Regarding Lean

Limiting WIP

Recorded on September 22nd, 2016

I’m doing too much. No, that’s not quite right. I’m accomplishing too little by trying to do too much at one time. This is me at work and at home, which tells us something about where the fault lies (hint: me). The pattern is: I wake up with 10 things I’m already committed to getting done by, say, the end of the week. By 9am today, 10 more things have landed on my plate, also urgent, also with implied commitment on my part. So now I have 20 things. Those original 10 things, as long as they’re in-process, just got slowed way down by the 10 new things. Theoretically, the first 10 things will now get done half as fast as they would have because they’re competing with 10 new things. What actually happens is that the overhead associated with task switching, administration, and mental stress slows them down even more.

So now, with a plate that’s well over capacity, the temptation is to just hunker down even more and crank through it all as fast as possible, but that’s a losing game from the start. We could have avoided this situation by saying — to whomever: manager, client, stressed colleague — “My capacity is 10 things. If some of those new things are more important than the first 10, then we need to decide which of the old ones will go in a backlog while the higher-priority stuff gets attention. And most importantly, the stuff in the backlog will get no attention from me (or will be completely handled by someone else) while the hottest stuff is on the front burner.”

The wrong way to do this is to say, “Yeah, I’m at capacity with these other commitments, but I want to be a good teammate, so yeah, give me 10 more things and I’ll try to just work harder and figure it out”. The unspoken other half of the conversation is always “…but deep down I know that I can’t handle all of this and you’ll all be disappointed when the 20 things are late, but we’re too busy to have that awkward conversation right now.”

The Kanban/lean people figured this stuff out long ago and gave it the name “work in process” or “WIP”. There are all kinds of creative systems out there to limit your WIP so that you’re not juggling too many things at one time, and so that other people can step in and assist when they have extra capacity. I appear to be hard-wired with a deficiency in this area, because my analog and digital systems never quite enforce a useful limitation on WIP. I’m more of a “pop the stack” person, where I keep adding stuff to the pile and reshuffling the first two-dozen layers of crap in it all day, in hopes that it’ll all work out.

I have no answer here. Just trying to clarify the problem first.