curved line

Ep. 34: How leaders can help with limiting WIP


Leaders can, and should, help their teams reduce their Work in Progress (WIP).

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podcast recording


In this week's episode, Dave and Peter talk about why leaders should help their teams eliminate WIP.

This week takeaways:

  • Understand and believe in it
  • Stop starting, start finishing
  • Consider the impact of what you say and when you say it

We love to hear feedback! If you have questions, would like to propose a topic, or even join us for a conversation, contact us here:


[00:00:00] Peter Maddison: Welcome to definitely maybe agile podcast with Peter Madison 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. David Sharrock and Peter Madison. So what's on the cards today, Dave

[00:00:22] Dave Sharrock: Too much work, too much work, too little time. How do we handle that ubiquitous limiting work-in-progress mantra that we all talk about, but don't really necessarily get to put into place or practice.

[00:00:35] Peter Maddison: Clones! I think that's the answer. Clones, definitely.

[00:00:39] Dave Sharrock: Yes. Yeah. Outsourcing.

[00:00:41] Peter Maddison: Yeah. That, that always goes so well...

[00:00:45] Dave Sharrock: I think many of us in these situations, we under-stand that operationally. If we're on the team, that's delivering it, we get it. But the reality is that it's often the environment around us, or the leadership and the expectations they place on us, that make this mantra, that anybody in systems thinking (lean, agile) understands as having a hugely powerful effect on the ability to get stuff done, nearly impossible to actually make happen.

[00:01:15] Peter Maddison: And it is interesting as well. When we look at it from that perspective, a lot of the things that we're talking about when we talk about limiting work-in-progress, it comes out of that lean space, which comes out of manufacturing. And it comes out of this world where it's very well understood. I mean, it's kind of logical. We understand things like theory of constraints. We understand how we need to work at the bottleneck. We don't look anywhere else in the system because that's where work is going to be piling up. And we can start to see where in the system, do we have work in progress. How much stuff is going on? And this is limiting our flow through the system. So we understand that well there, but it's not always well understood from a leadership perspective. And very often not well understood in knowledge work.

[00:01:57] Dave Sharrock: I want to build on that because I think in the manufacturing context that you're discussing, it is well understood in a leadership perspective. And one of the reasons is decades of experience in lean management, potentially. But one of the things that is very specific about the environment that you're describing is it's visible and tactile. You can see any work-station in some manufacturing process, which is overloaded because they're still working when the bell goes. Everyone else's going, there's a pile of work still to be done. And it's tactile because, when you walk around the manufacturing factory floor, whatever that might be, you can trip over the materials that are cued up and ready to go. So in that context, it's very much in your face. When we step into knowledge work, we have a completely different environment.

[00:02:47] When I walk up to somebody that are at a laptop or visually we're seeing Zoom meetings with people. We don't see the impact of work-in-progress, and in particular too much work-in-progress, in any way close to the same way.

[00:03:01] Peter Maddison: Yeah. It's not as visible. It's not as easy to see and you have to, in some ways, go looking for it.

[00:03:06] You also run into issues in that sense of the bottleneck, doesn't stay in one place. Work doesn't always pile up in the same place, because it's going to move. There's always going to be a constraint, but it may not always remain in one place. It may move around as the nature of the work changes, or as work comes in at different rates. Which is much more variable than it will be in a manufacturing world, where you have much more control over being able to have the flow of work into the system, and have some kind of control around it.

[00:03:35] Dave Sharrock: Where do you start looking for this? And maybe how as a leader, do you enable a focus on limiting work-in-progress? What's your thoughts?

[00:03:45] Peter Maddison: So I think we touched on it a little bit earlier. One of the first things, as the leader, is actually spending time to understand and believe in this. Hey, I may be part of the problem. That all of this busy work, all this stuff that we're starting and never finishing, all of that stuff that's all half done, that is taking cycles away. That is preventing us getting the things we really, truly want to do, done. And a lot of that work-in-progress is really hurting us when we look at the flow through the overall system. So learning some of these basic lean principles and understanding what the impact of that is on the organization, is critical from leadership perspective, because otherwise you can't walk the walk. Even if you say the words, you're not going to be able to really understand and identify it, and do things about it.

[00:04:34] Dave Sharrock: As you're describing that I'm thinking of the many leadership workshops and conversations that I've had. There's an exercise to demonstrate work-in-progress and to demonstrate the value of limiting it, to see what impact it has on productivity. And there are lots of different exercises you can do around this. The reason I mentioned it is, I think one of the gaps that we end up having is, there's a tendency to go through this exercise, what-ever this exercise it is, flipping penny's game or, Kanban pizza. There's a number of different places that you can go and see limiting work-in-progress in action. Paper airplanes game, all of these exercises. And we have a tendency of coming into the debrief and saying, "ta-da!". Look what happened there. How can you possibly not believe in limiting work-in-progress?

[00:05:25] Now when you're leading, you need to help your teams limit work-in-progress. But there's a huge gap there about belief. About not just under-standing the principles and seeing through an exercise with pennies, or pizza slices, or paper airplanes what's going on, but buying into appreciating that this is almost a law of nature.

[00:05:47] Peter Maddison: And even translating it too. Even, if you truly believe that this is absolutely true, trying to then translate that in your mind, into the world that you're working in. If you don't go through some exercise, and identify this in your own world, then help them through understanding what this might look like. That is a critical exercise to be able to look at.

[00:06:08] Where do you see examples of similar things happening in your environment and what could you do about them?

[00:06:13] Dave Sharrock: Well, as a leader, I think that this is actually relatively straightforward because all we want to do is open Outlook. And Outlook has two very specific things that will immediately educate us on limiting work-in-progress. One is our inbox and the number of emails that we are processing and dealing with, and that are hanging around or not hanging around. And the other one is our calendar and the number of meetings that we have. And with nearly every person, not just leaders, but person that you bump into in a knowledge environment, has eight hours of meetings in their calendar. And how many of those are actual necessary meetings that have to be there, or if they are, surely that speaks to a problem with overload and too many things going on at one time. Same with your mailbox. So there's a place to start immediately where we control it. It's in our immediate ability to influence.

[00:07:10] What would you suggest? If a leader is looking at that for the first time and trying to figure out how to apply limiting work-in-progress to their particular environment, what can they do around the inbox? What can they do around the calendar?

[00:07:22] Peter Maddison: I think having a rule that sends all email to trash is probably a good starting place. Canceling or denying all the incoming calendar invites. That's another good place to start...

[00:07:33] Dave Sharrock: And how long does that last ?

[00:07:35] Peter Maddison: Never, never start. Never starts. There's there's a couple of pieces. The calendar one, looking at and ensuring that you're block-ing time. And Outlook now, actually will do this. Microsoft 365 will block focus time for you and ensure that you get blocks of time, which are there to be able to focus. Which allows you to have time to digest and do actual work out-side of it. So, I mean, things like that will help greatly with this. More generally looking at what things, do I, actually need to be involved in? Where is it critical that I actually am connected into those processes or practices? How do I help, right. It's because very often if you're the leader, you get copied on every-thing. And sometimes that can lead to catching something that sends you down a rabbit hole, that you possibly don't need to be going down, and trying to sort out the wheat from the chaff. So those are some. There's good email practices around this and a lot of different things you do, like the a zero inbox.

[00:08:38] Dave Sharrock: I feel like this is like the mythical man month, and the mythical zero inbox. I've certainly been a "getting things done" fan for many years, and I very rarely have zero inbox, if ever. What I was going to say is, one takeaway is: rules around your mailbox makes so much sense. And certainly in the last five years, I don't think I've ever been in a situation where understanding and making explicit rules about how email is used -and I'm think-ing within an organization, you can't obviously control emails coming into from outside of the organization- Having some explicit rules about how copy is being used, in terms of CC or BCC and understanding what items are addressed with an email channel, versus the many other communication channels that may be open to you, and so on. And we've certainly seen big changes just in that. Speaking for myself, we've moved an awful lot of internal communication into asynchronous chat functionality that is provided by Teams, and Slack, and various other tools. And that has seen a dramatic drop in email communications to work through. So that's already a big positive. And yes, there's still more channel of communication, but they expectations in terms of readability, how quickly to respond what's expected. There are also articulated and explicit. So the overall impact on flow of communication is actually to improve it, not to split it up and leave you with four different devices that you're working on un-til 10.

[00:10:15] Peter Maddison: I've also seen that happen in organizations where it's like, "great, we moved everything into chat. Oh great. Now I've got email, and chat, and SharePoint, and all of these different systems, all of which I've now got to keep track of". Now I'm even more overwhelmed with having to switch between different systems. Sometimes we do these things to ourselves.

[00:10:34] I think there's a piece there around understanding. How am I going to organize the knowledge such that, when I look at the flow of information coming at me in the organization and I'm tuned into the places that I need to be. That I'm filtering out a lot of the noise, so that I'm only engaged in the places that I need to be.

[00:10:51] I guess the next question from that is, that once the mythical leader has managed to conquer their inbox and their calendar, and got to the point where they can deal with and start to engage more with some of these other pieces, what should they do with all of this vast amounts of free time that they may now have to help deal with work-in-progress within the organization?

[00:11:10] Dave Sharrock: You mean now they can go work with their teams, and pour over everything that the teams are doing, to get involved with what-ever challenges that they have. That's what you're asking them.

[00:11:19] Peter Maddison: That always makes things better.

[00:11:20] Dave Sharrock: First of all, when we're talking about things like Outlook and calendaring and inboxes, what we're really focusing on there is that role modeling piece. And part of the deal about role modeling is if it's good enough for me, it's good enough for you. So if I believe that you should be doing it, then I should be doing it. But the piece of it is to have some recognition of how hard this is. Because of course we can all have the best of intentions around simple things, which are in our control, and the reality is it may not work out the way we need it to. We'll understand that it's a continual pro-cess of tweaking and improving what's there. But I think that the next piece for us to understand is our own role, as a leader, in violating the limiting work-in-process or limiting work-in-progress, mandate, mantra. And too many times, I've certainly seen from my side, that I am the cause of violating the limiting work-in-progress goal on teams that I've worked with.

[00:12:25] I think there is a recognition there that's needed. That sort of pause, or clarification over requests coming in from the leaders. Either guiding them to be shelved, because this is not a request for you to do everything. Let's put it over to one side. Or even better, not saying anything about it and capturing it ourselves, using the formal channels to get work into the team, something along those lines. But recognizing our influence as a cause of many of the challenges that teams who are impacted.

[00:12:59] Peter Maddison: Yeah. And I've definitely seen that both in leaders, and occasionally in myself. I hope I've grown out of it, but I know that occasionally we'll all be guilty of this where we say "Oh, I've got this great idea, if we could just do this now!". And then you go and talk to the teams and completely derail all of the really important work that they were supposed to be getting done. Which now means they've got even more things to do. And you haven't really helped the situation. At this point, you've just created more work. And this is what we're talking about. Generating more work-in-process by not following through the channels that have been set up to allow the team to be able to cope with the incoming work, and deal with it. Even for the things that you could potentially say are emergency emergencies, there should be appropriate channels or understanding of how those things should be brought in. There's definitely this piece of, having this kind of seagull a leader-ship, is a term I've used. Where the leader flies in and shit's all over everything.

[00:13:51] Dave Sharrock: Yeah. There's an element here that people have to remember, and Peter I'm sure you and I have been in this position as well, which is the intent is to maybe inform, but not have any expectation on a team actually taking action. But we're not taking into consideration influence, or authority, or hierarchy. And there are incidents where a leader just saying some-thing will generate activity, even though there was no intent of that statement generating activity.

[00:14:25] And so that brings us onto that whole psychological safety of what can the teams do. What can the people that we are working with do? If we're a leader, how do we allow teams to push back? Are we open to very quickly not just saying, "Well, I'm the leader. You just have to do this", or "that's just part of the job"? But if a team comes back, or if an individual comes back, and say "Hey, I've got eight things on the go... limiting work-in-progress is six... I'm thinking of dropping these two. Am I dropping the right two things?". We have a responsibility there as a leader to first of all, make it really comfortable and safe and easy for that conversation to happen. But then also to follow through and actually encourage that. Maybe not just agree to two things, but take two more off the table. So we can say, let's give you a bit of space, so that you've got room when something else comes along, and so on. How do we facilitate that? And how do we allow teams to both give feedback and feel good about it, and then encourage them with the right decisions, or the right advice.

[00:15:29] Peter Maddison: Well, I think you were laying out some good groundwork there in how you were describing it. That when people come to us with questions that were opened and we're helping them solve the problem that they have, not pushing our agenda down onto them. And that we're not saying it's my way to do these things. Because if we say that it's my way to do these things, and we always directing people into doing things in a particular silo and saying, "Hey, here's my agenda. Go do what I say. No, you've got to do those, and all of those items and these ones as well". It creates the wrong type of culture within the organization.

[00:16:04] If the teams are set up and they're working through their work, and leaders are constantly coming down and saying "Well, actually this is what you should be prioritizing. Stop working on that. Start working on this". But exact-y to your point, it also happens where the leader would just ask a question, and even the very act of asking the question can generate disruption in the work. That "So what do you think about this?". Which immediately has people going off in a different direction. "What do you think it would take to do this?". And then you find that they actually went off and tried to do it. And then you're like, well, that's not what I said, and not what I asked. So, be very crystal clear about what are the parameters under which you can take work on. Making that agreement very clear. Having very strong definitions of what needs to happen is a good way of doing this, if you're looking at your flow of work. This is an-other part of this, encouraging this idea that you don't start work that you're not ready to start. That if you don't have all of the things, all of the information, all of the pieces, don't start that work. I mean, it's a part of this. What are the definitions that we put at every stage of our delivery to tell us that we're ready to do the next stage, the next thing that we're going to be doing.

[00:17:08] Dave Sharrock: I mean, there are a whole bunch of practices that we see around leadership and management of work. For example, there is something valuable about being able to go into a meeting with our peers or our stakeholders, as a leader or a manager, and saying we are working on that. Even though that "we are working on it", is I've just gone to the team meeting and said, we need it really need to have a look at this. We know that we're not really working on it. There's that purity of communication that somehow is of-ten lost in the back and forth of meetings, and updates of progress, and things like that. That transparency into what's really going on. And the reality of be-ing able to say, yeah, it's not a priority this week, this month, this quarter, no activity will be taken on it, has consequences. So how do we merge that into what we're talking about, when we talk about this.

[00:18:00] We're galloping towards the longest podcast we've ever done.

[00:18:04] Peter Maddison: We are! So we should wrap this up and say, wrapping it up. Yeah. Three points because we do love to some of these up with three points.

[00:18:11] I think a one is around ensuring as a leader, you understand and believe in the principles we're talking about here, that limiting work-in-process will allow you to deliver more. You'll free up capacity in your system, just by taking these actions. And understanding why that is. So that you can apply these principles and walk the walk and show people how it's done, is quite a critical part from a leadership perspective. Other pieces are around the decision filter for flow, which is stop starting, and stop finishing. Make sure that you're actually finishing off work. The work is and hanging around. That you're not ending up with lots of half done tasks in the system, because this will tie up capacity just thinking about all of that work. So make sure that you've got an understanding of that. What would you add to that?

[00:18:55] Dave Sharrock: The bit that I found interesting with our conversation is the understanding of the psychological pressure, psychological is probably the wrong word, but the undercurrent pressures in terms of reporting the beginning of work. Or saying something without that becoming a call to action. Or the interesting one of, not saying something when we should probably say no, don't do that. And so there's that element, which has a leader, we need to be very, very conscious of. And it's not always front of mind.

[00:19:26] Peter Maddison: And being aware of the actions that may occur because of what we say, whether we intended them to or not. So with that, I think we should wrap up today.

[00:19:34] And if anybody would like to send us any feedback, they can do it @definitelymaybe I'm sure we'll be revisiting this topic at some point. So, thank you again, Dave always a fun.

[00:19:45] Dave Sharrock: Thanks again, Peter. Always good. And until next time.