The Excess Strategic WIP problem

Try pouring a bottle of milk into a glass with milk already in it. You have a choice: stop or tidy up the mess afterwards. That is my work-in-progress (WIP) analogy, if you try and do too much – no mater how much you want to do it – you will end up with a mess.

Agile folk are well versed in the problems created by too much WIP and how to deal with it – check out the Stockless Production video if you want to see. In the last six months I’ve been seeing a particular variant on this problem with I’ve come to label the Excess Strategic WIP problem.

In the latest report the manager told me how the team completed a great quarter with 3 priorities – set via OKRs. The senior management team were so impressed they asked for 19 priorities in the next period.

Right now I don’t have a “paint by numbers” solution, fixing this problem is more involved. I’m starting to understand it and I’ll make some suggestions later. Ultimately this a failure of leadership to say “No”. That failure is itself rooted in a failure of leadership to appreciate what is happening on the ground and what doing the worker are up against: the number of strategic initiatives or the amount of business as usual.

In a team it is easy to spot excess WIP using a visual system like a whiteboard or card system. When you track work like this you see an awful lot of work sitting in the “in progress” column. Typically there is more work than people on the team and the work isn’t moving. Some of the work may be actively marked as blocked but more likely most of it is nominally being worked on.

It can’t all be worked on at the same time because despite having two eyes, two hands, and two sides of a brain human’s can only really do one thing at a time – even new parents. I label this work “WHIP” – work hopefully in progress. While it is, in theory, being worked on, most of it is just sitting there waiting for a multi-tasking (i.e. time slicing) person to come back to it.

The good news is when you can see the WHIP you are half way to solving the problem: there are well known solutions. Accept less work, impose work in progress limits, sequence work by adding queues to the board, educate people to work on one thing until it is done, etc. Once you can see the work you have a feedback mechanism, you can take action and, thanks to the feedback mechanism, watch it reduce.

But Strategic WIP is more difficult. Strategic WIP is the stuff the organization decides in really important, the stuff the most senior leadership decides should be happening. The Excess Strategic WIP Problem occurs when those strategic priorities are greater than the organisation’s ability to deliver on them.

While some of this work may be transactional (“Build a Mega Widget”) much of it is transformational (“Adopt Agile working”, “Increase diversity”, “Tighten security”). Such things involve changing the way other work is done: changing the processes, changing the criteria, increasing awareness. The feedback cycle is long but to get started people need to devote time: attend training, arrange kick-off meetings, discuss approaches with consultants/coaches, etc.

In one case I saw this year the organization has, for years, been asked to do more than it is resourced to do. While a few months of such a mismatch might have been manageable the cumulative effect has been to create organizational debt and demoralised staff.

The second case I saw isn’t a result of under resourcing, if anything that organization has too much – money, people and perhaps equipment then they know what to do with. But because their management model resembles a sponge it is impossible to know when the organization has taken on too much. While some pockets were overworked I’m sure other pockets were idle.

In both these cases “lean” was a dirty word. Both organizations had been subject to lean programmes that had stripped out “waste” but, from what I could see, removing that waste had created both organizational debt and demoralised staff. Having removed “spare” staff those left were juggling. Staff didn’t have time for “agile” and their diaries had no space for daily essentials let alone another change programme.

The third case came to light when discussing OKRs. The company had a successful quarter were they focused on a few objectives that success seems to have bred the next failure when the organization requested many objectives.

Actually, this case brought it home: taking on too many, or being given too many, OKRs. I’ve heard of teams tackling too many OKRs so many times in the last year. (In fact, I should name this “Excess OKRs Problem”. This occurs whenever you have more OKRs than you can count on one hand. Don’t tell me your team is big enough to do so, check out Focus is not divisible so limit you OKRs.)

In a way, the Excess OKRs Problem is better than the Excess Strategic WIP Problem because you can see it. One can say “OK company, you have asked us to deliver 15 OKRs here, we need to sit down and talk about this.” Like visualising your work in progress excess OKRs is a thing you can identify and address, it is the reason to talk.

(Note: unlike User Stories which should always be small, OKRs should never be small. OKRs should be big, meaningful and preferably strategic. No team can take on 16 meaningful OKRs, even 5 is too many.)

One of the problems with excess Strategic WIP is that it can be difficult to see, there are different teams involved and in different places. Conflicting priorities are hidden. People on the ground may see problems but the senior people – the people creating the WIP – are too far removed. Those people may not want to hear people saying “You are asking too much”. They may have too much riding on getting multiple work streams done. They may be deaf to the cry of pain when people say “too much.” They may have too big an ego to accept that what they are asking for is a problem. And it may be politically unacceptable.

“Political” is an important word here: several of the cases I’ve heard of, and some of those example above, are Government agencies.

Because excess strategic WIP is difficult to see it is difficult to build a feedback loop and difficult to take action. How do you know when the problem is too much WHIP and when people are “crying wolf” ? – which in itself implies a problem of trust and maybe a belief that “everyone is lazy, we need to push harder.”

By its nature “strategy” is big, which means that the feedback cycles are long and the problems of excess strategic WIP take time to play out. What is a WIP problem looks like another failed strategy.

While I would like to think OKRs can help with this situation – because they force teams and organizations to take stock of what they are working on – they may be making things worse because OKRs include an ambition agenda. Teams are encouraged to “shoot for the moon” and build “10x solutions”. There is good logic here: if one aims for a “10x solution” (i.e. a solution 10 times better than the status quo) and falls short the “failure” may still be “better” (e.g. “5x”) than if one had aimed for a “2x solution” and succeeded.

Ambition with OKRs should not be about doing more OKRs, rather ambition is within the OKRs, a challenge that makes you approach it differently. One can draw a line here between having one OKR which aims for “10x” and having 10 OKRs but I suspect the subtlety will be lost on someone asking for “more than you think you can do.”

So whats is the solution?

I’m not sure there is a silver bullet but I would want to … make the problem visible, perhaps a portfolio level kanban board. I would want to build a feedback loop so I could measure change. I would want to show the strategic people the visualisation.

Management education has a part to play too. I can believe many senior managers would benefit from understand what WIP is, the problems excess WIP can cause, the way excess WIP plays out on a day-to-day basis and how it effects people’s working lives. And perhaps most of all, address trust and the belief that “we just need to push harder.”

That might also mean some of the Lean waste lessons and OKR ambition lessons need to be revisited.


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