‘So much unplanned work just hits us and we have to deal with it! ‘

This is a phrase I often here from teams when discussing the flow of their work. This team just seemed to accept that this is part of life and crack on. But this was not an isolated incident, and as I talked to many teams they all had a similar story. It got me wondering, how much of this happens? and what is the root cause of that work? I had to find a way to separate the evidence from the inference. All I had right now was people think it is a problem.

We had already got issue types to cover expedite work and support work, but the team said this work was different and more impactful.

So I created ‘The Great Unplanned Work Experiment’. This involved 5 pilot teams who committed to understanding more about the unplanned work in their teams. We defined unplanned work as:

‘Last minute changes that needed to be made by other internal or 3rd party teams’

We created in Jira a work item type called ‘Unplanned Work’ and we asked the teams to categorise all the work that came in and they deemed to be unplanned for the next two weeks.

In this particular company we used power BI integrated with Jira to view our data. We broke it into a couple of views:

  • Across all teams – One Chart
  • Each Teams view – 5 Charts

So you could see from this first cut, that some teams had more unplanned work than others. The team in the top right was the most affected and so warranted some further investigation.

We gathered up all the unplanned tickets from the last three months and sat down with the team to start discussing what this work was. I had recently hosted a meet-up with Troy Magennis and took inspiration from some work he had done around clustering, so I adapted that technique for this exercise. You can watch his video here.

In summary we:

  • Listed all the unplanned pieces of work, and added roughly how much time we had spent on each. I just looked roughly from the time it spent in flight.
  • Discussed each and then created some themes around the work.
  • Added up the total amount of time spent on each theme.
  • Took the theme with the highest amount of time spent on it.
  • Plotted it to the grid to understand the frequency of this type of the work and the impact

Ultimately creating this grid gave us a view of the ones we need to tackle first e.g. Ones in H/H. The ones in L/L are annoying, but in reality it will probably cost us more time to solve these than just do them. So in reality little point in targeting.

We then created a whole heap of actions from this. Fast forward 3 months when we ran this exercise again, the unplanned was greatly reduced and so more effort can be completed on the project work.

That’s an important point, because the more unplanned work we do. It distracts us from the work we are meant to be doing. It can cause delay and we know there is a cost to context switching we well. Whilst this team didn’t manage to stop unplanned totally, they reduced it by a significant amount and now better equipped to know how to capture and analyse.

I was very excited from all the work the teams put in and what we found to fix. We replayed this to the leadership team and got agreement to roll out across all 32 teams and start looking for those improvements we could make. This is part of a report that the leadership team see on a monthly basis. They ask us about the levels and what support we need from them to keep unplanned low. I think it is fabulous they are so engaged with this.

As I wrote this blog today I had a look in the system to see what the levels are like.

You can see it is on the rise from the trend line. So it’s time we do some more analysis of this! It is an ongoing activity that you need to do and so you will want a process in place to review.

Overall because of the focus on unplanned work, I found that teams became more thoughtful of keeping other teams involved in work they might do. Adding a ticket onto another team’s board to say this piece of work is a 2 minute job. But makes a massive difference.

Too much unplanned work is bad for your system and a signal that you are not working as a truly cohesive system.

So, how much unplanned work do you do?