curved line

Ep. 103: A simple strategy for reducing work overload


Learn the "two-out, one-in" strategy for streamlining work-in-progress and discover the importance of task visibility and stakeholder communication in the latest episode.

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Are you drowning in work? Learning to streamline your team's processes but can’t find the time? Don't panic; Peter Maddison and David Sharrock have covered you with simplistic yet powerful strategies! In this episode, they talk through the 'two-out, one-in process. It's a methodology that ensures the focus is on finishing tasks rather than continually adding to the work pipeline. Expect discussion of work-in-progress limits and empowering your teams to take control of their work.

This week's takeaways:

  • Try “two-out, one-in," as it can be a valuable technique for teams overwhelmed with too much work in progress.
  • Make sure everything is captured as work. Visibility is a key first step.
  • Sharing the visibility of the team's workload and its capacity with stakeholders can lead to a better understanding of the team's constraints and workload.

Resources: Video Lucy and the Chocolate Factory:

Join the conversation by contacting us at with your thoughts, questions, or suggestions for future episodes. Don't forget to subscribe to stay updated on our latest releases. So, brace yourself for an insightful conversation as Peter and David showcase how to navigate the complexities of adopting new working methods while managing work overload.


Peter: 0:05

Welcome to Definitely Maybe Agile, the podcast where Peter Maddison and David Sharrock discuss the complexities of adopting new ways of working at scale. Hello and welcome to another exciting episode of Definitely, Maybe Agile with your hosts, Peter Maddison and David Sharrock. How are you today, Dave? Very good.

Dave: 0:22

It's been a great week. I'm just trying to think the topic this week. I've just got off a couple of calls this week and this is actually in certainly working with our team and so on, and, what's interesting, we're just looking ahead and the team's overwhelmed right. So we're an agile organization just like yours and the team over this. There are tons of work coming through. It's one of those things where we start looking at that. How can you kind of walk the talk that will give to organizations? And it was a realization that one of the things is there are certain environments I'm thinking digital agencies, marketing agencies, nearly every organization I've talked to in that space the flow of continuous change that they live with Office teams. where you're picking up, you're on one minute, you're looking at the financials and making, and the next minute you've got the next conversation or whatever it is, and the phone rings and everything changes all the time. So this sort of incredibly volatile, dynamic environments, when we go and work and then we talk about it, make work visible and using something like Kanban to control that. But it's almost insulting to say that to teams like this. They are just rushing to keep things.

Peter: 1:34

So this and this is all related to the work in progress, or process depending. And I know there's a subtle difference that I'll get told by my lean Six Sigma friends. But there's this concept of having trying to do too much all at once and it can be very, very difficult when you're in the midst of that to see any way out. I included this on one of my slides the other day around this idea of like we're overwhelmed, you've got too much work, we can't keep up with all of it, we don't have time to adopt new ways of working or looking at things in a different way, so how are we supposed to create the slack to do something differently? And there's an interesting idea that came up as we were working on some of the things that we've been working on together. And was this idea of these two out, one in, and applying this to this idea that okay, well, what if we just stopped accepting as much new work as we complete, so we'll start finishing, stop starting, so that you're in a position where we can say, well, we know we don't have today, but what if we put a set of rules into the system just to try it for a while and see if that starts to give us the slack that we need in the system to start to get that breathing when we need to get things done. And it could still be very difficult because, I mean, there's a second piece to this which is, of course. Well, that means you're going to have to be able to say no, or at least not yet, to some of that incoming work.

Dave: 3:03

And so and we've seen this, both of us, many times, but I've seen this very definitely in the context of that first making work visible you just capture everything and you see every like so much work on the team's plate. What I found useful there is the idea of throttling it Like the only thing. You can't just stop everything, because there will be lots of stakeholders that will get very agitated. But the concept of throttling back intake, of just somehow slowing down the flow of work coming in so that the team can slowly finish off a lot of the things in the to-do column, in the doing column, and start being able to breathe and be more thoughtful. And so it starts with making everything visible and then having the very simple rule of saying look, you have to finish two items, two out, before you can bring one item in, one in, and that immediately just means I'm removing two items, I'm finishing them, they're agreed, they're taken off the table and I'm only pulling one in. And if I need to pull one in, I have to find something on that list of many things. Just to wrap a couple of things up and that practice is just it. Just it actually focuses the teams on the right thing, which is what can I finish to bring more work in? And I've seen that work super well. Just because people start helping one another, they start looking at things and going hold on, I can help you get that one across the line and just pull that out. And it also automatically means you're not just refilling the hopper, because that's a really deflating experience, you're just bringing one item in. So that's that two out one in kind of mindset that we have coming in there.

Peter: 4:31

Yeah, and this concept of WIP, or of working progress, is a key one in that, because then it's that's how I measure it. It's like, how much of this do I have? And most of the common tooling out there that people are using to track their work will show you quite easily, when we've set these limits, to say, okay, do we have how much of this? And like it all. And then you can manage it by seeing whether the columns are gone red, because often what and so I've seen this again and again is all good places in the organization that have tried to operate in this manner, and so they've set it up and they've set up limits and they they've got to a piece where they've said, okay, we've got our initial process, we've got all of these limits put in place. But when you go and look at it, you find that that work in progress limit of two has like 24 items in the column in this and it's bright red, but nobody's doing anything about it or trying to fix it or change it or modify it.

Dave: 5:25

And a lot of it is giving control back to the team, right? So if there's an agreement on the two out one in, we're not calling out what comes in and so on. So the team has control over that. One of the things that I find, and I'm just gonna reference if anybody's had a chance, is like a couple of minute video from the I love Lucy days, black and white. It's a very, very old video all about chocolates on a conveyor belt being kind of wrapped up, and it's a great example of the difference between push and pull. Have a look at it. One of the reasons I love that video is when they start kind of dealing with the overflow of work. let me say that watch a video, you'll see yeah, I see that when they start dealing with that overflow of work, this is what's happening in many cases. What I mean by that is teams are hiding the work. Why? Because they have relationships with key stakeholders. They want to keep them happy. So what you very quickly find is a lot of the work in the to do column is actually in the doing column, and so one of the things that we want to recognize there is we need that amnesty to allow these things, cause what I've seen so often with teams is they start saying, well, we've got to bring this in. And when you sort of ask, why is because they're already working on it. So there is a stage that you're going to go through making everything visible, the realization that it's overloaded. Number one, number two, you're going to find this whole bunch of things that the team are actually working on, or members of the team are working on, but they don't want to show that they're working on it, cause they can already see what a mess is there. So we need that amnesty to let that stuff flow through. And then you're in the two out. One in allows them to do that. It gives them the authority to keep doing that. But you also then start finding that the team starts holding one another accountable. It's very common that you have one of the days when you're having a conversation, they all of a sudden move a chunk of work into the doing because they know they've been working on it and they just stop pretending and they move it all in. So you go back a step, but then you'll be able to regain control because the team is beginning to really buy into it.

Peter: 7:22

And the other type of work that I see in long similar veins is the truly hidden work, the stuff that doesn't actually exist in the system at all, which is very often risk. Especially things like audit type work very often isn't actually being tracked as work, so you don't have visibility into it. So it's like why are we seem to be overwhelmed or not able to get on it? Well, we've actually been working really, really hard. We're just not working on anything that's here, and so, yeah, that risk and audit and security type work can often get bucketed up like that if it's not actually being turned into work and made visible and put into the board. So that's another important piece of it needs to be put in, say, if we're actually working on it. It needs to be there so that we know what's taking up our time, where are we spending our time, what does that look like? And I know the pushback that often gets given from teams from that, of course. Then is that well, now I've got to trade all of this, you're micromanaging me, I've got to create all of these tickets, I've got to create all of this and put into boards, and it's this is painful Like why am I wasting my time doing this.

Dave: 8:27

Well, I mean there's another conversation we should have some time is. There's a lot of things that shouldn't be put on tickets right, like meetings you don't take it from meeting the meetings in the calendar. The calendar is where you track meetings, right. Or whatever it might be. There's a number of things like that where, where the activities that you're tracking, we want these to be those tasks. I mean, there are different types of tasks there are some tasks that you kind of don't need to put in there. Maybe we'll have another chat about the different types of service that we're dealing with. What I really like about this really straightforward, simple approach and I've used it in schools. I've used it with office teams, with marketing organizations, and you'll notice none of these. These aren't technical. This isn't software development with the user stories and features and so on. This is teams that are often supporting functions, they do things for others or or they're self directed, like in the schooling, school scenario, with with students and project work they're doing and things they have to commit to. Is it just helps bring a visible tool to that overwhelming feeling of not knowing where you need to work because there's so much going on, and it just brings that that. That's one of the things that we get coming out to it from the teams is, all of a sudden, that the weight off the shoulders that now they've got structure. We've not talked about prioritization, we've not talked about, you know, telling stakeholders, no, they can't get things, or any of these really difficult things, but it just gives them that visibility and structure to move. Yeah.

Peter: 9:51

And and I guess that is the only important bit is its permission, is, a lot of the times, what is needed. The team needs accountability, they're telling this, but they also need to feel that they have permission to do this like are we allowed to do this? Are we allowed to say no, Are we like? Because once they have that, then and they they get into the swing of it, then a lot of this will, with a little coaxing, normally move along on its own.

Dave: 10:18

For sure, take away.

Peter: 10:20

Take away. Take away, well, if you've got, if you've got a team which I'm sure many of our listeners do that is overwhelmed too much. You know work in progress that is struggling to work out how they're going to find the time. Try this and see if it. I think that's probably the biggest takeaway. Try two out, one in and put it into practice and see if it helps.

Dave: 10:41

Love to hear that. Sorry, what I was going to add to that one, peter, is lightweight. You don't need hours of training or anything. This is a very lightweight interaction with the team gives them control and allows them to work from that.

Peter: 10:55


Dave: 10:55

I've just seen great responses from that.

Peter: 10:57

Yeah, I think the other takeaway, because we covered this in a number of different ways. So I told you, it's like everything has to be visible, everything has to be captured as work, although, as we said, maybe we'll have a future episode and like, well, what is and isn't work? But if, but, we need to know that there is activity towards value that's taking up people's time, so that we've we understand what we're balancing off against other things. So, because otherwise it may look like, well, look at just team sitting around doing nothing. Or it's more likely, it's like they're already overloaded and you just overloaded them a whole lot more, and so how are we expecting them to get any of this done?

Dave: 11:34

Everything's currently being worked and, as you're saying that, Peter, I'm just thinking one of the great things is to share this with the stakeholders so they can see it. Now you may want to share it Getting comfortable with it, potentially but sharing with those stakeholders who are providing all of the impetus and work, because all of a sudden sometimes they just go oh wow, I had no idea you had so much. And they automatically start self throttling as well, Just backing off a little bit, maybe queuing work up in a more less urgent and important sort of way of looking at it and more sort of when you have a chance to pick this up.

Peter: 12:06

Is there anything else you would add?

Dave: 12:07

I'm just going to close with one thing If you've not seen the chocolate video, I love to see. It's hilarious and there is so much to learn about push versus pull in that video. I challenge you, like in your comments, to share any sort of thoughts that you may have picked up from that, if you have a chance to see the video.

Peter: 12:23

Awesome. So, feedback, feedback@ definitely maybe agile. com and don't forget to hit subscribe and look forward to next time. Thanks again, please. You've been listening to Definitely, Maybe Agile, the podcast where your hosts, Peter Maddison and David Sharrock, focus on the art and science of digital agile and DevOps at scale.