Using basic prioritisation rules to improve self-organisation when working from home

by Carl Weller on 30/03/2020 10:00

Using basic prioritisation rules to improve self-organisation when working from home

This article is republished from my original Using basic prioritisation rules to improve self-organisation when WFH​ post in LinkedIn.

In my last post I covered using a visual work board to improve communication on teams (newly) working from home. Today I'm adding to that with simple ways to set priority so your team can make the right decisions about which task to do next.

Here's the final board we covered in my last post. Various things are already clear from the board:

  • One task is being expedited (in the expedite lane). This is a clear priority signal
  • One task is blocked (pink sticky)
  • Both Sue and John have a task each
  • Task A is done and Tasks G and E have been prioritised into the Next column.

Kanban board with expedite lane and tasks assigned to Sue and John

This is a good start, but how do Sue or John know what task they should work on next after Task I (the expedite task) is finished?

If we assume all tasks outside the expedite lane are of equal priority, then the best method is simply first in-first out (otherwise known as FIFO). This ensures that each task spends the least amount of time in progress as possible. This is also the best approach to have the lowest average wait times for your customers.

So, after Task I, the team will go back to working on Tasks C and B, and then they will pull from the Next column as they have capacity.

One way to be very clear about priority is to recognise different types of work.

No matter what sort of work teams do, the following work types are very valuable for communicating priority:

Urgent This work must be done as fast as possible. It must be prioritised over all other work
Fixed Date This work has a date by which it must be done or there will be a significant cost (or lost opportunity). This work should be started in time for it to meet its fixed date*. It should also be done before Standard work
Standard Work This work should be done as quickly as possible once it is started, but it has a lower priority than Urgent or Fixed date work. Do these in FIFO order

* Understanding average delivery times ('Lead Times') will be the subject of another post.

The priority of work items can be shown on your task board using different colours, labels, or creating different Issue Types (Jira) or Work Item Types (Azure DevOps). You don't need a dedicated Expedite column if you use an Urgent work type.

If we assign the correct work types to the board we carried over from the last post it might look like this:

Board with urgent, fixed date and standard priority tasks

Let's assume Task B was blocked so John could work on the urgent Task I. But after that there are choices each team can define as working rules. For example:

Should Sue also block Task C and help with Task I?

As a team you can have a rule about if an Urgent work item means the whole team drops tools and works on it, or if the most suitable person does that, or if all people finish what they have started and then all pile in.

It depends on your context. In IT a Priority 1 Outage (a clear Urgent work item) usually means everyone who can help in the resolution drops other work until the P1 is resolved.

If Sue can't help on Task I she should probably move onto Task E.

Once both Urgent tasks are completed, the due date for the Fixed date item should be checked. If they can't finish the two in progress standard tasks first and meet that date, then the Fixed Date item must take priority.

To summarise: work on Urgent tasks first, then Fixed Date, and then Standard.

These work types don't just govern how work is treated on the board. They can also be used to prioritise work when moving it from the To Do list (although Urgent work items usually just go straight onto the board). Generally you would pull Fixed Date items onto the board early enough to meet their date, and then make up the rest of the Next column with Standard work items.

Be very careful with Urgent and Fixed Date items. Because FIFO is the best path on average, treating some work as special will result in higher average delivery times (you are stealing effort from in-progress work items to deliver other work items faster).

For this reason, most teams only allow 1 Urgent work item at a time, and will also aim to have a fixed percentage of Fixed Date work items (10-20%). The Standard work items are a pressure valve for the system and generally have a lower SLA expectation. Simply apply FIFO to standard work.

Don't let a project manager turn the Kanban board into a Post-it Note Gantt Chart where all the items have fixed delivery dates. This actually won't be as efficient as using the rules we've just discussed.

Carl Weller is a Principal Consultant specialising in Project Management and Agile Leadership, based in our Wellington office.

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