Cost of Interruptions to Teams and Organizations

Episode 18

June 15, 2011


coaching culture fun scrum

The Agile Weekly Crew discuss the cost of interruptions to teams and organizations.

Jade Meskill: Hello and welcome to the Scrumcast.

My name is Jade Meskill.

Roy vandeWater: My name is Roy vandeWater.

Chris Coneybeer: I’m Chris Coneybeer

Derek Neighbors: and I’m Derek Neighbors.

Cost Of Interruptions To Teams

Jade: All right. Today we will be talking about the cost of interruptions. So why doesn’t somebody start us off with: What do we consider an interruption to the normal scrum daily workflow?

Chris: I think that an interruption is anything it’s going to be pulling me off of the work that I’ve actually tasked out and I’ve committed to doing this week. Anything that’s outside of my particular commitment that I’ve already made for the week.

Roy: I definitely agree with that definition too.

Anything that could potentially harm my my commitment or takes away the hours that I have available throughout the week that I committed to and then reallocates them to something else.

You Might Be a Culture Interruption Company If

Derek: I was thinking right before we walked in here, that more often than not companies that have a lot of interruptions.

Have a culture of interruptions. Wouldn’t it be funny if we went around and said “you might be a culture interrupted company, if” similar to “you might be a redneck, if”. So, let me start with, you might be a culture interrupted company, if everything you have to do is top of priority.

Roy: You might also be a interruption driven company, If your interruptions are interrupted.

Chris: Yeah.

Jade: Yes. That made me think we were like three interruptions deep one time at one of our clients, it was like inception interruptions. I believe is what we ended up calling it.

Chris: Wow.

Derek: You might be an interruption driven company, if there’s a hierarchy to who can interrupt.

Jade: You might be an interruption driven company, if you have a person on staff whose job is to manage the interruptions that you get.

Chris: I can’t think of any good ones right now.

Derek: So I think those at home tweet out if you can think of a, “you might be an interruption driven culture, if”

Jade: Yeah, that’s great. Roy you’ve recently, you’ve been working with a client that kind of has this problem.

Tell us what the daily flow feels like while you’re over there working with that team.

Hoping For Less Interruptions

Roy: So it started out at the beginning. We were going through standup and are expressing, we have a standard where everybody expresses their mad, glad, or sad about something and everything they say must start with one of those three.

And even though it isn’t one of those three, we always get the, I hope that today there’s no interruptions or we referred to it as slack. So we hope that there’s no interruptions today. Then sure enough, as soon as standup is over, the first thing we get is an interruption. Then we start working on that.

Then we get the next interruption. I would say on average, one of our resources is occupied with interruptions at least the entire morning. Then if you’re that one resource when you get to lunch and you’re like, I haven’t burned on anything on my commitment yet.

We’ve got to be behind and oftentimes we are.

Jade: What do these interruptions look like?

What Do Interruptions Look Like

Roy: A lot of times they are things that the person probably knew about ahead of time. They realize now, they need it immediately. I think that’s the majority of interruptions.

Jade: In this case, you’re working in a live production system, that is managing a very physical process, right? There’s a lot of money and things are very time dependent. Do you feel that is a major contributing factor to the interruptions that you’re having?

Roy: I can empathize with some of their need for interruptions.

We see that there are clients that call in with their own emergencies. While I think that we should work towards mitigating those and decreasing those over time. There’s a lot of interruptions that have nothing to do with clients. Because there’s been an interruption culture, interrupting culture is almost bred from the fact that people knew their work wasn’t getting done.

So somebody would put an item in the backlog and the backlog item would just sit there and not get done because all of these interruptions were constantly taking place that would precede it, that were higher priority. So if you added something to the backlog, you knew your stuff wasn’t getting done.

So a much more, a much safer tactic as one of the stakeholders is to wait until the very last moment. Then say, “Hey, I got this huge priority item right now, and I’m going to throw it in and I need this done tomorrow”, because then you actually get it done tomorrow.

The Impact Of Interruptions

Derek: I definitely think that’s a huge symptom of a culture that is completely interrupted driven. What starts to happen is all planning goes out the window. So I know I need this deliverable in six weeks, but I’m not going to really say anything about it, or I’m going to casually say, “Hey, I need this thing in six weeks, but don’t worry about it”. It’s not a big deal right now. Then when I’m two or three days out for needing this thing. It becomes, this is the highest priority this has to be done, or the world ends. I think what happens is when you get into that interruption culture, one of the costs is people think that if something’s not on fire, it’s not worth doing.

I think most people who deal with their dental health feel this way. Until I need a root canal, I don’t go to the dentist. Where if I was brushing my teeth and flossing on a regular basis, I could probably prevent ever needing a root canal. I think that companies fall into this same kind of mentality.

Especially when your mouth is just full of cavities all the time. It’s I don’t have time to get my teeth cleaned or to brush my teeth. I’ve got a dentist appointment I’ve got to get to don’t you understand that? One of the cost of interruptions is people start to stop people, stop being able to realistically prioritize what’s valuable.

Chris: Because I’ve worked at a company before that, it was a culture of interruptions. It really starts to break down team because what happens is it starts to become who has the most power who has the most say so, so and that’s a person I’ve got to talk to for my interruption to hurry up and get pushed through. It starts to break down us working together because all of a sudden you’re depending on who has the biggest say so to get my interruption in. There’s no true planning and it throws a whole team into chaos and chaos for this is not good.

Roy: It also makes it impossible to prioritize the backlog because everybody’s holding their stories up until the last moment and release them. You can’t really come up with a six week plan. Because during that six weeks, there’s going to be tons of people that are going to come in with stories and say, “I need this done tomorrow”, and that’s going to happen three weeks from now. There’s no way I can anticipate that ahead of time.

Derek: Yeah. When we’re talking about costs. I think another huge cost is good decision-making. If you have to make a judgment and you’ve only got 30 minutes and I put a gun to your head and I say, “a or b right now, come on to a or b right now or I’m pulling the trigger”. You’re probably not gonna make a really great decision on that.

Jade: Know plenty of product owners that would have been shot by that point.

Derek: What happens is by delaying things until the last minute, until they are emergencies, people make all sorts of shortcuts to quality in how they solve the solution, whether the solution really needs to be implemented because it’s, if we don’t do this right now, it is like this person’s going to die.

If we don’t cut their leg off, the person could die. Whereas if we were able to treat it six months earlier, could we have come up with a better solution plan that would have prevented them from having to cut their leg off.

Chris: Also customer service issues. If you’re talking about, a live environment, when you’re hurrying up, like you talked about in the amount of shortcuts that you take.

What am I going to see with my customer when I’m having issues? We made so many shortcuts and a lot of times in that environment, you never pay attention to that data. You’re never looking at that to make better decisions in the future. It’s always just fix it now.

How are you affecting your customers?

The Vicious Cycle of Interruptions

Jade: That becomes a vicious cycle of just absolute destruction.

Roy: As a developer, it seems reasonable at first. You’d be like, oh, let’s just an interruption, but the people who are interrupting start to learn from that. They think, oh, this is how it gets stuff done.

They keep doing it. Other people catch on and soon all you have are interruptions and there is no longer a process.

Interruptions Impacting Innovation and Collaboration

Derek: Yeah. And I would say another cost talking about costs are, I think you lose innovation because instead of being able to make good decisions and to be able to get creative. You’re always just dealing with “I just have to get this out of the door”. I don’t really have time to apply any kind of creativity here. I just need to get it done and get it over with and do whatever it takes to get it done.

Chris: Creativity and collaboration. Because a lot of times with that, it’s an idea that somebody had four months ago. Like you’re saying, Roy, they waited until the last minute. It never gets vetted. It never works through a team process. So the collaboration’s gone and you have a single person that could be very well pushing through decisions.

Visualizing Interruptions

Jade: What are some of the things that we can do to expose this? I think a lot of these things happen subconsciously and it just gets built into the DNA and the culture of the company nobody’s doing it intentionally to screw you or try to work around the system.

Some people maybe, most people that’s just, “it just is what it is”. So how do we expose that to their conscious mind and, show them in such a way that they realize, oh my gosh, this is what’s happening. How do we fix this? How do we drive people to make that realization?

Roy: So initially we tried to just have a whiteboard up and on that whiteboard, we list out every single interruption and how much time.

We use a ticketing system. So at first just a ticket number and then how much time it took. Then it grew so that columns kept getting added to it. So who worked on it? A brief description of the problem. Who was notified. Quickly even at the point where it was just an ID, a ticket number and a time, it wasn’t any fun and nobody actually bothered to update it. We’d get to the end of the week and we know we’d been interrupted more than five hours, but that’s all we have up on the board because nobody managed to track it. So one time during team lunch I had a great discussion with Derek and with Clayton. Clayton suggested that we blow up one balloon for every 15 minutes of interrupted time.

We tried it that week. Every single time somebody came in and said, “Hey, I need this quickly done”. We say, “that’s fine”, and immediately start blowing up a balloon as we’re listening to them describe it. Then as the first 15 minutes passed by and we’re working we’d set that balloon aside and would add a second balloon.

By the end of the week, our entire bullpen, the coworking space where we were working, was just filled with balloons and there were balloons everywhere. Everybody walking past thought it was hilarious that there were so many balloons. It was a great representation. The fact that the entire floor is coated balloons, and the reason why is because we get interrupted so much.

Jade: So how did they react to introducing something like that?

Roy: As soon as I heard this, I thought it was a fun idea. We went out and bought some balloons and we’re just going to do this.

Then when we brought it up with the team nah, we’re not going to do that. That’s silly. What if we have salespeople walking around? Or what if the CEO walks past and he thinks it’s ridiculous. We’re going to have to explain this to him. Wait, we’re spending all our time blowing up balloons instead of working he’s not going to.

Jade: And so how did you handle that?

Roy: So that’s it, to be honest, we just started blowing up a little bit. We just did it. And then it caught on because the balloons became fun to play with while we were working. While you’re thinking, tossing balloons back and forth, and it sounds like we’re not working, but I don’t feel like there was less work being done because of it.

What ended up happening is the CEO actually ended up walking past one day and going what’s up with all these balloons and we ended up explaining. And he’s really? That’s what they’re for. And we’re like, yeah, that’s, we figured we wanted a good way to visualize this. The board wasn’t working.

So we started blowing up balloons and he just thought it was the best idea ever. And he was super excited about it. So it ended up not being that big of a deal. And we didn’t end up looking too silly after all.

Chris: So I was just going to ask at the end of the week with the CEO and whoever else was involved, did people look at this in the day and gain insight, did management.

Roy: I will say that we were able to count up how much slack we had and that allowed us to, because we were just able to count up the number of balloons. So we knew that we had 75 balloons that equates to 18 hours of interrupted time. And so we were able to look at that and say wow, we didn’t realize that all this time was actually being used for interruptions.

And so we were able to say it isn’t just five hours a week. It is 18 hours a week. And now that we’re actually taking the time to track it, we can see that this has a huge impact.

Derek: I think the nice thing about doing something visual is it’s fun for everybody, right? So instead of being like negative oh man, we’re getting interrupted again.

It makes the interruption a little more tolerable for the person getting interrupted, but it also provides an introduction to a conversation point for the person who’s doing the interruption. Hey, why are you blowing up the balloon? It’s an interruption and it’s keeping me from doing what I need to be doing.

And so this is how we’re tracking it. Hopefully that person starts to think twice. Wow. I never really thought of it that way. I’m interrupting Roy by coming over here, maybe I need to be a little more mindful of that, whether that happens or not, hopefully, if it was continued, people would start to see okay there’s a real, very real impact.

Roy: I think you see that they aren’t the only ones I think a lot of people that come and interrupt us, they only ever see us working and they don’t see us getting interrupted by other. And so they come in and they think oh, it’s no big deal because it’s just me asking for an hour of time of there.

Then when they see entire cubicle fields and they’re like, what is up with all these balloons? I thought I was just giving you guys an hour a week. Yeah. It’s you and 15 other people that are also constantly coming.

Chris: Are you still continuing this right now?

Roy: We’ve been doing it every other week and it’s been noticeable that our successful weeks, and we’ve only done it for three weeks now with two weeks with balloons.

And when we close out and it’s been noticeable that the two weeks with balloons have been really successful. I wouldn’t say that it’s because of the balloons, because I don’t have enough data to go on at this point. It’s certainly more fun when the balloons are around and we do a, and we definitely track slack better.

Like the second we dropped the balloons, it was back to five hours a day, a week of interruptions

Derek: of measured interruptions.

Roy: Exactly. Sorry.

Jade: So we’ve got just a few seconds left here. Any other tips or tricks that you guys want to throw out there for dealing with an interrupt driven culture?

Final Thoughts

Chris: I really think sitting down and trying to have some conversations with the people that are making the interruptions.

And also guys, that are also behind allowing the interruptions to continue. Because you have the interrupters and you also have the people that are in control that allow the interruptions to continue. And I think that. Especially, not even if you’re working in a scrum environment, I think having conversations about productivity and amount of hours, and then also something visual.

I think the idea like Derek said, it’s something that’s fun. It’s something people can, you can give a quick look to, I think that’s really good to do ha have conversations about what it’s like to be interrupted, how many are seeing, and then try to do something visual, try to do something that’s fun.

So people don’t feel like you’re trying to attack and push back on work. Just open up the conversation in a positive way.

Jade: Great. Thank you for listening to another episode of the scrum cast. We’ll catch you guys next time.

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