The WIP problem – how doing more work doesn’t mean completing more work

Buckle up, this one’s a long ride.

I’ve mentioned before that my corner of the company is going through some exciting times with a lot of pressure, including some very hard, non negotiable deadlines coming up. I have tons of things I need to take care of, and most of them are priority 1+++ and need to be handled! Right! Now!

So,with all that work needing to be done, how do I spend my time? Do I focus on finishing the work that I can finish? Take a look at the title – of course I don’t, or at least not as much as I would like. Instead, my work days currently remind me more and more of the classic lessons in operational excellence classes about work in progress (WIP). In case you are not familiar with the concept, need a refresher, or just because I really want to talk about it – here’s a brief summary:

Imagine your process (e.g. a document flow, or a production line) as a river. Imagine yourself as the ship going down that river as you perform your work. If there is a lot of water in the river, you will not notice whether there are rocks at the bottom. The water is the work in progress. The rocks are inefficient parts of your process. If you are on a work river with lots of WIP/water, you will not notice how inefficient the process/run of the river truly is. There is too much work that covers it up. In addition, you will never find out what the bottlenecks in your process (the river bends, so to speak) are if the whole area is flooded. Usually this example is used to explain inventory management and why it’s not the best idea to have enormous amounts of inventory – WIP is inventory. Even if it’s an email I need to answer or a draft I need to finish, it’s a piece of work waiting to be processed and therefore, inventory.

Let’s assume for a moment I was a person who could ignore inefficient processes and just get on with my work. Too much WIP still means that each individual item will have a much higher throughput time, because each new item of work faces a long line of other items of work that come first. So what happens if something truly urgent comes along that can’t wait in line? Everyone drops what they are doing and works on the new thing instead. There’s a certain warm-up time a brain needs to get in the zone, to load up all the details of a complex task before progress can be made. If you’ve ever had to to that several times a day (people with small kids or needy cats can probably relate) you know how distracting it is and how much progress is lost each time you need to restart a task. There is also the very human impulse to work on the things that are easier to do first, especially in an environment like this – after all, if everything is important, the easy stuff makes everyone feel as productive as the hard stuff, and you don’t need to load up a million things to get that feeling.

There’s also the added cost of having too much stuff to keep track of: I spent time on organizing lists of my tasks instead of working on them. It means I rarely get a chance to think of an efficient way to do said organizing. I am grateful that I came to this job with a pretty useful system to organize my work and my time already, and yet I still struggled. There’s a very basic concept to consider: you can’t organize clutter. Too much stuff, too many emails and tasks will overwhelm any organizational system sooner or later (I love tweaking my system though). Never mind the fact that many tasks in everyone’s day job could benefit from some quiet thinking time, it’s also a lot more tiring to work like this. I come home a lot more exhausted now than I did before, because there’s rarely an hour for me to sit down and think something  through. Most days I don’t even notice how time runs by and suddenly it’s 6 pm – where did the day go?

Sounds simple, right? But let me tell you, it’s one thing to know that too much WIP will obscure the obstacles to productivity and slow things down, and a completely different story to actually live in a system struggling with WIP. It took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to see through the patterns I was experiencing. Once you are part of the struggling system, it’s very difficult to see what’s going on.

Don’t get me wrong, I love firefighting. I enjoy the challenge of making a lot of decisions in a short amount of time, to have that mental agility to jump from one topic from another. It’s a big part of why I chose the job that I have. But I do wonder what the limit of firefighting is not just for an individual – which probably depends more on personality than circumstances – but for organizations. What are the warning signs that your area is not just going through a tough time with a high workload, but is on their way to grid-lock?

I think I’ve identified a couple of issues that you can address but I’m sure there’s more. Like I said, I’m in the middle of it, and it’s hard to look at yourself from the outside. Anyway, here’s what I have so far:

  • Different areas have different priorities, leading to fights about what is important – clear priorities help everyone decide what to work on when there is more work than the system can finish in a given time frame. The non-stellar ability of large organizations to agree on common priorities and then stick to them might be worth another blog post sometime, but I digress.
  • Related to that, unrealistic expectations on how much time it takes to do things and/or lack of planning – it’s so important to not set the people up for failure by having a plan that cannot be achieved. Give everyone a clear, fair, challenging structure so they can manage their time accordingly and have a chance to deliver.
  • Inefficient processes, leading to things taking much longer than they need to, or not working at all if the one person who knows how to do the thing is not available – this is something you can do as a preventive measure. Efficient processes please, everyone, including the concept of covering for people on vacation.
  • The people don’t have a shared goal or are not really engaged with a goal – in our case, we do have this shared goal and a shared sense of urgency, and it makes working together a lot easier.
  • Unclear expectations for a role, leading to diffuse responsibility – everyone needs to know why they are on the team and what is expected of them. Time wasted discussing who does the task does not get the task done.

But as always, I am not just blabbing at you, but curious to hear what you think: anyone got any more ideas?

Disclaimer: I don’t mean to alarm those of you with a personal interest in the outcome of the current situation, I think we’re still managing pretty well. After all, I still have time for blog posts!