Have you heard the phrase? - "Watch the Baton, not the runners?"
Translated to development work, it means:
"Focus on Idle work, not Idle workers"! (Image 1)
I still come across management finding ways to extract most out of their developers by assigning them to multiple projects
The thinking is to get 100% utilization out of each worker
Joe is made to work:
40% on project A,
30% on project B, and
30% on project C
And, this way Joe is 100% utilized!
Such a mindset is flawed
Here are two different ideas to explain this:
Theory#1: Queueing theory and utilization (Image 2)
As you can see, when queue sizes are small(optimum), utilization looms around 70% - 85%. Work continues to flow optimally. A little surge here and there is absorbed easily
With further increase in queue size, utilization shoots over to 100%.
Things slow down considerably and bottlenecks are seen
This means that if Joe is close to 100% utilized, then it will slow down the delivery or completion of all the items he is working on
Furthermore, if Joe's team mates Harry and Nancy are all (also) 100% utilized, then the team cannot handle critical items that suddenly pop up and need attention And, hence, Management needs to focus on idle work and not idle workers!
Theory#2: Context switching
40% + 30% + 30% does not add up to 100%
IT DOES NOT!
Because, Joe is a human being and not a "resource"
There is context switching and we know that loss of time due to context switching is pure waste!
Image 3 - is from research on multi-tasking done by Clark and Wheelwright (1992) which shows that when working on more than two projects, a person's time spent on value-adding work drops rapidly
Multitasking is an evil and really speaking, everyone is to be blamed and not only the management
I once met a developer who was asked to divide his time between 4 different projects, and as a result, couldn't deliver to his Scrum team commitments but was fine working on the 4 projects as it brought him importance and visibility at the cost of impacting all the projects - spread across 3 Scrum Teams
It took several coaching sessions between us that helped him realize that this may negatively impact him in the long run as well and he voiced his new understanding to the management and they set him with just two projects which helped everyone!
With these two well researched theories, management and leaders need to reflect on how they utilize their people and best ways to help them be effective!
What has been your experience with over utilized workers and multi-tasking? How have you dealt with such a mindset and what have you done about it?