An “intake process” refers to having a well defined method by which work is picked up by technology. It is the bridge between the group of business stakeholders defining what is to be worked on and the technology group that will build it. There are two parts to this intake process. The first is the discovery intake process where stakeholders decide what to work on. Then there is the development intake process where the development organization pulls from the work defined in the discovery intake process. The product backlog is the end and beginning point of these two intake processes respectively and acts as the bridge between discovery and development.
Creating an intake process is likely the most impactful step that an organization can take. Before considering how to do it, let’s consider why this is so.
Intention of the Intake Process
It is well established that having people work on too many things to work on lowers their productivity. This is the intent of a pull system – allow people to start work when they are ready. There are a few primary drivers that overloading people is a bad thing to do:
- it results in multi-tasking
- it creates extra work
- it tends to burn people out
The most obvious one is multi-tasking – that is, people switching from one task to another. There is a dramatic affect here that everyone is familiar with. However, this is only a small part of the problem. Consider someone having to complete five 1-week tasks (let’s call them A, B, C, D and E). Clearly if they work on all of them at once the multi-tasking will be bad. But consider if they work on A on Mondays, B on Tuesdays, C on Wednesdays, D on Thursdays and E on Fridays. No multi-tasking going on. But two things happen. First, value is delayed (none of the tasks are completed until the 5th week). But more importantly, additional work will be required. Work on weeks 2 through 5 will require having to remember where things left off. More significantly, what it takes to complete the task has likely changed if anything outside of the individual working on the task changes. Furthermore, to keep focus, the person doing these tasks has to now be unavailable to others working on tasks related to one of A, B, C, D and E they are not working on. This was discussed in greater depth in Looking at Your Work From a Value Stream Perspective.
The Intake Process’ Impact on Business Stakeholders
A good intake process will limit the amount of work getting to technology to be the maximum they can efficiently handle. It will highlight that adding more than they should be given slows everything down. This is often a reality check for business stakeholders. With this realization they can learn that what they feed technology needs to be focused on what value can be realized sooner. They have a responsibility here and can’t just throw the work over to technology to sort things out.
This is why using MBIs, MVPs and MVRs are so important at the intake process. All items here must be as small as possible while still providing value to the organization when completed. Defining these is the responsibility of business stakeholders.
Intake Process’s Impact on Technology
Having a well-defined and effective intake process has a beneficial impact on technology regardless of what approach they are using. Avoiding overloading teams with work not only significantly lowers the turbulence and chaos that otherwise results, it lessens the challenge of coordinating the teams. And, if MBIs, MVPs and MVRs are used, the pieces coming in are smaller and therefore easier to manage.
Controlling the intake process is essential. Even if business stakeholders don’t do their job as well as they should, technology can put a gating factor in as needed. It’s worth noting how all effective approaches attend to this:
- Scrum – pull a sprint’s worth of work from the product backlog and don’t let any other work in
- SAFe – pull a program increment’s worth of work from the product backlog
- Kanban – use a flow model and pull work only as able to work on it
Intake Process’ Impact on the PMO
The PMO has an important role in ensuring the proper capacity is allocated to the most important work in an effective way. They can greatly contribute to the management of the intake process. Their job is considerably eased when business stakeholders and technology do their jobs – so much to the point that the PMO’s role may be greatly lessened.
Intake Process’ Impact on Marketing and Supporting Teams
Getting value realized takes more than just getting it out the door. An effective intake process will consider all aspects of the work to be completed. Whatever is needed beyond deployment must be included in the items being managed at intake. This is why MBIs include all aspects of value realization, not just development and deployment.
Managing Different types of work
Intake processes often have to deal with different types of work where each type will be of significantly different sizes. This is the common dilemma of having big projects interspersed with little ones. The question is how do you handle this? Weighted Shortest Job First (WSJF) helps with this by encouraging small increments to be delivered. From a work in process (WIP) point of view, it is better to start and finish items instead of running several at a time. But how do you manage small projects with big projects? We can learn a lot from this insightful anecdote:
I heard this story years ago at a Stephen Covey time management seminar where he described a segment of one of his classes.
Mr. Covey tells how he held up a big, open-mouthed jar. On the table were lots of rocks. He started picking up the rocks and carefully placed them in the jar until no more would fit.He then asked the attendees “who thinks the jar is full?”
Most people raised their hands. He then reached under the table and pulled out a box of small rocks. He started placing these rocks into the jar until no more of them would fit. Again he asked the attendees “who thinks the jar is full?”
Only a few people raised their hands this time.He then reached under the table again and pulled out a bag containing sand and poured the sand into the jar until no more would fit. Then he asked the attendees “who thinks the jar is full, now?”
No one raised their hands, obviously thinking another trick lay in store. He then reached under the table and pulled out a pitcher of water and filled the jar with water until it could take no more. He then asked – “Can anyone tell me the lesson of this?”
One attendee responded – “that no matter how much you’re doing you can always do more?” Covey chuckled and said – “no. It’s that you must put the big things in your life first. The smaller things will find a way in on their own. But if you don’t put in the big things first, they won’t fit in later.”
This story provides a useful insight for development. The cost-of-delay of a big increment is accounted for in WSJF, but the impact of delays to big and small stories is not. One might infer that big increments should not be interrupted. But that is not practical in the real world. But if one slices up big increments into validatable chunks, one can interrupt them in an intelligent manner as needed by smaller pieces. We’d like to avoid this completely, of course, but often can’t.
We’ve used this technique with teams that get large and small features to implement quite successfully. See Dynamic Feature Teams for more.
The Keys for an Effective Intake Process
Not all intake process are effective. The important factors are:
- All work either comes through the intake process or there is a well-defined method for circumventing it (e.g., allocating a certain amount of capacity for maintenance)
- Work in the intake process is sequenced so when it is pulled people downstream can see what they need to handle conflicting requests (they’ll look at the sequence in the intake process)
- There is an organization-wide agreement on using the intake process. The intake process is the focal point of aligning the organization and the guardrails system of agreements. See the Collaboration and Alignment chapter for more.
Starting at the start of the value stream is the best place to begin an improvement initiative. However, that is often not possible due to a lack of business stakeholder engagement. When this is the case, the intake process is almost always a close second choice and can always be done. It provides insights to business stakeholders as to why they have to focus on what initiatives and business increments are going to provide the most value. It can be used as a way to explain to them why attending to it lowers risk, speeds delivery and helps ensure value is created. At the same time it protects technology from being overloaded.
Good intake processes can be used to coach business stakeholders on why managing work in process is important as well as why a focus on delivering value sooner can help technology.