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Limiting work in progress

One of my favourite simple ways of helping teams be less busy is to limit work in progress.

It’s simple, but not always easy. It helps us be less busy but (somehow, magically!) get more done.

I dived into my bookmarks and did some searching and read a bunch of Personal Kanban again and Martin Cronjé’s excellent The importance of WIP limits post.

Why limit WIP (Work In Progress)?

Limiting WIP means things gets finished more quickly overall, we work more effectively.

We have limited time and attention with which to work effectively. We can spread that over lots of things and be not very effective, or spread it over few things and be more effective.

  • More WIP is more dangerous.
    • More work in progress means more work that could wrong.
    • Work in the “In Progress” column sticks in our heads, taking space away from the thing actually in progress. So does stuff in the “On Hold” column!
    • More work in on progress means more context switching. That slows us down, making everything take longer.
  • We’re subject to hundreds of cognitive biases, including ones about WIP.
    • We feel productive when we touch many different tasks, but that doesn’t mean we are more productive.
    • We think we move easily and smoothly between bits of work, but we don’t. Context switching is expensive!
    • We can take being very busy as a measure of productivity, rather than finished, completed, work as a measure of productivity.
  • Having less WIP gives us slack, space, room to think and breathe.
    • Slack lets us focus on just what we’re working on, in a more relaxed and calm state.
    • Slack gives us capacity to handle interruptions and unexpected work.
    • Slack gives our brains some time to rest and recharge. Brains use a lot of energy!
  • The three column exercise. (I’ve seen this in a few places, most recently on Personal Kanban)
    • Make three columns: letters, numbers, Roman numerals.
    • Have a stopwatch ready to time both rounds.
    • Round 1: write one thing in each column, then go to the next row. A, 1, i; B, 2, ii. Go down to J.
    • Round 2: write all the entries in one column, then go the next column. A, B, C; 1, 2, 3. Go down to J.
    • Which was quicker? (Hint: it was round 2!)
    • Any three different column headers make this exercise work well.

What to do

Vibe check: stop starting and start finishing.

Here are some ways to get started limiting work in progress.

  • Do a short presentation of limiting WIP to the team to get buy-in.
  • Add the “Days in column” card dots in Jira.
  • At standup, ask “What’s your focus / Most Important Thing for today?” / “What will you focus on finishing / moving closer to finished today?”
    • “Will you actually be working on these other things today? No? Back to the “To Do” column then!”
  • Add column soft-limits in Jira.