Saturday, December 16, 2017

Eight Agile Wastes of Hanukah: #5 Work in Progress

By association with the Miracle of the Oil it is customary to eat fried foods during Hanukah.

Latkes are traditional roughly shredded potato cakes and they are delicious.

The key question about latkes is this: salt or sugar? I like them with salt, but as a proud Australian I also enjoy them topped with smashed avocado.

Agile Waste #5: Work in Progress

Work in Progress (WIP) is simply unfinished work. Clearly, unfinished work needs to be brought to completion before it is useful.

Too much WIP causes multiple issues:

Firstly, it hides problems. Having lots of tasks (or projects) on the go at any one time gives you the illusion of productivity: if any one task is delayed you can always work on something else. But this popular strategy hides systemic issues. If instead you reduce your WIP you will now be confronted by delays and inefficiencies and become inspired to understand and remove them, and thereby improve the efficiency of your system.

Secondly, work gets finished slowly. Working on lots of things at once, or even a single large thing, means that everything moves slowly through the system.

Thirdly,  priorities are unclear. With lots on the go the emphasis shifts to getting stuff done irrespective of its importance. Busy-ness rather than delivery of value soon becomes the focus. Ugghhh!

What to do instead

The advice here is simple to state, but easier said than done. Limit your WIP!

Go learn how to do Kanban and/or Scrum — the best known forms of Agile project / productivity management — properly. Both have a focus on WIP-limiting, with Kanban offering more fine-grained control.
  1. Visualise your work: e.g. write each work item on a card or sticky note and estimate its size. Split the big pieces into digestable chunks.
  2. Limit your WIP: in Scrum we learn how to estimate how much work we can do in a designated (typically one to four week) time-box, while in proper Kanban we place a low hard limit on how many (small) work items are allowed in any work-state at once.
  3. Once you hit your WIP limit you will be forced to start saying "no" to additional work (the hard bit!) and that induces some sort of prioritisation of unstarted work. This is healthy!
  4. Managing urgent unplanned work is the next refinement. The smart play is to reserve some capacity for unplanned emergencies, but be sure not to allow everything to become an emergency, and appreciate that you may need to put some things on hold when major emergencies occur.
This area of Agile waste management is profound: the deeper insight is that it is better to pursue the fast flow of a small number of small work items than keep busy all the time.

Every system has a finite capacity. That includes you, your team, and your organisation. By visualising work we begin to understand our capacity and this gives us the power to tune our work habits. By limiting WIP we are forced to consciously prioritise, balance delivery with improvement activities, and to appreciate the trade-off between throughput and responsiveness.

* * *

Small latkes cook faster than big ones and the first batch will be out of the pan quickly for you to enjoy. As you fry batch after batch you'll also be able to refine your technique through an iterative approach to cooking!

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