Sunday, February 27, 2022

Unplanned work is killing us – really?

One of the things I often hear teams complain about is the amount of unplanned work they have to handle.

Drowning in irrefutable small requests

This unplanned work also frequently seems to be “irrefutable.” But is it? What does it mean to take up an unlimited amount of irrefutable work that has to be done right away?

Starting a new task immediately when it arrives means that you either have been idle when it arrived or –just as plausible– you had to put the stuff you were working on to the side. As long as you only have one item of irrefutable work at a time that might work. However the problem begins as soon as the next piece of unplanned work arrives before you were able to complete the current one.

In this situation you’re most probably not idle (since you’re working on the previous irrefutable piece of work) and you can’t easily put away your current work (because, well, it is also irrefutable).

This dynamic usually leads to a cascade of interrupted work that has been labeled as “irrefutable” and that still gets tossed in the “waiting bin” at the back end.

Most of the time, deciding for stuff to hunker in some “waiting“ state late in the process makes the “client” unhappy – the very person who insisted on the the irrefutability of the work.

This problem gets worse because often there isn’t any time to inform the original client that their work has been paused. After all, the new piece of irrefutable work had to be started immediately!

Thus, even though people try to work on the requirements coming at them as fast as they can it seems to be an uphill battle without much chance of ever getting a grip on the work.

But is that really the only way?

Accept reality

Once we face the fact that in these situations things will take longer to be completed than the mere net working time, we can employ other approaches to get on top of the situation.

There is this seemingly little trick that enables us to transform unplanned work into planned work. It’s called Planning. And the cool thing is that it doesn’t have to be big.

Once you know how many irrefutable small request usually land in your lap each day you can re-structure your day to handle them way more effectively.

You can get that number either from your gut feeling, or from some simple kind of low tech metric like tally marks on a sticky-note near your keyboard. Or maybe just start with an arbitrary guess and iterate towards better numbers later.

Planning to plan

So if you come to the conclusion that if all that work came in structured you could do it in 2 hours a day on average, there are two structural elements you could introduce to your daily structure to handle this

  • Firstly block out those two hours from your schedule. You will lose 2 hours per day anyway in which you will not be working on standard work. This is part of the “accept reality” thinking.
  • Set aside a couple of minutes for planning when you will work on these items and for feedback every couple of hours. Assuming you work 8 hours a day, I would take 5 minutes every two hours for “planning” which leaves us with 2 planning events per day.

All you do in these 5 Minutes is a quick check whether the requests actually fall into the category of “small” request.

If they do, schedule them for later today or next day, based on a rough guesstimation of the amount of work you already scheduled for the respective window and the perceived importance of the task. After scheduling the request you might want to let the client know that you scheduled the item and for when.

If they are not of the category “small” you have a different problem at hand – here you might still want to reserve a small amount of time in the 2 hour window to draft a more detailed feedback on why this request has to be discussed on another level. Still, you do this answering as a planned activity.

With just accepting that the two hours you ‘lose’ per day are actually lost for standard work and subtracting 10 more standard-work-minutes from your working day, you can probably convert 90% of your unplanned work into planned work. Without adding to the actual customer lead time of the items that used to ruin your day in the form of unplanned work.

And as almost every situation is unique, you most probably will have to come up with different numbers, but the general principles statet here should be applicable to most situations.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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