Work Entry Is The Pipes

Work entry is not the sexiest topic in agile, as a matter of fact, the topic is generally not understood unless a team has mature (or maturing) processes for working.  In several recent conversations, I asked how individuals and teams get the work they work on.  The answers ranged from we triage the work with our product owner to the phone rings and somebody’s manager tells me what to do.  I was also accused of being a killjoy for bringing the topic up during a happy hour (note to self — don’t do that again). The comments are bookends describing the best and worst forms of work entry.  There are many shades of team-level work entry that are accommodations to behaviors the organization chooses not address. Three of the ‘in-between” approaches are:

  1. Prioritized Pull with Prioritized Incident Push
  2. Front Door Pull, Back Door Push
  3. Prioritized and Unprioritized Push with Incident Flow

Prioritized Pull with Prioritized Incident Push

I spent a period of my career with pagers and later the on-call cell phone strapped to my belt. To this day my blood gets pumping when I hear about a juicy production incident. For any organization, the ability to make money or deliver its service trumps every other priority.  This scenario reflects the reality of teams that work on products/projects and have to support the production environment. This approach to work entry sometimes is the best that teams in this scenario can do. When something important (read that as prioritized) breaks in production the team needs to find the time and effort to address within the work they have already pulled and planned.

This work entry process is useful for avoiding three of the 8 causes of work entry problems

         ✓ Difference in goals

             Need outstrips supply 

  Pay practices

  Project v Product Perspective

             Urgency/importance dichotomy 

  Class of services

        ✓  Control

        ✓  Yes’itus 

Delivery Pattern: Priority Order with interruptions (close to first in, first out)

Ability to Deliver: Mostly Predictable (unless quality is an issue)

Front Door Pull, Back Door Push

The most important feature of the work entry process in this pattern is the back door for work to get on the team’s plate.  In this scenario, work goes from a stakeholder to the team or in some cases to a team member.  Work, in this case, is often done off books and interrupts work pulled by the team. The sprint goal and the goal of the team generate conflict even if it is under the radar that reduces the effectiveness and predictability of the team.

This pattern does not avoid any of the causes of work entry problems. One of the reasons this pattern exists is that everyone sees the prioritization process and feels like things are under control; they are not. This scenario is just like an infestation of carpenter ants, once the problem is apparent the damage is done. 

Delivery Pattern: Semi-erratic

Ability to Deliver: Unpredictable but not too terrible

Prioritized and Unprioritized Push with Incident Flow

The final in-between case is just slightly less bad than a free-for-all. At least some of the work is prioritized and known. The combination of push and backdoor entry of work generates a mess leading to poor morale, poor quality, and irritated stakeholders. Users of this pattern rationalize using phrases like, we must be responsive, saying no is not an option, and this is a dynamic and exciting environment. This scenario always, ALWAYS, ends badly for someone. 

Delivery Pattern: Erratic

Ability to Deliver: Unpredictable

Teams find themselves in one of the five basic patterns for a reason. Many times those reasons are not of their own making. For example, one of the eight practices causing work entry problems is pay practices.  Teams don’t own pay policies within organizations. Being able to recognize where a team lies on the work entry continuum is a step toward improvement. A step that can then build on ideas and coaching techniques for moving from chaos to predictability. We will explore options in the next installment of this theme.