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The Seven Deadly WIPS

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Modern business drowns in overhead it can’t even see. I’ve seen companies spend hours denying an expense request on a $20 book. I’ve seen teams spin for weeks planning projects that change dramatically in the first week due to a simple implementation lesson. I’ve seen people overworked and therefore missing deadlines pulled into long meetings to talk to them about how late they are in their work.

Uncontrolled work-in-process (WIP) creates the overhead that destroys companies, or at least their profit margins.
In Personal Kanban there are only two rules: Visualize your work, and limit your work in process. I have come to the conclusion that limiting WIP is like trying to drive the speed limit exactly. In knowledge work, that’s very difficult to do and sometimes actually dangerous.
Controlling WIP, on the other hand, is something we absolutely need to do. What WIP replaces the work we desire? Here’s a list of seven.
1. Interruptions
It’s easy to witch-hunt interruptions, but the simple truth is we often don’t know which interruption is going to be valuable. We can’t, nor should we want to, stop interruptions. We do, however, want to promote focus. Interruptions, therefore, must be controlled. We all need time during the day to focus on completion. We need hours—not many, maybe one or two—when email, Facebook, and even the phone are shut off so we can focus just on completion. And no, these hours can’t come before everyone comes to work or after everyone goes home.
2. New ideas
We live in an age of limitless options. The costs and time required to make something are lower than ever before. This means we have many possibilities to be creative, to make money, or to see an idea through to fruition. Consequently, people are finding it harder to focus on one project at a time. But the more ideas we pursue at once, the slower we will be to complete them, the higher the costs will be to realize them, and the lower the quality of the product will be.
3. Big batch-ism
The bigger the project, the more complex it will be. The more complexity, the greater the overhead. The bigger the project, the higher the stakes. The higher the stakes, the more likely it is that people are working toward the deadline (utilization). The more focus on utilization, the higher the overload and the less focus on product quality. The higher the overload and the less focus on product quality, the more emergencies. The more emergencies, the more interruptions, planning, rework, and time spent “finding the person responsible.”
4. Failure demand
Failure demand is the work we’re compelled to do in response to ill-conceived or low-quality initial work. If we install a defective security system in someone’s house, we have to fix it. If we release buddy software, we have to release an update. Regardless of the industry, releasing bad product doesn’t just cause rework; it causes new work—for call centers, schedulers, high-level meetings, and reputation management. Failure demand also pulls us away from our planned work—you know, the new projects that will make us more money—in favor of rework, literally work we’ve done and have been paid for already that we’re now required to do again. It’s hard to stick to a deadline when your old work comes back to haunt you.
5. Overload overhead
Utilization is the percentage of time someone is “working.” Traditional management has treated people like machines. We try to run them as close to what we perceive as 100-percent capacity as possible. We reason that this is when we make the most money from them.
But people aren’t machines. High utilization of a machine means you use the machine until it explodes. Then you buy a new machine. Well, people don’t explode, and you can’t just buy new ones. It’s hard to tell when people are slowing down or when they’re broken. When we do notice slowdowns, we criticize their behavior and tell them to work harder.
People don’t act independently, either. A person who is buried in work not only has to manage her own work, she also has to interface with many other people in the organization. That means she has to schedule meetings and figure out handoffs and deadlines. This is time-consuming. Every new project or task you give her increases her coordination costs and logistical overhead.
This is not a linear increase in WIP. One more project doesn’t equal twice the work; it’s an exponential growth because now not only is the employee scheduling things, those new appointments conflict with other projects. These add up to create overload overhead.
An overloaded employee also has to switch contexts between project A, B, and C every time he gets an email, phone call, or when someone stops by to chat. Soon he slows down and has to schedule new meetings to talk about why he’s “late” for deadlines that were never meetable. These meetings create even more overload overhead.
6. The un-kaizened
I worked with a group that literally had crates of uncompleted paperwork lining the halls. Crate after crate after crate of incomplete paperwork. These people were understaffed and couldn’t ever see a day where they wouldn’t get out from under this backlog.
So, they hired temp workers to come in and finish the work. The temp workers removed a lot of crates, but new ones appeared, and soon complaints were coming in that the completed paperwork was often unusable. Staff began to oversee the work of the temp workers, rather than do their regular work. This caused even more paperwork to get backed up.
Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on temp workers that resulted in nothing but failure demand and overload overhead.
When asked, “Why don’t you just finish the paperwork when you receive it?” the workers told me that was flat-out impossible. When asked, “What have you tried to clear out the paperwork?” the answer was, “Hire temp workers.”
When I held up the (blank) paperwork and asked, “Is this form perfect?” the answer was, “No.” Apparently, the initial clerks had filled out only certain parts of the form. Why? Because there was a regulation saying they had to fill out those parts.
The rest of the form was massive. “Is all of this form necessary?” I asked. The answer was, “No.” We set to work identifying what was necessary and streamlining the form. It turned out all the unnecessary information was already in another database in another part of the company.
Kaizen essentially means “small change for the good.” A small change to the form saved massive amounts of time and money. The un-kaizened—the small change no one saw because they were overworked and underappreciated, created costly WIP for everyone.
7. Premature plans
I’m a planner, certified by the American Institute of Certified Planners. This means I can plan big things. Not just a project, but cities, freeway systems, utility networks. Planning is actually fun for me.
Planning is a verb. You don’t make a plan and stop. You engage in planning. Think of it like driving. You don’t steer your car just at the beginning of the journey; you’re constantly steering.
When we create rigid up-front plans for our projects (you know, the ones that are supposed to mitigate risk), we greatly increase the amount of risk we subject ourselves to. Why? Because we build beautiful, plausible stories about how the future will look, and we fall in love with that vision. We marry that vision and steadfastly stand by it, no matter how wrong it obviously becomes.
I’ve watched and been a part of massive planning exercises for companies, from startups to Fortune 100s to government agencies, where they build a plan, create a Gantt chart, and then legally and contractually demand that that plan happens exactly that way. In nearly 30 years of doing this, I’ve never seen any project go exactly right. When it does go in a perfectly natural, though unexpected, direction, people flip out. The plan failed! But it didn’t fail; we just learned something.
Premature plans destroy learning. Premature plans are overhead. Premature plans are WIP. They invite us to snatch failure from the jaws of victory every time.
So tell me: What’s number eight?


Article Reference:Quality Digest

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