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Jim Benson

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Limiting Work in Process

When everything is an emergency, it’s impossible to limit WIP

Published: Wednesday, July 17, 2013 - 10:22

When we think about limiting work in process (WIP), we have to realize that there are many types of work. Simply limiting work is not enough; we must know what we are limiting. We have to see what we’re really completing.

A real danger is that we tend to limit our WIP and then say, “What’s the most important task to pull next?” without understanding the weights of types of tasks. We have tasks that might:
• Make us money
• Satisfy someone else’s needs
• Teach us something
• Provide us pleasure or an opportunity to relax
• Gain us political favor or help us avoid political disfavor
• Satisfy bureaucratic requirements

Depending on the situation, we’ll pick one of these over another. However, I often see people favoring office demands over personal growth, emergencies over kaizen, and politics over family. This behavior creates new personal emergencies. If you ignore your spouse and your kids long enough, that action has repercussions—the best of which would be that they feel ignored. The worst can be much worse.

Emergencies create throughput issues, which create more emergencies

Back at the office, the emergency we’re resolving right now is at the cost of other work on another project that, after it languishes for awhile, will also become an emergency. And the cycle continues.

The sad truth is that quite often we create our own emergencies and, therefore, our own spiral into an emergency-centered life. When we reach this point, we say, “How can I possibly limit my WIP? Everything is an emergency!

In the following video, we see the effects of a workplace emergency. New emergencies are spawned at home and at work. The point here is not to say, “Don’t have emergencies,” but to understand how they can create an emergency cascade. If the person in the video would have hired a handyman at home and found even one person at the office to help him, his dilemma could have been avoided.

The key is balance. In the video, the tickets at the end of the week were all focused on the Desper Project, rather than on all of his goals. The more balanced the tasks are at the end of the week, the more balanced goal attainment will be. The visual cue of only red tasks let us know that new emergencies were brewing.

When you’re setting up your personal kanban, ask yourself what your goals are, and make sure your notes are designed to give you feedback on what you are and are not completing.


About The Author

Jim Benson’s picture

Jim Benson

A pioneer in applying lean and kanban to knowledge work, and an internationally recognized speaker and writer, Jim Benson is CEO of the collaborative management consultancy Modus Cooperandi. He is a fellow in the Lean Systems Society and recipient of the Brickell Key Award for Excellence in Lean Thinking, 2012. He is the creator of Personal Kanban and co-author of Personal Kanban: Mapping Work | Navigating Life (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2011) winner of the Shingo Research and Publication Award, 2013. His other books include Why Plans Fail (Modus Cooperandi, 2011) and Beyond Agile (Modus Cooperandi Press, 2013).