Time to Negotiate Task Switching Time?
"How do you allocate the extra time it costs when you have to move people around between tasks?"
This is a frequent question from my clients and in my project management classes. Project Managers frequently have to ask people to drop what they are doing and work on other tasks. How should we record the 'extra' time in the schedule that this causes? For example, if Mary is working on an internal interface, and I have to interrupt her to have her work on record layouts for a newly discovered vendor file, it will take her longer to do each task than if she could work on one uninterrupted.
The idea here is not to discourage all reallocation of tasks, more to record and think about the real results of having people switch tasks on a regular basis. Project Managers are in the business of crises reduction, not crises manufacture... Having a formal process for re-estimating when people are moved from task to task can be another tool for a Project Manager to strive for reality in all we do.
The goals of making this normally informal process formal are improved estimates and better impact analysis through recognizing the reality that it takes people time to switch from task to task. Further refinement of your processes to include irritants to the Team can save you turnover, morale issues, and can also help people grow in their job by recognizing the real costs of our actions.
1. Write Down how you think Estimates Should Change. Check your figures by keeping accurate actuals of both the interrupted task and the new task. This is a judgment call, as most times you are not sure how long the task would have taken without interruptions, much less with one or more task reassignments. My general rule of thumb is to increase the allocated time by 20% for short duration tasks for each interruption. 10% can be used for medium length tasks and 5% for long duration tasks.
2. You may want to make a list of the factors involved, such as concentration breaking, programmer or other technician 'mindset', organization and familiarization time, and anything else you can think of that may cause more work or more time than if someone works on a task from start to finish.
3. Create an assumptions statement to add to your project plan and draft schedule line items to add to your schedule. Talk these over with your Team to get their gut feel and experiences. Make sure you have their buy-in for your attempt at changing these processes. This will help cut down on grousing and further wasting time as people move from task to task. It may also help with the perceived 'fairness' of asking people to switch tasks, then holding them to their original estimates.
4. Talk to your managers, sponsors, and other stakeholders during a regular status meeting. Make sure you do your pre-work, and contact the people with the authority or those who make recommendations that carry weight. Prepare an agenda and distribute it ahead of time to keep from surprising people. Take the time to explain why you are striving to add this further level of precision to the planning and scheduling process for your projects. This form of impact analysis can further help refine your estimates and in some cases can reduce the number of times you are asked (forced?) to yank your people from task to task.
I have not been able to find any academic or other research on time lost due to task changes. If readers have knowledge of any materials, please let me know.