My favorite bug-tracking system

I’m of the opinion that a process must demonstrate the need for software, before software is put in place to manage that process.  Bug tracking is a process, but often we jump straight to a software solution for managing/tracking bugs before considering lower-tech, lower-risk and lower-overhead approaches.  In our bug-tracking process, we employ a few main principles:

  • Bugs are a normal part of the development process
  • Most bugs are rework, therefore waste, and we should strive to eliminate this waste
  • Bugs are fixed as they are found (stop-the-line), and do not live for more than 1 business day

Given that bugs do not live for more than one business day, it is not necessary for us to maintain an inventory of bugs.  Instead, we want a system than can accurately report a bug, and make it easy for it to be verified.

With these constraints in mind, my favorite bug tracking system is a 5×8” orange sticky note:


On this giant sticky note, the person that finds the bug writes:

  • Their initials
  • The name of the story
  • A short description

If there is a screenshot, this will be stapled to the back.  When the developer is done with the bug, they write:

  • Their initials
  • The revision # of the commit that fixed the bug

The revision number is used to make sure that the currently deployed version is up-to-date enough to check the fix.  So how does this bug tracking system work?  Here is our process:

  • Person finds bug.  Person could be anyone, developer, BA, product owner.
  • Finder creates orange card for bug, following the specified template (every piece of information goes in a certain spot on the giant post-it)
  • If the bug is a blow-up, or blocks the delivery of a story, it is placed on the desk of the tech lead (me)
  • If the bug is not specifically called out in acceptance criteria, it is placed on the desk of the BA lead.
  • These bugs go through triage, because sometimes things “work as designed” but not “work as expected”.  Those in the latter category need to go through the normal story process.

  • The tech lead assigns the bug to a developer (or themselves), by placing the bug on the assigned developer’s desk
  • When the fix is done, the developer writes their initials and the revision number, and gives the orange card back to the originator, with a smile
  • The originator of the bug verifies the fix, and places the orange card in the trash with a “thumbs up” to let the developer know the bug is verified fixed.

This is about as lightweight as we can get it, without chaos.  This process has evolved over time, but we’ve always fit our tools (post-its) to our process, instead of fitting our process to a tool.  We’re all in the same room, so there is absolutely zero need to track bugs electronically.  Tracking them electronically would create waste, as we would now have inventory to manage in some other system.  It really can’t get much easier than a bright piece of paper on my desk.

Fit the tool to the process

This process evolved given the attributes of the constraints of our system.  We all sit in the same room.  We strive for face-to-face, verbal communication over all other forms.  We don’t want to add overhead by tracking information that no one cares about.  When someone suggests to use a software bug tracker, it needs to come from a need to have that information in that format, not because geeks like software.

But what if we had different constraints?  What if we weren’t all in the same room?  Fine, software it is!  Until then, I’ll choose the absolute lowest overhead solution.

But how does it scale?  Well, if you keep an inventory of bugs for more than a day, not too well.  If bugs are fixed when they happen, it’s just not possible to have more than a dozen bugs out at a time.  Scaling needs a vector, you have to understand in which direction it can scale.  It scales with the size of the team, but not with geography or volume.  That’s fine, we keep those two small and constant.  Those choices were intentional, as separated teams and higher volume through poor quality or turnaround decreases delivery throughput.

Thanks Houston TechFest!