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Using Kanban to Reduce Your Context Switching Hell!

Learn to use Kanban to simplify the amount of work in progress everyone has, making it easier to focus on the most important tasks and avoid juggling a million things at once.

· Agile Zone

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In the role I'm currently in,  I work with organizations to understand how they're working now and how they can become more effective as opposed to just busy.

What's interesting to observe with different organisations far and wide is how there's one common factor I always (to different degrees of course) see in people and teams; that is context switching.

Now even in our everyday lives we see this occur all the time, trying to juggle a number of things on the go at once and anyone who can empathise with this I would highly recommend having a read of a really simple concept called Personal Kanban.

Back to the workplace though. So when we introduce Kanban in different work environments, one of the key aims is to flow work through quicker by focusing on delivery of highest value items in small batches.

By no small coincidence then is one of Kanban's key principles is to limit your Work in Progress (WIP).  The idea being that we minimize context switching and therefore focus on optimising the end to end workflow.  This will allow us to get these small batches through the Production line (in software this being the end to end workflow visualised on a Kanban board) quicker.

Why Why Why?

So in an organization why do we do it then? Well it can happen for 3 broad reasons in my experience:

  1. Demand to supply mapping mismatch - Quite often in an organization there is a lack of real time intel (often called metrics) to be able to give the predictability that's needed to effectively gauge capacity and map/prioritise work in the pipeline to teams who can deliver it. Portfolio Kanban can in particular be very useful to manage this process.

  2. It feels counter intuitive - to the human mind the default instinct is let me take all these things on so I'm productive. The problem here is your mind is replacing the real word busy for that of productive, which we know don't share the same definition.  So it is a leap of faith at first with Kanban to do one thing at a time but by using concepts such as 1 person = having just 1 avatar (and therefore can only work on one thing) you will soon see the benefit.

  3. Organization culture - sometimes there's no getting away from it. An organization can be a bit of an institution where there's pressure pressure pressure, and as a result a behavior to push work onto people. Kanban helps with this by limiting work in progress which is reinforced by having explicit policies that, for a ticket to move from one column to the next, there has to be a person free who is available to work on it.

Little's Law in Practice

So if I simplify Little's law, it studies queuing theory and states the more we have in progress then the less we deliver through a queuing system, for example a ticket moving through an end to end workflow on a Kanban board.

In view of the above and in order to give a simple way to view this in practice, I've visualised the process of delivering 3 projects in a traditional way as opposed to delivering 3 projects in a way that effectively maps demand to supply.



As you will see the latter delivers value much earlier, not only for Project A but for all 3.  It also causes less pain and so has the benefit of keeping people motivated and building teams around these motivated individuals.

Think about your organisation, it's people and its teams. Look at the 3 examples I've given above which cause this context switching hell.  Which one is the problem? Is it a demand to supply problem? Does it feel counter intuitive? Is it your culture? Maybe it's a mix of all 3?

Whatever you identify, it's worth noting that you can get going pretty quickly with Kanban by visualising how your working now (even if this is waterfall) and overlaying Kanban on top of this.  Once you start using it and applying some of its core principles and practices my guess is that if you're struggling to identify which of the 3 reasons is causing your context switching pain, it will soon become apparent and by surfacing this, you can then start to do something about it.

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Published at DZone with permission of Chris Roberts. See the original article here.

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