“Hold your horses! We can’t do everything. You have to choose!”

The quote is from a one-day simulation session I recently ran at Spotify. The person expressing the frustration was responsible for managing the team’s workload. Within the realm of the simulation it was quite clear that the team would not be able to manage all requests that were on the table. Yet, why is it so hard, in real life, to see that most teams are swamped and drowned in an unmanageable amount of work?!

With the rising popularity of agile methods, like Scrum, the focus has shifted from large scale projects and big bang deployments to incremental deliveries and value realization. This is a good thing. Agile methods have also brought visualization methods, such as Kanban boards, into the light. This is also a good thing. All too often a team’s workload is hidden in a combination of tools and repositories; project and service management tools, task lists, role descriptions, minutes of meetings etc. Making work visible is a critical success factor for getting the right things done.

Some short words about the simulation…

The Phoenix Project simulation game, even in an agile oriented organization like Spotify, provides a good lesson. It makes the importance of visualisation brutally clear.
The setup is quite simple:

  • Each participant plays a role in a fictive company that sells car parts. There are manager roles, business roles, developers, support, engineers and IT operations role.
  • Everyone is expected to work together with the joint goal of making the company successful.
  • Four rounds are played, corresponding to one calendar month each. Before each round the team will review and improve their way of working.
  • During each round of play a bunch of work items hits the team. There is project work, incidents, changes, audits etc. The team must prioritize and schedule the work in best possible way.

This sounds simple enough but proves difficult. Especially as the CEO, represented by the facilitator, is screaming down everyone’s neck claiming that “everything is most important!”. To be successful, the team must create a joint view of what needs to be done and who works on what. There are bottlenecks to resolve and constant re-prioritization as new requests hit the team. Without clear visualization, it proves almost impossible to get an overview and to create flow. There is a huge risk that work will get stuck in process (heard of WIP- Work In Progress?) and not finished in time.

The simulation is like the real world, but on steroids. It goes faster and is, compared to most organization, more extreme. However, the challenges and solutions are the same.

Managing workload at Spotify

At Spotify, the agile methods and visualization tools are not only used by the product development teams. They are also used by the business support and maintenance teams. These teams are typically responsible for supporting and enhancing a business support system, such as the ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system. Work items come in from several different directions, the business users, company wide projects, platform incidents etc. There is an apparent risk that the most urgent, not necessarily most important, work is prioritized. That is just human nature. If someone is standing around the corner, imploring you to resolve their request, it is difficult to say no. But that is exactly what needs to happen. Saying no.
The teams at Spotify work differently but in one of the teams they created the following visual view of their workload:

For this team, the board is physical. That works best when the team is located at the same place and meet on a regular, preferably daily, basis. If the team is distributed a software visualization tool will have to suffice.

 

 

By a glance it looks like an unstructured heap of colourful post-it notes on a board. However, looking a bit closer, the following picture appears:

So why four lanes? To ensure that there is a balance between unplanned (support) and different types of planned work. By its nature, unplanned work is almost always reactive while the planned work is proactive. Too many yellow notes on the board is a sign of firefighting.

“The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do” – Michael Porter

The columns are there to create flow. The team members should be protected from seeing all “potential” work and focus on the prioritized work at hand, one item at the time. This implies that there is another “column” to the left of ‘To Do’ column which contains all the work items that has not yet been prioritized for immediate resolution. I will dig deeper into this in the next blog post.

To conclude

In summary, to achieve flow it is important to select what to focus on. Making work visual is the way to clarify which work items to address and to ensure a healthy balance between planned and unplanned work. This is where simple tools such as sticky tape and post-it notes can create magic.

In part 2 of this article I will provide some ideas for how to manage the backlog of work, that is, the work that is hidden in the column to the left of ‘To Do’. Stay tuned!

While you are waiting… check out our seminars and courses on related topics!

>> DevOps in a nutshell (free seminar)

>> DevOps fundamentals

>> The Phoenix Project simulation

 

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