Why is it hard to reduce WIP?

Turning to my second potential silver bullet: reducing WIP, work in progress. This is easy to comprehend but hard for people to action. Again optimism plays a role: because we are optimistic, and because we don’t like giving bad news people naturally tend to take on more work than they can reasonably do. Making this worse are members of the agile community who go about talking about “commitment” and “doing twice the work” which makes people feel they should be doing more.

Culture also plays a role. When people like to present a “can do” image, when hierarchy is important and when people are accustomed to doing a little of everything and saying “No, I’m fully loaded” then reducing WIP is harder.

People are reluctant to say they are “full” until they are very close, or even beyond, 100% capacity. But the problems with queuing work occur long before 100% is hit. Even leaving aside human cognitive capacity to juggle many things basic queuing theory tells us that as work increases, the variability in work (i.e. some things take 5 minutes while some take 5 hours) means delays will occur. As capacity nears 100% the system looses capacity to absorb the unexpected (someone is ill, a delivery is late, etc.) so predictability is lost and delays spiral – the “bull whip” effect.

Notice I say system: we all work within systems, not computer systems, workflow systems. One person’s heroic efforts count for little when they work in a saturated system. We end up like Boxer in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, saying “I will work harder”, we work harder, wear ourselves out and burn-out. Too often we forget the old agile principle of sustainable pace. (Watch Stockless Production to see this in action.)

Sponges destroy trust

Once it becomes clear that little is being delivered, and even less to budget and deadline, trust is loss. People are less willing to see work requests queue. They want to see action, any action.

In a rational system some work will wait until there is capacity, but when there is no trust people want to see their requests being worked on. So instead of a team working on a project for a month and then moving onto the next thing in sequence the lack of trust means everything has to happen in parallel, slowly. So, a lot of work happens at the same time, there are much higher switching costs, variability creates delays and management overheads rocket. The team becomes alike a sponge: work goes in but very little comes out.

This can all be particularly tough in start-up environments. In the beginning start-up often depend on a few founders doing ridiculous amounts of work. This culture of long hours and heroic efforts. It is thus hard for people to accept that fewer hours and lower WIP might create a better outcome.

This is particularly true when the founders are still in the start-up: inevitably they worked very hard at the start and they want to see that ethos in their employees. Their start-up survived because they chased clients and worked very very hard. Therefore the founders see hard-work and lots of WIP as the recipe for success. The last thing they want is someone saying “no, do less.”

The same ethos carries over to investors who want to see lots of action, lots of people running around being busy. And because in a start-up it is hard to know what will work it makes sense (portfolio theory) to work on lots of different things to find one that wins. Again this creates a culture of high WIP.

Aligned & misaligned feedback loops

For those seeking promotion it makes sense to be involved with lots of different work and cultivating a “can do” image. Being see as “Dr No” or shying away from work is unlikely to lead to promotion. So there are incentives to take on more work. And when such a person gets promoted than their theory of success is proven so they expect the same from others. Meanwhile, those who surreptitiously balance their work load, keep within their own capacity, beaver away and quietly delivery are less likely to be promoted.

The feedback loop promotes the wrong behaviours: each piece of work is viewed in isolation. Each one suffers its own delays and it is hard to see how one obstructs the another. The project model makes this worse because it disconnects funding (based on benefit analysis) from capability to do work.

If you are lucky you can say “Reduce WIP” and people will do it.

If you are unlucky then you need to build a feedback loop to show these problems, you need to start pushing back where you can, you need to start building trust.

See also: Two Unspeakable Silver Bullets and Why don’t people Test First?

Enjoyed this post? Subscribe for updates and download Continuous Digital for free – please share!

1 thought on “Why is it hard to reduce WIP?”

  1. Well put. The feedback loop ‘death spiral’ described is something that I have seen many times now, especially in pressured environments, and it is extremely difficult to break out of. Also, once in it, the good people don’t stick around very long and those without an escape route end up burning out. Or worse still those left behind succeed in a Phyrric victory, delivering a poor product and get rewarded for it, reinforcing the behaviours further.

    IME only strong management intervention can break this death spiral. As soon as it becomes systemic (“The Culture”), generally the company is doomed unless it has near-infinite resources (large banks being a good example of the latter).

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this:
Verified by MonsterInsights