Minimise Context Switching

Often if a team picks up too much work it is because they don’t fully understand, or can’t see, the cost associated with their action. Fortunately there is an exercise you can run with a team in 10 minutes to help them see first hand the cost of context switching.

3’s & 5’s

3’s and 5’s is really simple to run. We’re going to ask the team to ‘deliver’ their multiplication tables for 3x to 60 and 5x to 80. They will go through each team member to reach that goal (value delivered).

First, ask the whole team to stand up (or run the exercise immediately after the daily standup – easy!). Explain that they are being asked to deliver 3x table to 60 and 5x table to 80, and to do so by saying the numbers out loud. The first run through they will do 3x, followed by 5x. You’ll time it.

Once they’ve done that give them another chance to improve their time for the 3x followed by 5x. Then we introduce context switching.

On the third run tell them you’ll yell out “Five” and “Three” and they need to switch the number set, while keeping their place in the other number set. Here is a short demo to show you what I mean:


So the team now knows the cost of context switching for a simple task like delivering 3x and 5x multiplication tables. Imagine the impact when you have context switching for a hard task like writing a distributed system. Phew!

Ultimately you should expect to see the team take on less work, lowering their work in progress and cycle time. You’ll deliver more value to customers as a result, and you’ll force prioritisation discussions and decisions.

Give it a try with your team and let us know how it goes.

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