One of the most frequent impediments of agile teams are interrupts and distractions. Developers know that it does not only take time to get familiar with a new task but also to return to the previously interrupted task. The problem gets worse if we change back and forth multiple times. Fixing task switching penalties are, even for experienced agile teams, areas for tremendous process improvement and eventually productivity gains as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) realized. In portfolio management, the issue of task switching, is elevated to the project level where the same penalties continue to exist. Switching context frequently is like driving with the breaks on.
Well, here is an example which gives the opponents of context switching new fuel. The MTA in New York City calls it ironically the “Fast Track” initiative.
Here is the challenge: The MTA needs to maintain a large subway systems which operates 24/7.
That means, that while signals, rails and switches are being fixed, trains are running! That created not only a more dangerous environment for the workers, but also periodic, frequent interrupts by allowing train service.
With the Fast Track Initiative, the MTA cuts through context switching and achieved impressive results. Instead of working with multiple interrupts, the MTA decided to close down an entire line for the night. The workers could focus on work without interrupts and made significantly more progress than through a night without Fast Track. The results were so compelling, that the MTA, which started Fast Track as a random test, expands the initiative to several experiments across the entire system. If the benefits show further evidence of context switching penalties, I am sure the MTA will make Fast Track a standard procedure.