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Make your team's work visible: How to unmask capacity-killing WIP

Dominica DeGrandis Director of Digital Transformation, Tasktop
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We humans are optimistic creatures. We think we can finish things faster than we actually can, so we tend to say yes to requests that we should probably decline, or at least postpone.

We also tend to underestimate the number of disruptions that sidetrack us from finishing work on time. Before we know it, it’s 8:30 pm on a Sunday, and instead of spending time with our families, we’re working on that thing that’s due tomorrow at 9 am. Because we think we’ll be able to get requests done sooner, we set ourselves up for an unsustainable pace that leads us headlong into the pit of doom. We’re always falling behind instead of catching up.

If that sounds familiar, then you probably know the feeling of working on too many things at once. Too much concurrent work—often referred to as “work in progress,” or “WIP,” for short—can sabotage your ability to deliver work on time. It’s the same for teams as it is for individuals: When you’re starting work faster than you’re finishing it, it doesn’t just affect your current projects; it also delays the progress of your future work, overloads team members, and clogs workflows.

Here’s what causes too much WIP, how to unmask the problems that are killing your capacity to finish work, and how to use Kanban to help optimize your workflow.

Why you’re overloaded

Why do we overload ourselves to the point of making Sunday the new Monday? While it’s important to recognize organizational stressors, such as burnout cultures or tyrant bosses, many of the reasons why we’re overwhelmed start with our own doing. Here are a few of the well-intentioned reasons why you may be taking on too much work:

  1. As a team player, you don’t want to let your team down. No one wants to be the person who makes the team look ridiculous or incompetent, so you keep accepting new work because you believe it will make the team look smart and capable.
  2. You take on more work than you have the capacity to do because starting something new and shiny is more fun than doing the grunt work it takes to finish something complicated and unglamorous. 
  3. In many cases, “yes” is easier to say than “no,” especially to the boss or to people we like. Who enjoys turning down a friend or feels okay refusing a manager’s request? If you’re working in a power-oriented culture, “no” may not even be an acceptable answer. (It’s worth noting here that a boss who lets people know that they don’t need to worry about responding to her weekend and evening Slack questions can help mitigate the fear that compels people to feel obliged to take on more work.)

Despite our best intentions, when we take on more work than we can finish in the time we thought possible, we overload ourselves—and our teams. To change our behavior, we need to change our mindset, beginning with the idea that what’s possible isn’t always probable.

Why WIP overload matters

If you have too much WIP, you are working on too many things at the same time. This scatters your attention across multiple things, stealing time and money from the business and jeopardizing your ability to deliver high-quality work. Others have to wait longer than they’d like to get what they want, and your company loses money due to the delay.

Because we cram to finish things, the result is not the sparkly rainbow unicorn that the business expects. Instead, the business suffers. Team members suffer. Accomplished talent gets frustrated and moves on.

How to unmask overload

This is the relatively simple part: To unmask the overload, make the work visible. Kanban is a popular method for visualizing work, because it doesn’t take a lot of extra time, doesn’t cost a fortune, and doesn’t introduce chaos into the system. When you see your work, you can also see the problems, such as stuck work, complicated handoffs, or late projects, so you can begin to do something about them.

Here’s how: Create a Kanban board, using a physical board if you don’t have an electronic tool. Map your process on the board, and use sticky notes to represent all your partially completed work, or WIP. Partially completed work is expensive, so it’s important to analyze what makes it move faster, or not move at all.

When you notice that a piece of work is stuck in your process, consider the cost already incurred to get the work to its current state, and then consider the cost of a delay getting it to market. To get it moving again, start by asking, “Why is this expensive piece of business value stuck?” My hunch is that your expensive piece of business value isn’t moving because it’s competing with one or more of these obstacles:

  1. Unplanned work. These are the requests that randomly appear throughout the day or week. Some days, unplanned work interrupts your whole day. Some are due to real emergencies, some are due to what are perceived by others to be emergencies, and some are due to unknown unknowns, things that no one realized would be an issue but that sneak in from time to time.
  2. Conflicting priorities. Everything cannot be the top priority. You know you have conflicting priorities when you hear, “My project is more important than that project.” Thirty-three projects all happening at the same time, competing for the same people's attention and the same resources, create havoc, cause people to context-switch between requests, and increase the amount of partially completed work.
  3. Dependency on an expert. When a task is blocked because it's waiting for someone with a specific skill or knowledge source to address it, work becomes “stale,” in Kanban lingo. When only one person can do something, that person is likely shared across multiple teams who need the same service from the same person. That means experts are not always available when you need them to be.

Next step: Overcome the obstacles

Have you figured out which of these apply to your teams? Here’s what to do with the obstacles killing your team’s capacity, by category.

Unplanned work

Uncertainty abounds in this world, and it will always exist, so plan for it. There are things you can do to put yourself in a better position so that unplanned work won't kill you.

For example, organizations with fully updated systems were largely protected from the WannaCry ransomware attack that hit so many hospitals in May. Many of those infected chose to delay the installation of the security update. Completed maintenance reduces unplanned work. So learn to pull a maintenance card or two onto your Kanban board to ensure that some of your team’s capacity is committed to regular maintenance.

The consistent inclusion of maintenance work helps reduce unplanned work, which allows more time for teams to finish that expensive, partially completed planned work.

Conflicting priorities

Competing requests are a major culprit behind WIP overload. This is where clear prioritization policies come into play.

Take an accounting team, for example. Tasks such as end-of-month invoicing (so sales teams can meet their quotas for the month) and getting expense reports to payroll (so employees can be reimbursed) compete with entering payables and responding to customer account upgrade requests.

To address this, have a frank discussion with the team on priorities. For cadence-driven work, such as end-of-month invoicing, recognize you will need to give other standard work a lower priority. In this scenario, adjusting WIP limits by card type can help narrow the team’s focus to the work that matters most.

During crunch times, one way that the accounting department can clarify priorities is by reducing the WIP limit for non-cadence-driven work card types. If the WIP limit was ten work items, then reduce it to five, or even two.

Sometimes it’s easier to just create a separate swim lane on your Kanban board for different work item types and to use a WIP limit per swim lane. Set WIP limits and focus on the flow: the smooth, consistent progression of the one most important thing until such time as that thing is delivered.

Dependency on an expert

This is a recurring pattern that affects just about everyone. The marketing editorial director waits on me to finish writing this article so she can proceed with copy editing. The social media director waits on the editorial director in order to promote the post. And, to know how the post performed, the data analyst must examine trends and create charts. We work in webs of interdependencies.

Consider connecting Kanban cards to bring extra visibility to these potentially costly obstacles. There are many ways to do this, depending on what tools you have at your disposal. For physical boards, use string, card headers, or tags. Some online boards will even let you link connected cards between different boards.

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Now take charge of your WIP

We overload ourselves and our teams because we take on more work than we have the capacity to do. The result: Stuff doesn’t get done when it should, the business suffers, and capable talent gets frustrated and moves on. So use Kanban to help make all of your work visible. In this way can you shine a light on problems so that you can do something about them.

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