It’s all about Work in Progress

[Reading time: 2 minutes 28 seconds]

Yesterday I enjoyed co-hosting another round of a business simulation designed around the well-known DevOps novel The Phoenix Project.

It was great fun, as usual (it’s my favourite training of all). And the participants learned a lot, as usual.

But it reminded me once more of that lesson that’s so easy to forget: it doesn’t help to half-ass many things. Concentrate, focus, get one thing done – then focus on the next.

I know how hard this is in our daily life. Especially in larger organisations, everybody is, as the saying goes, dancing on many weddings at once. This is such an easy trap to fall into.

So much to do, so little time.

I think this is a particularly insidious problem for us knowledge workers. If I were a carpenter, work would literally be piling up, and anyone could see that adding one more piece would accomplish nothing.

But 10 Jira tickets look just like 1000 Jira tickets, don’t they? Our desk looks the same, no matter the backlog we’re amassing.

But this hidden amount of work in progress is killing us: our productivity, our ability to estimate and honour commitments. Our pride and joy in our work, even!

So what to do?

The answer is fairly obvious: make the work visible. It doesn’t matter how you do that. There are numerous techniques: Kanban boards, issue trackers, etc etc, which you might choose and combine. Just pick something that works for you.

…and that it tells the whole story! All work should go on there. Planned or unplanned, self-directed or organised by others, one-off or recurring. It doesn’t matter. Make it visible.

If it’s worth doing, it’s worth taking note of it.

The only exception is that you’re of course allowed to be pragmatic: if it’s a tiny task, where the bookkeeping would take more effort than the task itself, don’t spend time entering it (of course if it’s many tiny tasks, that becomes a different story yet again).

This is always a good idea, of course.

But it becomes more important the more closely you work together, the more your value chain speeds up. Maybe it didn’t used to matter if you took four weeks to get around to something – but as your organisation speeds up that may start to feel like a lifetime.

So, if you want to work together better – a crucial step will be to understand what that work even encompasses. Where effort is spent, delays occur, communication takes place.

I’ve seen even tiny organisations have essentially no idea what was going on within them.

This will torpedo all your other improvement attempts.

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