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Most teams starting out with Scrum understand their backlog and what we called planned work. This is work that everyone grooms together and fully understands. Then there is all the other stuff!

We tell teams new to scrum to just track these things for the first sprint. They put up all things they do, outside of the work planned for the sprint, with the number of hours it took onto the board in a swim lane called unplanned. The reason for this is that most people don’t realize how much other stuff they do on a daily basis.



After 1 sprint the team is usually blown away by how many of these stickies are on the board. They are usually a combination of tasks that people have been doing daily/ weekly for ages – we often call these Business as Usual (BAU) tasks but some companies have other names. Then there are adhoc meetings and things that we attend without thinking. These could be BAU or just interruptions.

And then there are the emergency “must be done NOW” things. Often this falls under the banner of Support – but again it could be called anything.

Some of these things we know at Sprint Planning. If you do know about them then add them to your sprint backlog as part of your commitment.  If they are recurring, perhaps think of having a recurring swimlane and reserve some of your capacity for this.

Setup a meeting to look at these recurring tasks and see how you can improve the way you work on them. The aim being to automate them away or to make them as small as possible.

The items that you can’t plan for in Sprint Planning are those that come up during the sprint, and can’t be foreseen. We call these “unplanned”. Every team has some of this. And every team needs to figure out how to deal with their unplanned work. Again, you want to regularly look at these and see if there is anything you can put in place to minimize these as much as possible. The more unplanned work a team has, the less planned work they can commit to. Ideally you want the majority of work in a team to be planned. Each team will figure out their capacity and how to work with this.

Some capacity techniques we’ve seen teams adopt:

On demand with WIP limit and rules

Each and every piece of unplanned comes onto the board and is prioritized. However the In progress column has a WIP limit. Say it’s 2. This means only 2 unplanned items can be worked on at a time, and the rest of the team can focus on planned sprint work. You might have rules as to what unplanned items can come onto the board and when etc.

One person per day or week or sprint

You can have a rotating roster where one person is assigned to deal with unplanned work. This means the rest of the team can focus on sprint work. If that one person doesn’t understand the issue they can ask for assistance from other team members. This rotation can happen daily or weekly or every sprint.

Timeslot for all 9-11

You  can set a timeslot to work on unplanned. For example 9 – 11 am you work on unplanned work, the rest of the time you work on sprint items.

Specific days eg Tuesday and Thursday

You can also assign specific days to work on unplanned work, like Tuesday and Thursday, all other days you work on planned sprint work only.

Alternate sprints (One for support, one for backlog)

You can also alternate sprints. So one sprint for only unplanned work, then one sprint for backlog work. This works well with teams that have a lot of support work and it can wait for a sprint.

Alternate teams (One team on support for a sprint, then next)

If you have multiple teams working off the same backlog, you could alternate teams for unplanned work. So team A for this sprint works only on unplanned items and Team B & C work on backlog items.

You may have noticed all of the above give the team focused time to work on sprint backlog items. There is no one set pattern for teams and I’m sure there are plenty more than just the ones we mentioned. If you have this problem then try some of these with your team until you find a pattern that works for you.

kanbanbookMany of the techniques in this post are inspired by Kanban. If you would like to start using Kanban, or want to improve your current Kanban board, this workbook provides a step by step guide to help you implement the principles of Kanban with your team.

The book follows the journey of a company called Growing Gardens, as they embark on a project to write a gardening book using Kanban. You will see how their board evolves as they embrace the principles of Kanban, and encounter problems along the way.

You can download a free sample of the book here: https://leanpub.com/kanbanworkbook


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