Limiting WIP (work in progress) is hard.
It makes so much sense. But it is still hard.
It’s hard because we’re terrified when we don’t look busy.
It’s hard because no one wants to look like a slacker. Adults should be able to “juggle priorities”. When one thing stalls, we’re taught to “do what we can”. Roadblocks call for pragmatic and dexterous detours. “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop” (Proverbs 16:17). The CEO mumbles “you’re kidding me … you are saying we can’t scratch our heads and skip at the same time!”
We take on a lot of work because stuff gets blocked by other teams.
Oh interesting, maybe you should help them out?
Management asked how much work we could take on. I didn’t really know… but who wants to be a buzzkill? So we loaded up.
Why did management need to know that upfront?
You’re not seeing half the work. But if put the work in Jira, then someone will tell us it isn’t a priority. So we do it all … half off the books.
Why wouldn’t they trust you that it is important?
The sprint was going great until we got thrown off by that issue in production. And then everything just went to shit. Totally unlucky.
Was it? Why didn’t the team have more slack to deal with it?
Why don’t we have Jackson do some of those lower priority, but small items while we wait?
What is stopping Jackson from doing a high priority item?
I’m worried that if we aren’t proactive…that another team will get the project!
Why? Are projects assigned on how busy you appear?
The reality is that low-drama “flow” doesn’t look like progress to most people. There aren’t the burnouts and the tantrums. Supporting casts have less to do, less to coordinate, and less to “unblock”. You run the terrible risk of having someone idle for a bit (god forbid the code editor is closed). Or of having to shuffle people around to tame the real blockers and bottlenecks (with all the politically intrigue that entails).
It is possible to find optimal WIP and utilization points. But we routinely, intuitively set these points too high — both in our personal lives, and work lives (and as individuals and as groups/teams). Which means that the optimal level is probably a tad uncomfortable. It feels too focused, or a bit like we are slacking. But somehow the work happens. You know when you are on the right track when there are fewer visible heroics, and more low drama flow. There is more finishing, and less starting.
So lower WIP. Lower utilization rates. Now!