Kanban: Background Noise

One of the most common issues that comes up when creating a Kanban board is what to do about „background noise“. By background noise, I mean all the routine tasks, meetings, calls and emails that distract us from getting the real work done 😉

Background noise

How much background noise there is depends very much on the team in question. A product or project team may have the luxury of being able to concentrate on the job at hand. However, I deal with a lot of teams whose responsibilities involve developing new features, maintaining the existing or previous releases, third-level support and a fair share of operations. (So they have a lot of unplanned work which is why we’re using Kanban and not Scrum!) The question always comes up: what work do we put on the board?

The important thing to remember here is that a Kanban board is an information radiator: you should be able to easily read the status of the work from the board. If a board has so many tickets on it that it looks like the aftermath of an explosion in a post-it factory, then it won’t be radiating information, just chaos. I’ve had cases where certain team members have used the board as a kind of timesheet – every time they did anything (call with a customer, etc.) – they wrote a post-it note, and put it in the done column. I ended up calculating the metrics for the board without these cards in order to get some accurate numbers.

Background noise influences your capacity. Let’s say you estimate that, if left in peace, you could get a work item done in a day. However, it actually takes you three days – we can see that on the board. Providing there were no unexpected delays or surprises, then during this time, your background noise was around 2/3 of your time. If you had had zero background noise, then you would have got the work done in a day.

And that may be fine!  Two thirds may be perfectly okay in this case because you’re responsible for third level support this week, or you’re the team lead and never have more than a third of your time free for work on the board. Of course if you’re supposed to have 80% of your time free to get the work on the board done, then it would be interesting to know what got in the way of getting the work done.

The point is, that the rate of flow of work across the board is a measure of the background noise. If you manage to reduce the background noise, you should see an improvement in the time in process and throughput metrics.

Now sometimes, it does make sense to put the background noise on the board. Unfortunately this is usually in situations where management doesn’t trust the team when they say that they have high levels of background noise. Then to show what background work is really being done and how this blocks other work, routine tasks, longer meetings and other smaller work items are put on the board. It can get messy, but it is useful to clarify if the team and management are in agreement about the their mutual priorities.

So, as a rule of thumb, I normally recommend not putting background noise on the board. However, if in the dailies it becomes apparent that visualising the background noise would help to understand how the team really works, then give it a go!

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