Tracking hours worked on a scrum task is counterproductive

Right now I’m reading “Agile Data Warehousing Project Management: Business Intelligence Systems Using Scrum” which I can heartily recommend. This article is about one quote in particular:

Unfortunately, tracking actual hours spent on the individual tasks is ineffective, aims at the wrong objectives, and drowns the developers in detail while undermining agile’s pillar of self-organization that is so crucial to a team’s velocity. Tracking actuals should be strongly discouraged.

I would go one step further and say tracking actuals can end up having a negative effect on your scrum project. Before I get into why its worth pointing out that for short periods of time it can be useful particularly if you need to gather data on where you are spending your time (see the second point below). Once you have the data though – stop recording.

So why is tracking actuals so counterproductive? Primarily because it subverts the iterative estimation method.

One of the key activities in a scrum process is to update the remaining time estimate every day. From this estimate a burn down is calculated and the burn down is then used to monitor and adjust the sprint in order to deliver.

Consider what happens when scrum team members are logging the amount of time they worked on a task. Simple maths tells the remaining time is the current estimate minus the hours worked so there is a temptation to skip the re-estimating step. As a result a sprint burns down at a constant rate (ignoring task completion as a backup progress indicator) and inevitably it is not until the end of the sprint that underestimation is discovered; too late to do anything about it.

This second point can be good or bad depending on management and team culture – if you log time correctly and in detail you will know where you are spending time including interruptions, meetings, etc. There are two types of response from the team:

  1. Look at all this waste activity we are doing – how can we remove it and spend more time on value add work?
  2. How can I possibly deliver on my sprint commitments – look at the other work I had to do during the sprint.

Obviously you want the first response.

Finally, overshooting sprints is something to be avoided but often there are additional constraints on time logging that cause you to miss estimate future sprints as well. I know of many organisations where team members are required to log a fixed number of hours a day; no more, no less. You can imagine the havoc this causes – if you work 5 or 15 hours during one day on a task but have to log 8 then you create an inaccurate data set from which to base future sprint planning on.

 

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