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Multitasking

Multitasking is a form of wasted motion. Taiichi Ohno, in his book: The Toyota Production System outlined multiple forms of waste. Multitasking is a classic form of Muda, or wasted effort. It happens when people, systems or machines switch between contexts. Context switching has been heavily researched and pretty much every study shows that it creates large amounts of waste.

Estimated time for this course: 15 minutes
Audience: Beginner
Suggested Prerequisites:  Muda

Upon completion you will:

  • Understand why multitasking creates waste
  • Know a bit of the research behind multitasking
  • Learn the efficiency lost associated with doing everything at once
  • Qualify for Scrum Alliance SEUs and PMI PDUs. See FAQ for details
Multitasking Overview:

A scientist named Harold Pashler demonstrated this in the early 1990’s. He called it “Dual Task Interference.” Pashler theorized that there was some sort of processing bottleneck happening in a person’s brain when multi-tasking. That people can really only think about one thing at a time, that a certain amount of effort was involved in packing up one process, reaching into your memory and pulling out another, and then running that job. And each time you switch tasks, that process takes time. Numerous other studies show the same thing.

View Class Slide

Context Switching

What this means for the team

The lessons a Scrum Master should take from this is to make sure individual Team members are protected from distractions and other Impediments that would cause them to switch from one Backlog Item to another. Other research has shown that people typically work best in 90-minute bursts followed by some recuperation time. Scrum Masters should make sure to give their Team members ample opportunity to work in blocks of uninterrupted time but also make sure they have opportunities to take care day-to-day assignments that are just a part of having a job like filling out paper work and other management overhead.

Product Owners need to demonstrate to management that their Teams can do better quality work, faster if they can work uninterrupted. The business case for this is strong. Teams can get multiple projects done in less time when they can focus on just one project at a time. The quality of their work also increases. Just like switching from writing, to reading e-mail, to a phone-call interrupts, slows down and wastes an individual Team member’s time, switching from one development project to another wastes Team time (see slide.)

Multitasking is an embedded part of our culture in the digital age. Job descriptions demand it, bosses expect and we brag about our abilities to perform it. It seems like as a society, as multi-tasking has been pushed more and more upon us, we have embraced it. Unfortunately, multi-tasking is wasteful. Don’t do it.

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