how to handle unplanned work in kanban

Do you ever feel like you are working on more tasks than what you’ve actually planned to do? Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” No matter how good you plan or prioritize your work, it seems like unplanned work creeps in and steals your time. So you end up struggling to accomplish the work you planned.

Unsurprisingly, these unplanned tasks are not only disturbing the daily or weekly schedules, but they are disturbing the team’s workflow and negatively influence throughput and cycle times. Moreover, unplanned tasks can stall and block priorities and mask dependencies. And as more tasks are assigned and started late, the problem reflects across the whole system.

So how should you deal with unplanned work before it ‘infects’ the whole system?

Understanding the Impact of Unplanned Work

Unplanned work can include any type of urgent task or request which seems to come right out of nowhere. It can be a customer request, demand from the management, an unexpected problem, a system failure… The list can go on. But you know what I’m talking about. We’ve all had a manager that storms in the team’s office and demands something off-schedule to be done ‘yesterday’. I know I did.

The impact of unplanned work can be tremendous though. Usually, it’s most visible in the team’s ability to deliver on schedule. And it makes it difficult for the team to communicate the impact of the unplanned work to the stakeholders. But it’s even worse when the unplanned tasks create unsustainable work practices and an unhealthy work culture.

And in order to handle the unplanned, reactive work, there are several ways teams deals with them:

  • Squeeze them into the current workflow, in spite of WIP limits and set priorities
  • Just through the tasks into the backlog
  • Add it in a pre-planned buffer
  • Form a dedicated team that handles unplanned work
  • Balance work scope to stay within WIP limits – for one unplanned item in, you remove one ‘regular’ task.

While there is no one correct answer here, and of them have their pros and cons, one of the smartest things you can and should do is to understand that not all unplanned work is necessarily bad work. And instead of feeling you are at the beck and call of unplanned tasks, you can establish a structure for handle them.

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Handling Unplanned Work in Kanban

Amidst all the chaos that unplanned work can cause, many people, usually Scrum practitioners, to find the Expedite lane in Kanban to be their savior. This is how it’s usually explained: whenever an urgent issue occurs, everyone places the cards in the Expedite lane on the Kanban board (and swarms it). The issue is resolved quickly due to dynamic prioritization because urgent tasks can pass over other items in the flow so they can be completed first. As a result, the passed items get done slower, but still on time. And everybody wins. But, this is not a real-life scenario. Because classes of service, and the Expedite lane, work a bit differently.

Even though the Kanban system is usually seen as more flexible when it comes to dealing with unexpected work than Scrum, just adding an expedite lane doesn’t magically resolve the problem with unplanned work. And it doesn’t guarantee that it will immediately get done.

So, what is the best way to deal with unplanned work in Kanban?

how to handle unplanned work in kanban

Careful Planning and Allocation

One of the main goals in Kanban is to devise a system for dealing with unplanned work, not to help you do it indefinitely. What many experienced Kanban practitioners do to remedy this issue, is they use classes of service to plan and allocate their capacity to work on planned tasks, and some capacity to handle unplanned/expedited tasks. Additionally, they design explicit policies for the categorization of work items belonging to different classes of service. Their boards are developed to make allocation explicit.

Another thing to keep in mind when deciding whether to grab a card from the expedites or not is to listen to common sense. And of course, calculate the economic cost of (not) doing a certain task. After all, the cost of expedites is actually very heavy. Many simulations show that only 10% capacity allocation to expedited tasks almost doubles the lead times for standard work.

But again, the best way to decide on capacity allocation is to base it on customer demand, or when possible, historical data. Or ideally, to use both. As time goes by and the team completes more work, the data you collect will help you spot the pattern. Thus, derive capacity allocation percentages that are most suitable for your team.

Practice Continual Improvement Instead of Looking for a Convenient Solution

Another common challenge teams face when dealing with unplanned work is how to communicate the impact it has on the execution of the planned work. Especially when it causes constant fluctuations in the throughput and cycle times that teams can’t properly plan their work nor manage stakeholder expectations. While classes of service play a major role in how you structure incoming work, communication is also very important. No matter how painful or difficult it may be, it’s important to step up and address the problem.

Holding regular meetings and openly discussing the overall progress, changes, issues, and new findings can help teams understand their flow better. And uncover why they keep getting unplanned tasks and what they can do to reduce their arrival. Additionally, they should review and assess their capacity allocation regularly to fine-tune to the current situation. And if everyone can’t be in the same room at the same time for that, it’s still OK because they can refer to their Kanban board to reflect the latest decisions and changes.

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About the Author: Ivana Sarandeska

Ivana Sarandeska is a digital marketer, creative writer and master procrastinator. An Agile enthusiast and a firm believer that thorough planning is key to good execution and even better improvisation. She has a soft spot for technology, so most of her full-time jobs were in IT companies where she was introduced to Agile and Scrum. After she got her Scrum Basics certification she started actively using these methodologies and their main principles. Learning how to organize her time and tasks better has motivated her to dive deeper into these methodologies. Now, she is an avid advocate of Agile and Scrum and happily shares her knowledge and experience to fellow procrastinators.