How limiting WIP can help you

We try to do it all.

Sometimes it feels like everything is important and urgent.

Observing the past few weeks, social-distancing brought us all to re-examine how we deal with our pre-definition of urgent and important.

Priorities have shifted, the work-home boundaries and the physical working environment have changed.

What I see and hear from people is that on one hand they have less time (working from home with kids around), and on the other hand their online meetings take more time.

I hear that people with young children are struggling to find time to complete their tasks, while many singles and people with older kids are finding themselves working from morning till night.

I read social media discussions on how organizations and managers face the new reality. For most, they are trying to figure out what is the current productivity.

And a minority are finding themselves hyperproductive, and struggle to understand this reality of vague and exhausting work-home boundaries.

My 2 cents – we cannot expect to have the same productivity as 4 weeks ago. This is because we are in the learning zone, and we are figuring out how to work effectively in the new environment brought upon us.

So what can we do?

I argue that in the current conditions, we need to plan shorter iterations, with smaller tasks, and hard WIP limits to get our pace stable.

WIP is our Work In Progress, defined by how much work we have in our system at a given time.

The Scrum time-box, aka “Sprint”, forces us to limit the amount of work we feed into our system – since we can only finish X PBIs (Product Backlog Items) in a given period of time.

Now, if we want to keep pace, we need to reduce the amount of work entering our system.

If we do not do that, we will have many things we have started and fewer things we have finished.

Therefore, it is preferable to focus on less, and, once you are done, pull-in some more work from the backlog.

I like explaining WIP by talking about water pipes. If you have a specific amount of water you are pushing through a pipe, the more narrow the pipe, the stronger the stream is. So, if you were to place a leaf in your pipe, it would take it less time to get from point A to point B.

Here’s an example from a discussion I had this week:

There is a critical PBI that needs to meet a hard deadline in 5 days. This is not a scrum team, rather it is only 1 person working on this PBI.

It has 5 independent tasks, estimated as 1 day each. But some of them are new to the person, so estimations are, well, estimations…and work will probably take longer.

Starting them all at the same time (WIP limit = 5) is most likely to result in suboptimal results of ~80% progress in all 5 tasks at the end of the week and no value delivered.

However, if she will do them one by one (WIP limit = 1), she will have at least some done by the end of the week, and have some value delivered.

As David J. Anderson coined it so elegantly – “Stop Starting, Start Finishing”.

An additional aspect of successful WIP is having small enough tasks. Teams tell me that they feel more effective when they are working in a very focused way using small tasks. They say they get to finish what they have started and move-on.

In our example, that means our person needs to break down her tasks to even smaller tasks to get more clarity of what needs to be done and what can be achieved in the given timespan.

Remember, Agile is not a panacea, or a magic pill. It enables you to improve your performance  Agility also increases the likelihood that you manage your risks by discovering them earlier and when they are  smaller.

By managing your WIP you prevent your system from getting overloaded and creating a visible inventory of “un-done” work.

The last question remaining is – what is your optimal WIP?

Well, for that you will need to experiment.

You can start with limiting to 1, and see where it gets you.

Or you can start with a WIP that is lower than what you currently have, and see where it gets you.

Or you can do a “Marie Kondo” exercise and visualize all (I mean *all*) the tasks you are handling each day

Or you can start with any combination of the above.

Looking forward to hearing from you – what is your WIP limit?

Are you curious about how others practice their WIP limits?

Join our WIP limit poll here, answer these 3 questions and subscribe to the poll results.

Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

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