perspective was ‘Stupid discussions’.

According to the initial definition, learning did not directly contribute to the sprint, but it’s necessary in the long term perspective. We moved all post-it notes like that to a piggy bank. Here we had a little debate – are meetings a waste or an investment? Do we need stand-ups every day?


That left us with with a ‘real’ waste. Could that be avoided? What could we do to stop it happening?


Unfortunately it’s not possible to avoid all of the waste, but there are tricks to mitigate it.

  1. Stupid discussions can be stopped by a Mango rule. Whenever someone feels like the conversation is too much off topic – just stop it by saying ‘Mango!’ (or whatever other word the team would like).
  2. Meetings could be shorter. A standing retrospective we ‘accidentally’ tried when discussing the waste snake – actually made us go straight to the point and we did finish earlier than planned.
  3. Pomodoro technique is a good way of reducing context switching, which is much more costly than it seems – coming back to the ‘zone’ after a distraction might take even 15 minutes!

We also wondered if switching from Scrum to Kanban would help to better use the time. That is still open for a discussion another day.

Waste snake’s goal

That’s important – the goal of this retrospective was not to control the team by understanding how they manage their time, or by recording every single wasteful activity. The real goal was to raise awareness of waste as the opposite of delivering value. There are many ways of using the time more effectively, but the first step is to recognise the need for it.

Some obstacles

  • Some people might be reluctant to take part in this exercise and openly admit to wasting time.
  • People need a reminder to note things down (I was sending an email every day containing some facts about snakes or a funny picture of a snake. Also, everyone got a print out of a snake).

A little success story

I overheard a conversation when a team member said: ‘Maybe Anna is right and we shouldn’t work on this problem right now – it’s nothing to do with this sprint stories, so it’s a waste’.



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