I often find myself coaching colleagues (and reminding myself) about managing down the number of simultaneous tasks or work assignments. Everyone in IT knows that demand always outstrips the capacity of IT to take on work. IT is in demand by all parts of the organization, often at no direct or hard cost to departments or individual staff, which can balloon workloads and exacerbate the growing backlog of requests.
This capacity limit, or constraint, to do work isn’t the only reason IT continues as the big bottleneck in organizations. I believe the “silent killer” is the wasted cycles, or “overhead”, that comes with taking on too much concurrent work. Said another way, one of the greatest challenges of managing work is managing work-in-progress within IT. This is one of the reasons the Kanban approach brings great benefit to IT organizations struggling to stay above water.
The Context Shift Tax
We frequently pride ourselves on our ability to multitask but there is a cost, or tax, we pay when juggling too many work items. Each time we pause on one task and shift to another, time and effort is required to reset, reload and return to a point we can productively make progress on that work. Think of this as a context shift that functions much like paging between memory and swap space in a computer operating system. If you’re multitasking 5 items, each swap to a different task requires another knowledge context shift. Expand the list to 12 or 15 work items, add the interruptions we all experience, and we’re potentially spending more time during the day making those mental shifts than doing actual work.
A legitimate argument can be made that over-multitasking increases complexity and decreases quality. As our mental bandwidth is split across too many work assignments, focus and concentration pays a price. We also experience a form of memory loss — some details are forgotten over time, even what the original problem was or why we are doing the task.
IT organizations function much in the same way — shifting from project to project, task to task, as priorities change, new needs arise and existing work is delayed. As the list of priorities and projects increase, the organization and its people expend more and more on this context shift tax, wasting energies multitasking, losing focus, extending delivery times and decreasing customer satisfaction.
Kanban – Keeping a Lid on the Multitasking Dragon
Kanban’s secret sauce isn’t just about organizing work differently, it’s about thinking about work differently. Kanban provides a visual image of work in any system, how it flows, and where bottlenecks appear. The true secret sauce is in applying a limit or constraint to work in progress. If you’ve tried kanban, you know what I’m talking about. Much has been written about the profound effects of limiting work in progress.
Using Kanban we can decrease multitasking, both by individuals and the organization. This reduces the context shift tax, freeing up cycles to maintain focus, perform work and complete tasks. I like to think of it as keeping a lid on the multitasking dragon.
Limiting work in progress means work items are completed, in shorter time frames, with fewer context shifts. Imagine spending 5% or less during the day making context shifts, versus a heavy multitasking load that could consume 20% or more overhead when shifting between work. Less or no memory loss is experienced, decreasing complexity and reducing the opportunity for quality to suffer. By limiting multitasking we also free up cycles to focus on measurement and improvement, essential ingredients to any truly successful IT organization.