Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Task Switching

Somewhere I read that task switching is one of the biggest time killers for your daily work. For example if you have your team working on many different items in parallel and you expect them to devote at least some time to each item each day task switching can become a huge waste of time. Apparently it takes the human brain about 15 to 30 minutes to become completely immersed into a new topic.

This certainly does not apply to somebody selling movie tickets. No disrespect, selling movie tickets is important. I love watching movies!

Switching between task has a bigger impact on knowledge workers and certainly on people developing software.

About two months ago I assessed the work distribution in my team. I want to find out whether task switching was an issue and if so what could be changed to reduce it.

In our particular case we found that almost all members of our team were switching between fixing bugs and working on improvements. At the same time everybody was also expected to answer the phone and mails, participate in forum discussions and provide second level support. Bottom line: A lot of task switching went on.

So what did we do about this? We split up our team into two teams and assigned each with a subset of the above activities. At the moment we are still experimenting which activities should be assigned to which team.

A little more than one month has passed since we implemented the change. The initial observations are encouraging. One team has been assigned the items that we believe can be best planned using iterations as time boxes. The other team is working on the items that are better managed using a kanban system. Both teams are now in a much better position in terms of reducing task switching. Transparency has significantly increased as we are now using planning and tracking tools that are better suited to the type of tasks assigned to each of the teams.

I’d like to encourage you as an agile leader to go and look for yourself and assess how much task switching is going on in your team. Chances are you find a an easy way to improve the performance of your team.

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