If there are ghosts, goblins, witches, superheroes, cartoon characters, and a wild variety of oddly-dressed creatures knocking on your door and shouting “trick or treat!”, chances are it’s Halloween. You’d better cover your bases and shell out the sweets, or you’ll certainly be tricked.

When it comes to knowledge work, no matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be some level of uncertainty at play. It can be distressful when unplanned work pops up unexpectedly and you’re not prepared to handle it.

Unplanned work items arrive all the time and they throw all of our predictability and consistency out of the window. When an unexpected tricker comes knocking at your door, never mind sweets, your gut reaction would most likely be to try and bolt the door shut. But, these unanticipated tasks should not have to be so nerve-wracking. Even though being in control of everything and getting rid of uncertainty is impossible, there is a very simple and easy way to manage unplanned work effectively.

The Negative Impact of Unplanned Work

In Kanban, unplanned work is usually categorized with an Expedite class of service (CoS). Expedite work items count on top of your usual capacity because normally, teams don’t expect critical issues to arrive. They don’t count against your WIP limits, instead, they are an addition to it.

As you would expect, dealing with expedites in your workflow can have a quite negative effect on your performance. The consequences of handling unplanned work without managing it effectively are significant:

  • Poor quality. If the work that your team handles at any one time exceeds their capability, they will be overburdened and forced to push themselves beyond their limits to achieve unrealistic expectations. Putting your team in such a difficult position usually leads to cut corners and sacrifices in the quality of the deliverables. 
  • Delays. If you don’t account for any unexpected work, your standard flow of work will be disrupted. Putting your current work on hold for the expedite items means that you’re borrowing time and eventually you’ll have to pay the fees. As a result, your standard work will get delayed artificially.
  • Unhealthy culture. Unplanned work can lead to unsustainable working practices, context switching and lower productivity. Without necessarily realizing it, you could be setting unrealistic expectations on your team’s delivery pace. What’s more, when it is difficult to communicate the impact of unplanned work to stakeholders, chances are the team will take the blame if they don’t meet their commitments.

What can you do about it? Don’t just expect the unexpected, embrace it. And if you’re feeling as though you’re at the beck and call of unplanned work, there is a straightforward way to handle it effectively.

Managing Unplanned Work in Kanban

The Kanban Method suggests a remarkably effective approach to managing unplanned work by utilizing your own past performance data.

Measure the Amount of Expedites on Your Process

The Throughput Breakdown Chart is a great tool to use when it comes to emphasizing the high volume of unplanned work that your team has to deal with. It displays all of your completed work items split by classes of service, exposing the percentage that your Expedite work represents of the overall work you’ve delivered.

This team reports that about 20% of their work is represented by the unplanned work items that arrive unexpectedly. 

The results? With such a sizable chunk of unplanned tasks, piling on top of the current workload, the WIP constantly increases, and with it, the delivery times increase as well.

Increasing WIP increases delivery times

It is obvious that there is a need for managing unanticipated work more effectively to reduce the impact that additional workload has on their performance.

Allocate Capacity for Unplanned Work

Now that you’ve performed your capability analysis, you can allocate capacity for each class of service you support in your workflow. 

In order for this team to better manage their unplanned work, they used the information from the Throughput Breakdown Chart to allocate capacity as follows:

Capacity allocation in Kanban

This team’s WIP limit is 10.  By using the capacity allocation suggested, the team will work on the following number of work items per class at any given time:

WIP limits per class of service

When an expedite item enters their process, it will no longer disturb the standard flow of work, as they have already reserved capacity for unplanned work. They have effectively reduced the impact of the expedite work items in their workflow by keeping the demand aligned with their capacity.

You might be wondering, what will happen if there is a third expedite? Then, you temporarily increase the Expedite WIP limit and reduce the WIP limit of a class of service with less demand.

The most important part here is to let your team perform at an optimal capacity to keep the stream of work flowing. As they deliver more work, you can observe how the throughput trends change over time and adjust your WIP limits accordingly.

Design Your System with Capacity Allocation in Mind

So, how can your Kanban system support that concept? We use CoS swimlanes for that exact purpose.

By applying a limit on each swimlane, you control the number of cards with a certain CoS that are allowed at any one time on the board. This approach enables you to manage the distribution of your team capacity across the different classes of service.

This is what the Kanban board would look like:

Kanban system with capacity allocation for unplanned work

There is a swimlane dedicated to each class of service with a specified WIP limit. Now, both your process states and swimlanes have a WIP limit which enables handling any unplanned work without overburdening your team with excessive demand.

Work Smarter, Not Harder

By using this approach, you will be able to effectively manage any interruptions that you may incur, while keeping a steady flow of work and keeping your commitments. 

Now, you’ll never be short on sweets to give out to unexpected trick or treaters. Whether it is a ghost at your door on October 31st or managing the tasks that enter your workflow all of a sudden, you’ll always be prepared. Happy Halloween!

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