“Large queues make it hard to create urgency”

This quotes from Don Reinertsen's book Principles of Product Development Flow is about situations you're in when you hear something like “Hey, we've changed our number 1 priority project twice this month, it feels like team motivation is going down dangerously!”.

In this post we'll have a look at the effects of “work in progress" on team morale and engagement.

Don Reinertsen uses queueing theory to describe and better understand work in progress (aka “WIP”) and its effects on everything that matters to succeed, whether its is time-to-delivery or quality, etc.

In your context, the “queues” mentioned in Reinertsen's quote may be:

  • project portfolio: the list of projects you intend to tackle in the next months
  • product backlog: the list of features you want to develop in the days/weeks to come
  • backlog of technical improvements
  • in fact, any kind of todo list!

Fat WIP causes lots of re-prioritization

It's a tautology but also a law (aka Little's Law): you deliver things at a speed inversely proportional to your WIP size. The bigger your WIP, the slower you deliver.

Thus the longer things stay in the pipe, the higher the probability of being re prioritized before completion, since context may change and opportunities vanishe. With a big fat wip you end up regularly changing the priority #1 before finishing the previous #1.

If in leadership position, you waste energy

You spend weeks and tons of meetings to explain this project (or new feature, or new technology, check the one that matches your situation), its vision, why it's urgent and why the team should gets focused and engaged at it … before changing to the new #1 project (or feature or new technology) weeks or months latter.

All this spent energy is now pure waste, probably better invested in important leadership and actions elsewhere.

If everything is urgent, nothing is

People loose their ability to feel urgency and get engaged.

I like Jason Fried and DHH's simple formulation of this point in their book Rework:

When you turn into one of these people who adds ASAP to the end of every request, you're saying everything is high priority. And when everything is high priority, nothing is.

Of course you should give them a medium to long term vision, but a big fat WIP does not define a vision. Instead give them values and goals that will remain stable, and will probably be translated to concrete projects in the months to come. I'd love to heat your advices for defining vision and long term without falling in the trap of fat WIP (please share in the comments below).

Tips and advices

At least communicate on short queues

If you don't manage to focus yourself on a reasonable WIP size, a least don't pollute your team with things that will probably change, or be de-prioritized before they begin.

Communicate publicly on short queues, while keeping for yourself what may (or may not) come after that short queue.

Plan regularly

If you do project prioritization every trimester, do it every month! It helps a lot at keeping WIP under control by cleaning and pruning outdated elements. As a side effect, you'll be able to communicate more regularly on goals and identified priorities.

Understand your WIP size based on past data

Even if you assume you'll be improving drastically, your current viable WIP size will probably be stable in the next few months, and you should use it as a baseline for a legitimate and manageable size. Get historical data to know the WIP size threshold under which you haven't deprioritized too much and get close to that size.

Don't find excuses in poor man's project tracking: gross raw figures are enough to improve WIP management.

Have of look at Kanban

Some of you have already connected the dots to the Kanban methodology. I have voluntarily avoided Kanban references in this post, thinking of readers (and a lot of people I've worked with) not fond of methodologies and agile frameworks as we may be.

If you feel like digging this WIP management thing, have a look at the Kanban method!

What about you?

  • Have you felt the loss of urgency resulting from fat WIP?
  • How did you deal with it?
  • How do you explain the cause and effects relation between WIP and team morale?

Please, share in the comments below.

Ismaël Héry

I live in Paris where I coach or manage IT, product and management teams to build and operate great products and services. I've worked for companies ranging from industry, to medias and internet (most recently le Monde). I picks tools and insights in Lean, Agile, DevOps and leadership principles and practices.

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