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 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 (WIP). I have come to the conclusion that limiting WIP is like trying to exactly drive the speed limit. In knowledge work, it is very difficult to do and sometimes actually dangerous.
Controlling WIP on the other hand is something we absolutely need to do.
What work-in-process replaces the work we desire?
Here’s a list of seven deadly WIPs.
It’s easy to witch-hunt interruptions but the simple truth is that we often don’t know which interruption is going to be valuable. We cannot, nor do 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 with email, Facebook, and other communications methods (even the phone) shut off. Not a lot, maybe one, maybe two. Just focusing on completion. And no, these hours cannot come before everyone comes to work or after everyone goes home.
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. People are finding it harder and harder to focus on one project at a time. The more ideas we pursue at once, however, 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.
The bigger the project, the more complex it will be. The bigger the project, the higher the stakes.
The more complexity, the greater the overhead.
The higher the stakes, the more likely people are working towards the deadline. (utilization)
The more focus on utilization, 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, the more planning, the more rework, the more time spent “finding the person responsible.”
Failure demand is the work we are compelled to do in response to ill conceived or low quality initial work. We install a defective security system in someone’s house, we have to fix it. We release buggy software, we have to release an update. Regardless of the industry, releasing bad product doesn’t just cause rework, it causes new work. Call centers, schedulers, high-level meetings, reputation management, etc. 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 are now required to do again. It’s hard to stick to a deadline when your old work come back to haunt you.
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% capacity as possible. We reason that this is when we make the most money from them.
But people are not machines and they do not act independently. High utilization of a machine means that 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 they are slowing down, it’s hard to tell when they are broken. When we do notice slowdowns, we criticize their behavior and tell them to work harder.
A person who is buried in work not only has to manage her own work, she has to interface with many other people in your organization. That means she has to schedule meetings, work handoffs, deadlines, and so forth. 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 does not equal twice the work. It is an exponential growth because now not only is she scheduling things, those new appointments are in conflict with her other project. These add up to create her overload overhead.
She also has to context switch between her project A, her project B, and her project C every time she gets an email, a phone call, or someone stops by to chat. Soon she slows down and she has to schedule new meetings to talk about why she’s “late” for deadlines were never meetable. These meetings are even more overload overhead.
We worked with a group that literally had crates of uncompleted paperwork (yes, actualpaper work) lining their halls. Crate after crate after crate of incomplete paperwork.
They were understaffed and could not ever see a day where they would not get out of this work. 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 soon 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 the question, “Why don’t you just finish the paperwork when you receive it?” The workers told us that was flat-out impossible.
When asked, “What have you tried to clear out the paperwork?” the reply was ... hire temp workers.
Kaizen essentially means “small change for the good”.
When the paperwork (blank) was held up in the air and the question was asked, “Is this form perfect?” The answer was “No.”
When we looked at the forms, the intial clerks filled out only certain parts. 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?”
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.
A small change to the form saved massive time and money.
The un-kaizened - the small change no one saw because they were overworked and underappreciated created costly WIP for everyone.
I am a planner. I was certified as an AICP 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. You engage in planning.
You don’t steer your car at the beginning of the journey, you are 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 we very steadfastly stand by that vision, no matter how wrong it obviously becomes.
I have watched and been a part of massive planning exercises for companies from startups to Fortune 10s to government agencies where they build a plan, create a Gantt chart, and then legally / contractually demand that that plan happens exactly that way.
I’ve never, in my nearly 30 years of doing this, seen any project go exactly right.
But, when it does predictably go in a perfectly natural, though unexpected, direction, people flip out. The plan failed!
So next time they spend even more time creating the plan.
But it didn’t fail, we just learned something.
Premature plans destroy learning. Premature plans are overhead. Premature plans are WIP. Premature plans invite us to snatch failure from the jaws of victory every time.
So tell me, what’s number Eight?