In the past, many businesses embraced a concept of multitasking or generally asking their staff to take on multiple projects at one time. It used to be that when someone asked an employee if they could take on a new task, in their already loaded docket, that the answer was always “Yes.”
However, WIP Limit advocates like Hunter Tammaro and Julie Wyman note that this practice doesn’t necessarily lead to high efficiency, productivity, or even quality. In this instance, WIP refers to “Work In Progress.” They note that by setting limits in the number of projects that a given individual or team is actively working on allows for increased focus on the task at hand.
Both of them work for Excella, which is an Agile Technology firm, headquartered in Washington D.C. They often specialize in things like Agile Transformations, Modernization, Advanced Data, and Analytics, as well as Digital Service Delivery.
Their menu of services includes agile training courses, and private training course, administered by certified training experts. Excella brings these state of the art services to a broad range of industries throughout Federal entities, and commercial businesses as well as a wide variety of nonprofit organizations.
Right off the bat, Limiting WIP pays dividends in quality, as well as other aspects of organizational effectiveness. “We found that teams making an effort to get a log done tend to take on a lot all at once. Setting WIP Limits might even seem a little counter-intuitive, but this technique leads to getting it all done at a slower pace, and competing tasks one at a time,” explained Wymann.
Hunter Tammaro facilitates workshops for things like AgileCamp and other events, where he demonstrates the value of the setting WIP Limits in a small-scale team experience that focuses on making simple paper airplanes.
In each round, the team works like an assembly line. Each person is assigned a single fold to make before passing it on to the next person in the chain.
“In the first round, the goal is to make as many paper airplanes as possible. Each individual folds as fast as they can and passes it on to the next person,” explained Tammaro. “If you are just focused on what you are doing and not paying attention to the whole team, you inevitably end up with problems like inventory building up between stations, problems staying focused and a lot more errors.”
“You also see a lot more stress and more waste in the end,” added Tammaro.
The dynamic focus of the second round changes in a subtle, yet profound way. “In the second round we tell them to focus on the group making as many paper airplanes, while also focusing on what is best and necessary for the next person in the chain,” Tammaro explained.
“If you focus on the level of production needed to keep workflow moving you get better quality airplanes and you usually end up with more in the same amount of time,” Tammaro explained.
“Instead of trying to optimize by individual stations, you want a smooth outflow throughout the team,” added Julie Wyman.
The concept of setting WIP Limits also graduates beyond a simple breakout session exercise. “If you think of it in terms of software development, there is no point in having a developer code, if there isn’t enough capacity in the rest of the team to test it,” Tammaro noted.
In this example, the software developer needs to have a WIP Limit set to keep from overwhelming the testers. If they hit that limit, the developer needs to stop until the team of testers has the chance to pick it up.
“That doesn’t mean that you want the developer to just on their hands and watch Netflix while the rest of the team tries to catch up,” explained Tammaro. “When they hit that limit. It should be seen as an opportunity to look for what’s wrong with this picture and how they can help optimize the system.”
Julie Wyman also points out other inefficiencies in a system that encourages multitasking, and how excessive communication flow also limits productivity time. “The problem with multitasking multiple jobs for different people is that you are always spending time answering questions and keeping them up to date. “
“All too often the answer is always Yes. But with WIP Limits you are saying No, for the greater good. It doesn’t mean that you’ll never get to that person’s project, but not taking it on immediately might make it possible to get more done,” explained Wyman.
Taken in a certain light, setting WIP Limits can also serve as an intuitive diagnostic tool. If your developer or some other important link in the production chain is repeated hitting the limit of their work in progress, it means that there is some segment of the process, or some element of the team’s performance that needs to be addressed.
It might not be something as dramatic as one or more team members struggling to adequately perform their duties. It might mean that other parts of the chain are piling up excess tasks that are outside of their normal focus. At the same time, you might simply need to hire more staff for that particular team or reallocate personnel from other teams to meet workflow demand.
For some businesses and nonprofit organizations setting a limit on their works in progress might seem counterintuitive at first. The face of modern business spent a long time ingraining a culture of multitasking into generations of workers and the executives who supervise them.
As the benefits of agility continue to come to the forefront of modern-day operations, and an increasing number of organizations are looking to apply these innovative principles. While setting WIP limits might seem hard at first, more and more real-world experiences continue to prove it’s benefits in productivity as well as quality performance.