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What cannot be measured cannot be improved! Why should we track efforts?

by Priyanka Pandey, Manager Engineering – Program Management at Guavus, a Thales company

Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort. – Paul J. Meyer

Effort tracking tools have been known to be instrumental in helping project leads manage and ration resources to meet the deadlines timely and efficiently. However, there is often a gap in knowing versus implementing. Many organizations find it difficult to deploy such tools in practice when many think it to be anything but an additional overhead with little value.

In this article, I’m going to try and change the negative perception build around effort logging by laying out examples and the tangible benefits of effort logging and tracking. These benefits have come from the personal experience of program managers and project leads who toil round the clock to bring out their team’s productivity and efficiency through numbers and data.

Some common concerns raised by team members when asked to log the efforts against the planned Sprint tasks are like:

  • We have already provided the estimates for these backlog items in the Sprint planning meeting. Why again?
  • Aren’t we already telling in DSM (a popular short form for our Daily Scrum Meetings) for how much time we are working on this planned task?
  • This is only meant to track my performance!
  • Isn’t it time-consuming?

Effort logging is commonly misinterpreted for promoting micromanagement irrespective of the software development methodology used for development, tracking, and management of the project, such as Waterfall, Agile, Iterative, Spiral, etc. Effort logging is a schedule control management tool that can add significant value in terms of team’s productivity by measuring the estimated and actual time spent on various activities. It can guide the team to plan the work and can be of immense use when used diligently and regularly by the team to log the efforts.

Putting in place an effort logging system, which is easy to use is one of the best ways of providing the measurements that will enable the project management team to control the plan, make data-driven decisions and even gather historical data for future projects. By definition, this tool captures the total amount of time estimated to complete both planned and unplanned tasks in a Sprint, if we talk about the Scrum framework in Agile methodology.

It is vital for a program management team to gather the inputs on the actual efforts a team is spending on the planned tasks, foresee, report, and plan the action for any associated risk. More importantly, it is the amount of effort spent on the unaccounted or unplanned tasks, which sometimes takes much more than the anticipated time leading to the inefficiency of the team.

effort logging

Figure A depicts the gap observed between estimated and actual efforts.

Let me elaborate on how effort logging will benefit us in the long run.

It helps us plan better

Effort logging helps us answer many of the key questions on teams’ happiness:

  • How can we find time to learn a new technology?
  • How can we improve our ability to innovate?
  • How can we reduce the time to market?
  • How can we avoid burnout by working at a sustainable pace?

The data points are one of the major factors which affect the commitment reliability of the team. In simple words, if the team spends a lot of time in unplanned meetings, or on low priority tasks other than the backlog committed in the Sprint, the commitment reliability of the team is bound to be low. Proactive analysis of the data insights can be useful for the team to avoid a drop in scheduled performance against the plan. The delivered story-points and value by the team can then be used to plan and track on-going releases.

An important point to note here is that schedule is one of the key constraints of the Project Management Golden triangle and tracking it is important for the success of any project or program. Consider the below day-to-day scenario where the efforts for the automation of regression test cases is spent 200 hours against the estimated efforts of say, 125 hours. This will help the team to reduce the technical debt and reduce the testing cycle in future sprints, with an additional benefit of spending the saved time to learn new technologies.

Continuous improvements

Figure B depicts a process flow describing the entire process of how effort logging helps.

Make our estimates of the backlog items better based on factual data

When we get our estimates better, we will be able to focus on getting things done so that we have time to:

  • innovate
  • automate
  • clear our technical debt
  • figure out different approaches
  • be with your family

By May 2011, Amazon was deploying software on production every 11.6 secs, now this time has been reduced further by approximately 6 secs – link for reference. All this happened because they started implementing effort logging and tracking efficiently.

Project estimates should be based on factual data points for better accuracy rather than on general assumptions. Tracking the effort against the planned tasks is a mean for providing the data points.

For example, suppose in a Sprint the efforts estimated to complete the automation work is 3.5 days including scripting and validation. However, the team spent 5 days completing these tasks. This may be due to several unknowns as clarity comes in when the team member actually starts working on it and not all the unknowns or assumptions can be known beforehand. This could be due to a miss while considering one day to get the required cluster for the automation or maybe a change of approach for the implementation is required, etc. These insights can help us to consider these known issues now to be taken into account in the future while estimating the efforts.

Sprint planning meeting

Sprint Planning Meeting where the team struggles to estimate without any insight from past execution.

Sprint planning meeting 2

Sprint Planning Meeting where the team uses historical data to come up with an effort estimate.

Increase the team’s productivity

The efforts logged in for the unplanned tasks such as those covered in the Miscellaneous user stories in every Sprint can help us dig deeper into the time spent on the unplanned and sometimes non-priority tasks for the team to look back and focus on the prioritized tasks. These activities will help the team to facilitate the prioritization of the backlog items which are of utmost business value for the end-customer and provide transparency for the team to introspect and focus on the priority tasks if not the case.

Implementing an effective process requires an understanding of the purpose and its value. Once the right message is conveyed and explained to the team, I would say half of the battle is won. Logging the efforts regularly by the team is expected to take time and needs to be followed-up patiently. The key message here is to focus on process outputs, openly discuss with the team, secure buy-in from the team, make it an integral part of your daily routine, and most importantly act and be seen to showcase the value it brings to the team.

Please remember, as W. Edwards Deming says Without data, you’re just another person with an opinion.

Do you still have reasons for not logging efforts?

About the Author

PriyankaPandey New Priyanka Pandey is Program Manager at Guavus with 18+ years industry experience.She has rich experience working on managing complex next-gen telco analytics programs. In her career, she has held various roles in engineering and software development teams before following up her passion of managing challenging programs using Agile methodologies.

Priyanka finds her greatest motivation in applying people-centric methodologies that results in increased accountability, collaboration and a trusted environment for the teams.

She is a certified PMP professional and holds multiple agile certifications- PSM-II, PSK1, PSPO-II, Certified Scrum@Scale Practitioner.

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