The Perils of Premature Planning

Photo of Curtis Lusmore Curtis Lusmore,

A few years ago I was consulting with a service delivery team. They had some manual processes for on-boarding new customers that took two weeks and they were trying to drive this time down. They knew all the tasks that were involved, and they used a spreadsheet to plan it all out.

They were trying to switch from this waterfall-ish process to something more agile, which of course started with adopting an Enterprise-grade Agile tool like Azure Devops. They had 4 on-boarding jobs in the pipeline, so they created a backlog and filled it up with eight weeks’ worth of work.

They planned the work down to the task-level for each customer. This was dozens of tasks all painstakingly fleshed out with descriptions, acceptance criteria and estimates, they’d assigned all the work to the appropriate people, and they were ready to go. They must have spent a week planning all of this.

With enough repetition I’m sure they might get the delivery time down a bit, but there was no way they’d make significant improvements, to the extent that they really wanted, without a drastic change. They knew they needed to automate most or all of the process, but that’s not what their work plan showed. Before they had even started, they were literally planning to do the work the same way four times in a row.

This is when I joined. I started by walking them through the principles of agile delivery and continuous improvement. We agreed that since our goal was to learn and improve with each attempt, that it didn’t make sense to plan out the specifics of how the second, third and fourth customers would be onboarded. We decided to remove the tasks underneath those stories, continue with the current (manual) process for the first customer as planned, but do the breakdown for the other stories once we had more information.

Sure enough there were a few tweaks we needed to make through the first iteration. There were some gaps in the process that they knew about but never bothered to update the tracking spreadsheet, which meant they were then blindly copied into the backlog. There were also some unexpected gaps in the process because it was recorded wrong, or some workflows had changed. Scrapping the sub-tasks was already a win at this stage, because we’d already discovered they were wrong.

For the second iteration we started automating some steps. It can take longer to develop the automation than to just do the thing, so in order to honor the two-week timebox for the iteration we used some manual steps where automation would take too long. Scrapping the sub-tasks for this iteration was a huge win—rather than have the project manager iteration manager dictate how the work needs to be performed by pre-defining the tasks, we gave the subject-matter experts the autonomy to decide for themselves.

For the third iteration we automated the remaining steps in the process, so that by the end of our two-week sprint timebox we had a fully-automated on-boarding pipeline.

The fourth iteration took two minutes to run the pipeline.

The moral of the story is that in this case, premature work breakdown set the team down the wrong path, thinking that they knew today exactly how they would perform work two months in the future, despite not knowing what they would learn in the meantime. They were essentially planning to not learn anything, to not improve.

By leaving future work unplanned, you open yourself up to the possibility of discovering a better plan tomorrow than you could possibly create today.