Do you get surprised by work completed late? If you want to see late work candidates, this post is for you. What might a harbinger for late work look like? One measure used to see tardy work upfront is an aging report. An aging report (sometimes referred to as a staleness report) provides a forewarning of late work.
Work ages for the obvious reasons — special skills, holidays, the dentist. Work also ages from the approval of newer work and committing to doing it before finishing work that is already in progress. Taking on new work before completing existing work-in-progress is one cause of work decay. Aging work is like rotten fruit. It’s expensive. It consumes space on the kitchen counter, and it smells bad – and it loses its nutritional value!
Stale work with zero activity (no progress, no updates, no comments), signals low importance, low value to the people making requests. Product Owners wait on results and wonder if they’ve been forgotten.
Much ado about Stale Work
When people grumble that things take too long, measure how old the work actually is. Query your workflow tracking tool to show everything which hasn’t been touched in x number of days. 30 days is a reasonable starting point. The resulting list might surprise you. I’ve seen lists with work untouched for more than 180 days. If that’s your situation, then change your query to start at 150 days. There resulting report should provoke a conversation amongst the team on how to get work moving again.
Sometimes a conversation on priorities is necessary. Often, the reason work sits idle is because people take on more work than they can handle, due to unclear priorities. Sometimes, unplanned work blocks current priorities. Whatever the reason, an aging report provides good visibility on work decay.
Back in the Day
The distribution of idle work items is a good start to an aging report. Here, we see the number of tickets sitting idle in the implementation work state. And wow – some of this work hasn’t been touched in over 240 days. Anything older than 150 days for this distribution is a reasonable place to begin ploughing through age decay.
To get ploughing, I invited the creator of the oldest ticket still in progress along with the current assignee to a ten minute meeting directly following the team stand-up. Huddled around my desk, with a view of the electronic aging report, we pulled up details of the oldest ticket to see the current cycle time of the work and to discuss what it would take to complete the item.
Sometimes, it was simple. An oversight — items should have been closed weeks ago — meeting over. Other times, it was complicated. Often, some level of feedback or validation was required before the ticket could be considered done. It was frequently unclear if the original request had actually been met. The requestor regularly envisioned a different outcome. The done criteria was not clear.
One time, a loud argument occurred. The ticket resurfaced a disagreement in need of rehashing. Old tickets can surface old baggage — we are human. A facilitator (moi) helped to keep the discussion civil and on track.
In most cases, we closed out the ticket on the spot within 10 minutes. Sometimes, we created a new ticket for work that the assignee had considered out of scope of the original request.
Aging Reports Now Days
Last week, our Analytics team got together to prototype some new metrics visuals. We got lucky and Troy Magennis from Focused Objective joined us. One theme that ran across several visuals was to compare actual duration versus average duration. This is a valuable addition to the aging report above. It provides a leading indicator to work items falling behind.
The rough drawing below shows actual duration as a long thin line and the average duration as a rectangular box. When the work item is taking longer than the average, the duration line turns hot pink to signal a problem.
Using Tableau (or other data visualization tool), it’s easy to filter and sort the data to show what’s important. This aging report filters out the backlog and work completed to show work-in-progress sorted by age. The result is a list of work items started, but not yet completed. Each row shows the title of oldest work item, its priority, the date last touched, its work state, and it’s current duration compared to the average duration of similar work items.
This report shows work with no activity in 10 days. Whether your report reveals work 10 days old or 150 days old, the next steps are the same. Decide which item is the highest priority and focus on it until it’s completed. There can be many high priority items, but there can only be one highest priority thing. You can take this aging report to the next level by adding the average age of work-in-progress week over week (or month over month.)
View the aging report during stand-up to call out potential late work. Discuss further after stand-up with the right people present. Hopefully, stand-up ends 15 minutes before the hour, so people have 15 minutes after stand-up to discuss important stuff.
The aging report exposes work at risk of being late. It provides a useful heads-up tool to reduce the annoying situation where you don’t find out about late work until it’s too late to do anything other than damage control. Rather than rely on someone who knows the work will be late, but fails to mention it (there is always someone who knows), consider including an aging report in your tool bag.