In a previous article on Focus & Finish, I covered The Myth of Multitasking. This article goes into some detail on how to make Focus & finish a reality.
When I first proposed to the team that we needed to only have 1-3 active Change Requests at a time, we all struggled to make it happen. We kept getting clogged up with too many active tasks.
After looking closer at the problem, I identified some challenges and solutions. Here are a few.
Portions of this article are excerpts from my book, The I.T. Leaders’ Handbook, available in paperback and ebook from fine bookstores everywhere.
1. Waiting For Someone Else: Tasks and projects often have times when we are waiting for someone else to do something and get back to us. Being the hard workers that we are, we start a new task while waiting. That new task then hits a “need something from someone” point and it gets set aside. We now have two active tasks waiting for someone else to get back to us. So we start a third one, and so on.
And then those tasks all come back to us. If your luck is anything like mine, they all come back at the same time. There is a task pileup and we are the bottleneck.
- Don’t send emails to users telling them that something is ready for testing and then wait for days or weeks for a response. Have a working meeting to go through it. Pick up the phone and call them.
- Put deadlines on every request for testing.
- Have regular progress meetings to keep the users up to speed.
- Don’t wait until something is complete to schedule a review meeting. People’s calendars are typically full enough that it is difficult to schedule a meeting on that day. Scheduling the meeting out into the future just introduces delays. If we schedule the meeting to be on the day we will finish, we can avoid that delay. Risky, but we should be able to know when we get inside the one-week window.
- Just stop by the person’s desk to give them an update or run a critical design point by them.
2. Desire to Help: The stronger the service mentality we have, the more likely we are going to fall into this trap. Someone calls us on the phone or sends us a text or email asking for something. We pick up three tasks from conversation just going to and from the bathroom. Wanting to help, we agree to get right on it. This adds to whatever number of tasks we had open.
- Make sure that the company knows we work off a priority list. The more the company knows this, the easier it is for our team to say “I’ll put it on the list.”
- Implement a more formal method for submitting requests. Build the discipline in our teams to hold users to it.
3. Limited People with needed skills: The individuals on our team have strengths and knowledge. For any request, there will be a set of people that can handle it, sometimes one person, sometimes several. If there are more requests requiring a set of skills than people that are good in that area, there is a bottleneck.
For example, if several business projects with heavy reporting requirements hit at one time, the load falls on a few people. Developers can also be a bottleneck.
In fact, there will always be a bottleneck somewhere in our department. If not, we are over-staffed. We need to be aware of the bottleneck and manage the surrounding work.
- If we understand the trend of requests, we can increase skills in the area where bottlenecks happen.
- Remove tasks others can do from the person who is the bottleneck.
- If the surge is big enough, consider using outside resources.
- Cross-training is a longer term solution to avoid this. Rotate people around to make sure several have experience in critical areas.
Photo by Lawless Capture on Unsplash
“There will always be a bottleneck somewhere in our department. If not, we are over-staffed.” Normally, we manage around the bottleneck, as you suggest, yet we have several client-funded colleagues whose situations don’t allow them to flex to other work. Harder still, it makes us reticent to deploy department staff to their aid when they inevitably become the bottleneck because they’re the only resource in that area. Yet that client funding makes communication support possible for areas that otherwise wouldn’t receive it. It’s a continuing struggle without an easy answer.