Work entry is a door into the inner temple!

The majority of work entry problems are caused by eight problems. The eight problems often occur in clusters and are a reflection of organization culture.  The eight are:

Difference in goals – Goal conflict is the single reason that explains most work entry problems. Teams want to complete work in an orderly engineering-like manner and someone else wants a piece of work done now for what they perceive as a perfectly rational reason, whether planned, ad-hoc, based on promise or contract, emergency or evolutionary change. No one is acting irrationally based on their business goals. The problem is the goal conflict.  Scrum, for example, requires at least a tacit agreement that the sprint backlog, once set, will stay the same until the next planning event.

Need outstrips supply – There are two versions of this problem. The first occurs when the asks chronically outweigh the ability to deliver, but not by enough to obvious.  In this scenario, the backlog is growing faster than work is being completed. The metaphor that is often used is slowly raising the temperature of the water up to boiling when cooking frogs (or lobsters) — they don’t notice until too late (I am neither a frog nor lobster and therefore have no standing to know if this is true). As this phenomenon develops, stakeholders slowly develop a feeling that the software delivery group is letting them down by being lazy or inefficient and begin to grumble. A common reaction is for the software team try to address the problem by over-committing and trying to over-perform in order to get back into good graces. This approach might work in the short run. However, in the longer term, the stress on the team and stakeholders will reduce effectiveness and drive up quality problems, turnover, and cost.

The second version of this scenario is where the supply/need imbalance is recognized and then leveraged to generate a sense of fear and stress.  The same attempt to over commit and over perform occurs, generating the same sort of issues as the unrecognized imbalance but with deeper and fiercer reactions by all those involved.

Pay practices – How leaders are paid is a specialized version of goal differences. Many organizations leverage performance pay structures that are tied to short term outcomes (hitting sales goals or reducing outstanding change requests) that are outside the boundaries of sustainable performance — often couched as stretch goals.  Short term thinking will often conflict with long term plans, causing leaders to ignore guardrails that keep them from interrupting the agreed upon the flow of work.

Product v Project – Holding a project versus a product perspective can give stakeholders the impression that they have to get everything done at once. Project stakeholders are taught that they only get one bite at the apple. Therefore, everything has to be the top priority, even if unplanned.

Urgency/importance dichotomy – Urgency is often defined as the person who yells the loudest while importance is defined as the impact on or the amount of business value delivered. Those you who yell the loudest generally trump those touting value until businesses fail.

Problems are one area where importance and urgency often intersect. When production is down or clients are screaming, saying that we will get to the problem in the next iteration is usually career-limiting. While important, this type of interruption has all of the same negative side effects. However, the value of fixing high priority problems generally trumps the problems caused –  at least in the short run.

Class of services – Sorting work by priority and then immediately reacting when a higher priority piece appears causes interruption problems.  For example, when expedited work interrupts planned work, it causes ripples of stoppage or slowdowns for planned and committed work.

Control – Leaders and stakeholders that force teams to take work when it is apparent that they can not absorb it should be vanquished to one of Dante’s nastier levels of hell. This type of behavior makes work late, reduces quality and causes turnover or, worse, creates demoralized developers that stay and poison the well.

Yes – The single word yes is at the root of most work entry problems. Because leaders or teams want to please their clients and other stakeholders, perhaps a better way to think of this problem is as the inability to say no” Whether due to an overriding need to please or a lack of power, if yes is the only answer you feel qualified to give, your backlog will be overrun. You will start everything and finish very little. No one will be happy.

The eight primary causes of work entry problems are so common that many organizations and leaders think that this is the way work should be done. Simply put, accepting one of these problems will cause very predictable nasty results in the long run.  Treating more than one of these problems as acceptable creates a hot mess that is often solved only by hitting the reset button.

Next – Diagnosing The Cause Of Work Entry Problems