Whipped by WIP?

I bet if you asked any CIO if they would rather release 5 features into production or have 10 efforts in flight they would prefer the former.  Based on my observations, there are way too many decision makers out there who, based on what’s happening in their IT departments, seem to prefer the latter.  When I ask why that is, often, what I hear back is the roadmap was set, the business has their dates and, so, we need to get things started.  Remember, the business strategists are on the hook for ROI so, it would make some sense they would ALSO prefer to deliver 5 features instead of having 10 in flight.  Again, based on what I observe…not so much.  Shockingly, the end result is less delivery, lower quality and a really frustrated group of associates.  Executives are also frustrated by late delivery and lack of completion but, they are unwilling to pull back and limit the WIP.  Their ask?: Work Harder.  My ask?: Stop Starting and Start Finishing!!

To me, the most simple solution is to JUST SAY NO.  This approach doesn’t seem to be an option most places.  The business, the managers and the executives won’t take no for an answer.  Also, it’s not safe to say no.  I mean, really, you’re probably not going to be climbing the ladder if you say no even if it means doing so would yield a better return for all.  Saying no takes a great deal of courage and it’s not fair to put that burden on those who are lower on the totem pole trying to deliver on everything.

One could also PAINT THE PICTURE.  Make a square “plate” out of a piece of paper.  Write everything on a post-it (standard size please.  don’t cheat with the really little ones) you currently have in flight.  Go to your immediate supervisor and have her fill your plate.  Anything that doesn’t fit, doesn’t get worked on.  When something finishes, bring back the stack of post its and fill the space (or NOT!  *gasp*).  I recommend only having room for a maximum of 4 items (and, really, that’s pushing it).  If you’re a manager, ask those who report to you to go through this exercise.  I would bet you will receive their undying gratitude for even caring about it in the first place.

Another means to address it is ROLL UP YOUR SLEEVES.  This is for managers.  I am really suggesting you return to your roots for a bit and pitch in.  Either tackle some of the work yourself to help close things out or, at the very least, de-prioritize anything you have going on to focus instead on serving your team.  Find ways to, at a minimum, make their jobs easier and less frustrating to minimize the impact to morale.

Probably the most impactful would be QUANTIFY THE LOSS.  What would have happened had you closed 10%, 20%, 50% more?  Demonstrate the loss to the bottom line and get the attention of those decision makers!  Other sources of data to pull from may be associate surveys and attrition rates.

It pains me to see people in funks due to the sheer quantity of work in flight.  It’s not a good feeling for anyone to never complete anything.  If you get excited by the fact you were able to respond to 10 e-mails and set up 1 or 2 meetings, it’s a sign.  Take a look around wherever you are and if there’s any applicability to your situation and consider prioritizing how to reduce the frequency and duration of being whipped by WIP.

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6 thoughts on “Whipped by WIP?

  1. This is only further complicated by the fact that “all those decision makers” have NO idea what the real WIP is. There are so many silos and fiefdoms where work is hidden that leaders are incapable of having a truly transparent conversation at all. Gotta start building the culture while they are young so they are ‘trained’ not to tolerate this sort of dysfunctional behavior! 😉

    • Great post Valerie! I like the plate idea!

      I’m seeing this as an issue with middle management as well who are asked to help out on the sprint teams in an attempt to increase WIP at the same time as people management and department objectives / process improvements. ok, maybe I’m just griping. 😉

  2. Frustrating that the solution is so simple yet so far from implementation in most organizations. Why 10 or 5, why not ONE. I am reminded of a great Native American quote: “If you chase two rabbits, you will lose them both.”

  3. One contributor that I have seen is traditional Performance Management systems wherein different teams and departments have different and conflicting goals. The underlying and false assumption is that individually, as a team, and a department, we can work independent of anyone else in the organization. Sometimes this is true, though often it is not. So everyone spins up their projects within their silos and inevitably has to make requests of other silos at some point – and the requests are always “important” and “high priority”.

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