Project Practitioners > Batch and Queue or Single Piece Flow?

Batch and Queue or Single Piece Flow?

By Brandon Carlson

As an adjunct instructor at a local college I spend a fair amount of time working at home in the evenings and on weekends. Having three children in the house under the age of 10 provides for plenty of interruptions when trying to get things done. This weekend I was grading some exams and reviewing code when my 5 year old interrupted me with a request to read a story to her. This got me thinking about traditional batch and queue processing versus single piece models.

The process has a few requirements:

1) I need a spreadsheet for offline access of the student name and exam grade.
2) The exam needs to be graded.
3) The final grade needs to be entered into the online gradebook application.
4) The student needs to know their grade.

There are a couple of ways to tackle this process. The first solution is a batch and queue model. It looks like this:

1) Grade all of the exams.
2) Go through all of the exams, entering the student's names and grades.
3) Go through the spreadsheet, entering each student's final grade into the grade book.
4) E-mail the student's final grade to each student.

It is natural for us to want to organize our tasks this way in order to avoid "task switching". Unfortunately this form of processing suffers from a couple of problems. First, this model doesn't handle change well. Had I been using this model to do the grading, when my daughter asked me to read with her, I would have stopped midway through the process, having completed nothing. Second, the extra paper handling in step 2 actually causes the work to take longer due to me having to touch each exam more than once. With this model, work tends to be an all or nothing proposition.

An alternative solution uses the concept of single piece flow. This solution follows this model:

1) Capture each current student's name in the spreadsheet.
2) Grade the exam.
3) Record the exam grade in the spreadsheet.
4) Enter the final grade into the online Grade Book software.
5) E-mail the student his or her final grade.

The advantage of this model over the former is it's ability to respond to change. In this approach, when my daughter interrupted me I could finish the exam I was working on and be complete with anything that I started before her interruption. If I was halfway through the class, half of the students would have their grades already. Although I am switching between the spreadsheet, exam, and online grade book, it is actually faster due to the reduced paper handling.

This is where Agile methods really shine. A shift to Agile is a shift towards single piece flow and away from the traditional batch and queue process that is typical of many waterfall style projects. If you don't believe me then try it yourself!

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