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Jim Benson


Prioritization Is a Symptom

What can you complete right now that has the highest value?

Published: Wednesday, December 20, 2017 - 12:02

People are always asking us for help with ways to prioritize. Almost everyone believes prioritization to be an action in and of itself. They ask, “What mechanisms do you use to prioritize?” However, we find most often that prioritization issues, like trust issues, are a symptom of deeper problems.

This video discusses what some of those root causes are and how we at Modus Cooperandi approach them.

Many people ask: How do I take all of these options that are available to me and pick the one to work on right now?

Prioritization is rarely a problem on its own. It’s usually a symptom of other problems. Prioritization is a symptom of big batches; it’s a symptom of siloing; it’s a symptom of not understanding what your capacity is.

It’s not about what you want, it’s about what they can handle

If you don’t understand the capacity of your team, then you can’t possibly prioritize work for them, because you don’t know how much work they can handle.

We end up making these great big projects that get assigned to people with unreasonable deadlines. This happens from not understanding how fast your team can work. We don’t understand the problems that they might run into. We make plans based on the desired outcome of the project and not on the learning that would happen in the project.

Ask how much work can people actually get done? What work, outside of planned work, do they normally have to do? Where do interruptions come from? Are those interruptions valid?

We have to understand the team and the people within that team, and how they are being used right now. In lean we call that the current state. Find out the current state and the current capacity of the people that are working. Then we can talk about the options that are available to us.

The path to your future goals starts here

What are our goals for these projects? What are our options within those goals to move the needle to get to a goal?

We have to understand the goals; we have to understand how those goals are measured; and we have to understand the system that all of that is plugging into. If you don’t do that then you don’t understand the system that you are working with, and then you can’t prioritize.

Watch your portions and you won’t have to let your belt out a notch

What you will end up doing is frustrating everybody because you’ll always select too much work that has to be done this year. You will bloat the projects.

Make the items of work as small as possible, figure out how they are going to move the needle on what the corporate goals are, and then select work throughout the year based on what can be completed that has the highest value right now.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

Jim Benson is the creator and co-author (with Tonianne DeMaria) of the best seller Personal Kanban (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Limit WIP (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2014), and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013). He is a winner of the Shingo Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, and the Brickell Key Award. Benson and DeMaria teach online at Modus Institute and consult regularly, helping clients in all verticals create working systems. Benson regularly keynotes conferences, focusing on making work rewarding and humane.



I would not agree as a professional that prioritization is a symption of large batches of activities to process.   It would be my assumption that prioritization is rooted in two things,  Poor communication by management and lack of focus upon the expectations of Customers and Interested parties.  My pet peve is the tools in use today to priortize, such as those which are part of what Microsoft calls its office suite.   Ever notice that Personal Computers boot into Windows but not an office management environment?  This is the sart of poor prioritization of business assets and their daily tasks.  Its at the root of why managers communite poorly and prioritize their employees less. They actually dont have valid tools to achieve those types of business activies as software is written by programmers which dont include business planners and managers. 

Most people go to work, sit at their desk, turn on their PC and search through their e-mail and or self created todo lists ... its all static data.  Rarely do managers become involved in the todo list of ther employees and even more rare are the abilities of managers to rearrange those list based upon the needs and expectations of customers and interested parties.  Americans have fallen into the paradigm of Microsoft Office. and are swallowed up whole in its mass inefficinecies.  Anerucan business needs a paradigm change in its base software package.  A change which would allow managers to effectively lead. 

Most large businesses run on enterprize ERP which is supported by other software packages that provide for the shortcomings of their MRP system (usually variation activities).  Most managers are inept to the complete systems enterprize, its inputs, transformation, outputs and capability. 

Its difficult to priortize when management is incapable to lead due to inappropriate software and poor understanding of their enterprize systems.   This leaves employees frustrated and asking for methods of improvement from folks such as Quality Digest. 

If for instance employees and their managers arroved at work facing a dashboard of the results of meeting the expectations of customers and interested parteis as opposed to the Microsoft desktop... how much more effective would they be at accomplishing that which is necessary on a daily basis?    Instead we are stymed by the big blue screen and the various program icons of programs circulating about its permeter.   So the employee clicks on Outlook and e-mail becomes the priority to which they need immediately respond, reguardless of cusomer or interested party. 

Software and systems don't prioritze, people do

I think Mr. Benson is exactly on-point with “Prioritization is rarely a problem on its own.”  Mr. Benson gets one of the bigger problems around prioritization (capacity and batches) .  I believe you have touched on the other, communication.

I disagree with your assertions of “most people got to work, sit at their desk, turn on their PC and search through their email…” and “self created to-do lists” are static data.

First, many people follow a system of planning their day with respect to what tasks need to be accomplished today that will meet their long-term goals.  MANY people have a clear vision of what they need to do from a high-level perspective and translate those goals into daily tasks.  This planning is done on many levels, annually, monthly, weekly, and daily.  Many people monitor progress to their goals and when sufficient progress is not being made, actions are implemented to adjust course.  Certainly, NOT static.  Certainly, not a “sit at a desk and read email” approach to functioning.

MANY businesses/leaders/managers communicate business needs along the same lines, annual goals, monthly, weekly goals, etc.  I personally would be highly offended and would feel extremely micro-managed (e.g. controlled) if the person next in the org chart had to delve into my daily task list!!  Having a manager responsible for a person’s daily task list is insulting, demeaning, and extremely unprofessional for both the manager and the person being “managed”. 

Where the manager/leader/business doesn’t know where it is going and cannot communicate the direction, there will certainly be disconnect between where a manager and a person being “managed”.  This is not a priority issue, it is a communication issue.

When the appropriate communication happens, there will still be issues where there is too much to get done today, as Mr. Benson indicates, due to “batch” mentality.  Your references to MRP and ERP underscore this mentality.  ERP/MRP systems are largely useless for a business running well in a “pull” and “flow” environment.  Unfortunately, most of us are so used to “batching” that we cannot even see the effects throughout our lives and businesses.  From kids who “cram” for final exams (my boys are prone to this; my daughter however is much more even paced and almost follows a “Kanban” approach!!)  to warehouse stores that have gallons of condiments and fifty pound bags of rice by the pallet to businesses still relying on quarterly performance and “crunch time” for project execution.  Batching is the bane of planning and effective prioritization.  Once we see batches and the impact they have on our ability to execute consistently, we come full circle back to communication and understand the capacity of each person to understand how to effectively continue work in an even paced rate.

Once we see a professional office persons “time available” then we can start to apply the concepts of Takt and loading to office work to fully leverage capacity in our offices they way many companies have leveraged throughout their manufacturing processes.